Nine questions with seattle Communications Museum volunteer, Peter Armstein

with William Pennington


The telephone changed the world, connecting people in a way like no other invention has before, or since. One of the best museums in Seattle dedicates itself to the preservation of the old working technology and the beginnings of the way we used to communicate electronically. Technically called the Connections Museum, it is only open FIVE hours a week, from 10am - 3pm on Sundays, in Georgetown. Built in 1962, the office building is still a working central office building for Century Link, but the upper floors are for the museum.  The tour is optional, as you are free to wander about on your own, but it is highly encouraged.  I was lucky enough to ask one volunteer tour guide, Peter Armstein, a few questions along the way. 


Why is there only ONE phone company in any area?

“There used to be competing local telephone companies in many areas of the country.  Seattle initially had the Pacific Telephone and the Sunset Telephone companies.  Cities that had that competition ran into the problem that if you were a business owner and you wanted all your customers to be able to contact you, you ended up having to get phones from both phone companies so that Pacific subscribers and Sunset subscribers could both call your business.  In order to eliminate that problem, they ended up requiring companies to intersect their systems, and then eventually it was decided that it was a natural monopoly.  You really only wanted one company putting up telephone poles and stringing wires, and you didn’t want duplication of that because it was a big enough infrastructure on the city as it was, and they decided that a regulated monopoly was the way to go.”

I hear stories of other people in other nearby houses used to be able to listen to your call. Is that true?

Right. So, there used to be that because the wiring was expensive, they made people share. So you had 2 people, 4 people, sometimes 8 people sharing the same telephone line. They were called party lines, and typically the people who could listen in were living nearby.   That was a really popular practice from the 1930s up until even the 1960s, to catch the gossip.  Each house would have a different ring, one short, two longs, whatever, and you were only supposed to pick up if it was the ring for your house. People would hear a click when they were talking, but it was a way to make your phone service cheaper.

 As a facility with working old and outdated machines, are you training new people to repair them?

Yes. We have a few volunteers. Our oldest volunteer is 94, and he used to work for the phone company as an equipment installer so he really knows all about this equipment because he put it in when it was new. His job was to up and down the West coast every time a new crossbar switch got installed anywhere, and it would take Les and his crew one year to fill it up with this sort of equipment we have here.  We have a few volunteers in my age bracket, then we have a few new volunteers in your younger age bracket.  The younger volunteers are learning it from the older ones, learning how to keep this stuff running, and one day being able to take over the museum one day. In principal, anything that goes wrong we can look up in our many manuals, and see the instructions for repair. Even instructions for mopping the floor are in there.  They are in exacting detail. We do have a pretty decent selection of spare parts at our facility, but we don't have everything, so we have to sometimes make new parts ourselves. 

What kind of phone does Les use now?

Les is our only hold out, he does not have a cell phone. Oh wait, he just got one!  So even Les has a cell phone now, but I think he still has his land line at home. 

Where does the dial tone sound come from?

We have this thing here called a tone generator, which has a bunch of oscillators, vacuum tubes and circuits.  These oscillators create all these different tones, the dial tone, the busy signal...and what's called an interrupter is producing all the fast busy, and the slow busy, and the ring tone, and the intervals between the rings is being made by this machine here.  Kind of like a music box. 

How come when the power goes out, the phones still work?

All of this equipment runs on DC, not AC current.  It runs on 48 volts DC. To answer your question though, there is this huge room full of batteries, like car batteries but twenty times as big, and they have them in rows. Each cell is 2 volts, and so 24 of them in a row give you 48 volts DC. So, if ever the utility power fails, the batteries immediately take over and everything keeps running. Every central office had these batteries, all over the country. Even today.  If power is out long enough, then a diesel generator starts up, and then you have to switch between the battery and the diesel engine.

How did Seattle get the area code of 206?

Direct long distance dialing didn't come in until 1958.  Before that, if you wanted to make a long distance call, then you would have to call the operator, be directed to a manual switchboard operator, would connect you to the city you wanted to talk to. 

This machine, the number 5 crossbar, was the first switch that let you dial long distance call directly. Cities were assigned codes, some had two.  But 206 used to be all of Washington State, and as it grew it had to add more area codes. So really, it's just a way of adding more information as you dial. 

The big thing they had to do to make that possible was automatic billing. Since long distance calls are charged by the minute, it used to be when you called up the operator, she would write up a paper ticket, then all those paper tickets would go to the billing office, and someone would have to sort them by was this huge job. This machine here is the billing recorder, and it punches all that information. At three o'clock every morning, the central office technician would have to take this paper off the machine, put a blank roll in, and then send the full roll to the billing office in a taxi cab. This was a valuable paper because there was thousands of dollars worth of phone calls on each one, they couldn't lose it. All of that didn't come until about 1958. Before then, all long distance calls were done manually, and nobody needed to know what area codes were.

The truth is those area codes were assigned before then, but only the long distance operator needed to know what they were. 

Does 206 have any significance to this area?

No. All the area codes initially had a zero or a one in the middle position, and that was for technical reasons having to do with being easily able to tell the difference between an area code or a prefix.  The prefix numbers never had a one or a zero in the middle, and that's how they initially set it up.  

Some area codes like 212, which is New York City, that's very fast to dial. Los Angeles had 314, which is also very fast to dial. Washington State got 206, that's not bad, that's kinda in the middle. New Mexico got 909 which is all the way down there.  

So to answer your question, the only connection is, is how populous the area was whether it got a good area code or a bad one. 

Lastly, why is long distance billing essentially done and over with?

Because of two reasons.  Those long distance telephone lines, connecting the cities, the technology to do that was really really expensive and complicated. When they first invented it, that was like this miracle.  The first long distance call between New York City and San Francisco didn't happen until 1924, and it was considered like an "oh my god you can make a long distance call" way across the country.  Today it's no big deal. So it's just progress and technology, Moore's Law. Plus the equipment to do that got cheaper and cheaper, then when fiber optics came out, so now the country was laced with all this fiber optic cable and it is literally so cheap now that is not worth charging for it by the minute anymore. 

The other reason besides that, is that it used to be that long distance service was on purpose charged at a higher rate than it cost to provide it, to subsidize local phone numbers, which was this government policy the FCC wanted everybody to have cheap local phone service, they thought that was sort of a basic need.  So to make that phone service cheaper they allowed the phone company to charge more for long distance service than it really cost to provide it. 


WP - April 2018