Le Phone Freak

I can’t believe how much easier my life has been since last year’s Western Electric/Apple merger and their introduction of a new card dialer. No more fumble-fingered spins of the dial! No more explaining rotary dialing to visiting young folks!

With the handy cards I can easily share all my contacts with friends instead of scribbling numbers on a napkin.

Of course, with all these handy dialing cards I’m beginning to forget my friend’s phone numbers when I need to use a pay phone. Maybe Western Electric/Apple will introduce a pay phone that accepts cards?

Okay, enough of the silliness. What caught my eye with this oddball piece of transitional phone technology is the punch card, invented in the early 19th century to control looms. I’m tackling Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow this spring after one failed attempt to read it in the 1990s. The book is full of loom metaphors such as this one, “While the great Loom of God works in darkness above,/And our trials here below are but threads of His Love.”

The loom represents for Pynchon a way to evoke the sinister command and control of the punch card operated looms of the industrial revolution and, ultimately, the semi-autonomous V2 rockets of the Nazis. As novelist and (superb) podcaster Michael S. Judge has pointed out, Pynchon’s book is eerily prescient, seeming to foresee an era when we’re all monitored and controlled by a enormous electronic loom in the form of the interwebs.

Not that I’m in favor of going backwards, but sometimes I can’t help but be nostalgic for my simpler, less mediated, 60s/70s childhood when Western Electric was still around making sturdy, oh-so-beige gadgets like this thing.

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  1. My husband, in his young years, had a summer job in the old Western Electric factory in the Cleveland, OH area. His supervisor was a tough old coot who had so much seniority he couldn’t be fired no matter what he said. One of this guy’s favorite sayings was “You can wish in one hand and s**t in the other, and see which one comes up full first.” I’m afraid that this principle would prevail over any attempt at bringing back the phone you describe–or any real-world, sensible WE product.

    • Ha! Coincidentally, just last night, I read Pynchon’s famous passage in which one of the characters somehow falls into a toilet and narrates floating down the sewer.

  2. This makes me think of Sadie Plant’s Zeroes and Ones, have you read that? On women’s relationships to technology. There’s a bunch on weaving & computer punch cards in there too. Good read!

  3. I wonder if anyone has tried dialing the number shown on the picture of the card dialer telephone? I haven’t!

    • I’m hoping that by doing that some rift in the fabric of time would be opened and you’d find yourself connected to an office somewhere full of IBM Selectrics and ditto machines.

  4. “Not that I’m in favor of going backwards, but sometimes I can’t help but be nostalgic for my simpler, less mediated, 60s/70s childhood when Western Electric was still around making sturdy, oh-so-beige gadgets like this thing.”

    Oh, gosh yes. It’s probably the same sort of nostalgia I feel when reading all those wonderful 60s/70s/early 80s Sunset DIY books, replete with earthtones, house plants handthrown pottery, macrame, etc. Of course, a lot of those fall into the “everything old is new again” category, but it’s not the same.

    I wonder what one of those old phones could be modified into that fits into modern life/tech? And of course, google has an answer… 😉
    https://www.instructables.com/id/Low-tech-Rotary-Phone-made-wireless/

  5. Pingback: 1960s innovation - punch cards for phone numbers / Boing Boing - DLIT

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