Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006
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Rest in peace, Ma Bell
by Evan Koblentz
Sometimes the vintage computing hobby extends beyond just computers. Vintage radios, slide rules, telegraphs keys, and all kinds of other electronics come and go through our ranks. Recently there was even some discussion on the classiccmp.org's mailing list about Lotus sports cars that run Forth-language processors, while the FBI is coming under criticism for what some are calling "antiquated" technology systems (one article is here: http://tinyurl.com/6uo89).
This week, however, the big news was AT&T being acquired by SBC for $16 billion (http://sbc.merger-news.com). For collectors, that means it's time to stop and consider telephony's history, before it passes. The official history is documented at http://www.att.com/history/ -- Lucent (Bell Labs) isn't part of the acquisition but you can visit http://www.bell-labs.com/about/history/ for its own historical data. Much like Xerox, the inventors at Bell Labs are legendary, having created the transistor itself, the C programming language, and the Unix operating system -- along with groundbreaking research on the fax machine and the laser beam. But AT&T's history of actually selling computers includes some not-so-exciting IBM clones in the 1980s and its short-lived ownership of NCR in the 1990s.
AT&T's corporate archives, located near the company headquarters in central New Jersey, are not open to the public -- access is limited to employees and to university researchers who pay for the privilege. "There hasn't been any public outcry" to create an actual museum, company spokesman Bob Nersesian said. The archives include more than 8,000 artifacts and hundreds of thousands of photographs, a person familiar with the organization added.
Of course, the telephone industry's history is not limited to official AT&T positions. Just like in the computer collecting hobby, telephone collectors have conventions, museums, many web sites, and newsletters much like this one. And also as with our hobby, telephone collectors find many specialties -- vintage rotary phones, modern cordless sytems, vanity phones (i.e., Mickey Mouse), etc. Some people prefer the back-end systems, collecting vintage central-office gear, switchers, steppers, and the like. There is even a group of collectors who are designing a way for vintage stepping equipment to hook into a modern Asterisk box (open-source PBX using voice over IP: http://www.asterisk.org), explained Ray Kotke, of Telephone Collectors International (http://www.tci.org).
TCI itself is an offshoot and rival of the American Telephone Collectors Organization. TCI's upcoming events are listed at http://www.telephonecollectors.org/events/events.htm and ATCA's are listed at http://www.atcaonline.com/events.html.
If you'd still rather visit a museum, the largest in North America is the Telephone Historical Centre, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Its web site is http://www.telephonehistoricalcentre.com. There are many smaller museums across the U.S., mostly associated with the Independent Telephone Pioneers Association. Those are listed at http://www.nationalitpa.com/?id=30#ga although the ITPA is currently planning to build a new, national museum in Hinesville, Georgia. Many other telephony and technical museums around the world are listed here: http://www.iatm.org/finished/start_klein.php and here as well: http://www.sigtel.com/tel_info_museums.html.
For research on the web, start with the Antique Telephone Collecting web ring, at http://b.webring.com/hub?ring=atca. Prefer to read a good book? Try http://tinyurl.com/3rcle -- there you'll find Amazon.com's list of hundreds of telephone history books.
No article on telephony history is complete without mentioning Alexander Graham Bell himself. His research papers are online at http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~meg3c/id/albell/homepage.html. I also recommend ttp://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/bellhtml/bellhome.html. There is biographical information at Wikipedia, if you trust Wikis, which I don't: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Graham_Bell.