A Conversation That Actually Just Happened

Context: I tasked my fifteen-year-old daughter with ordering food from the local pizzeria.

Athena: Dad!

Me: What?

Athena: I tried calling the pizza place but  I got a weird noise.

Me: Like what?

Athena: “Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.”

Me: …. That’s called a “busy signal.”

Athena: Okay. What does that mean? 

Me: It means someone else was calling them and they were on the phone when you called.

Athena: …. Well, whatever. What do I do now?

Me: Try calling again in a minute.

Athena: (Sighs) Fine.

Me: You… you really didn’t know what a busy signal was?

Athena: I’d heard of them.

Me: Hmmmmmmm.

Athena: I’m going call them again now.

Me: Okay. I’m going to sit over here, being old.

127 Comments on “A Conversation That Actually Just Happened”

  1. Wait wait wait. I’m not much older than you’re daughter four almost five years. And I know what a busy signal is, and experienced it.

    Either this was lost within a short period of time or…I’m out of some kind of loop.

  2. Whimper.
    Dial tone. My cell doesn’t have one. My landline does. I was going to say “Wait a few years, the kids won’t know what a dial tone is” but, sigh.

  3. The first time I listened Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”, I heard the lyrics “should’ve left my phone at home, ’cause this is a disaster” and had to stop for a moment to think about how, not *that* long ago, that line would have made *no frickin’ sense*.

  4. A couple years back, I asked a grocery store clerk if they had any 35mm film. The sweet young thing gave me a blank stare, then said, “Oh! You mean those little black cartridge things?”


  5. Mariah, most landlines, and pretty much all cellphones, have either voicemail or call waiting these days, frequently both.

    @John, had similar reaction to discussion with 10-yr-old who wants to learn to code, I offered to buy her a book or two if she needed it, she looked at me blankly. YouTube tutorials are doing a better job for her than any of the books I’ve read did for me. And trying to explain to her the idea that when I was a kid being able to watch a single episode of my favourite show was a) a privilege and b) something you waited all week for is completely impossible, she doesn’t even get excited about a new Doctor Who episode, she’ll just watch it when she’s in the mood. Many, many, many times…

  6. “Wow! It’s a 3D model of the ‘save’ icon!”

    I have fond memories of carting around an entire box of floppy disks holding all of my fledgling novels in my youth. I now have a USB memory stick with more memory than the computer I was writing on in college. Crazy how this stuff moves so fast.

  7. We truly live in days of miracle and wonder.

    Also, I now want some pizza. The chicken noodle soup I had earlier was less than satisfying.

  8. Gee, when “I” order a pizza, I can do it online, but usually, I just call ahead for carryout……I wonder how many kids have ever seen a 5-1/4″ floppy disk, or a 45 record…..in the not too distant future, they’ll wonder what those things on the shelves are – you know the things with the funny pictures on the front, and lots of words in the middle…..oh, those, they’re called books….you use them to introduce new updates to your brain.

  9. I’m in the band for a production of the Stephen Sondheim show “Company” opening next week. The main musical motif that runs throughout the show is supposed to be reminiscent of a busy signal. When the musical director pointed that out, I realized it was going to be completely lost on audiences in the future. For now, though, almost no one of Athena’s generation will be in the audience.

  10. I had to go ask my almost 13 year old daughter if she was familiar with a busy signal. First, I asked if she knew what a dial tone was. At first, she didn’t know what I was talking about and then she said, “Oh yeah, it sounds like, ….” and she came fairly close to the sound. Then I asked her about the busy signal. She couldn’t come up with that one, so I made the sound for her, and she said, “Oh yeah! I remember now.” I asked her when she had last heard those sounds. She remembers from when we used to have a wall phone in our office. We still have that phone number and we occasionally get calls to that number which go straight to voice mail and then we get an email notification. She was probably around 4 or 5 the last time we had a land line hooked up in there.

  11. My guy and I were talking about modem sounds in front of his 11 year old daughter. She couldn’t get the concept of having to “dial in” to get to email or the Internet. Yeah. We’re old.

  12. The domain of busy signals I see mostly common is with fax numbers .

    The business I work for is a place whose customers sometimes still think an email address is novel, but most have a fax number. Which is often busy…

  13. Nowadays, kIds watching ST:TOS for the first time think it looks old and backwards, not because of the costumes etc., but because flip phones are obsolete.

  14. 12 years ago, Dave Matthews wrote the lyric, “Unplug the TV and turn off your phone,” and I realized that when I was his age, the actions would have been reversed.

  15. Actual conversation with my six year old daughter.

    I was shaving and singing silly songs with my daughter who is well versed in the principles of transhumanism, operates android tablets and phones with ease, IPADS, and personal computers.

    I sang something to the effect while scraping hair off my face:

    “It’s the papa shaving show.
    He’s shaving and shaving and shaving again,
    When is this show going to end?
    When papa is in the ground.”

    Ok – I know that last line was wrong to say, but it just sorta came out.

    She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said:

    “Papa, I thought we were going to turn into robots and fly around together.”

  16. I still remember the woman whose teenage daughter kept losing her (the daughter’s) cellphone. The mother kept reminding her how important it was to keep track of the phone. The daughter said “Wouldn’t it be neat if the phone had some kind of cord or whatever, so you could tether it to a certain spot?”

    I’m old enough to remember when corded phones were the norm, things like call waiting and redial/flash functions were new, and to use a modem you had to put a phone handset into a large, bulky cradle.

  17. Local pediatrician’s only has one or maybe two lines. I get busy-signal on them ALL THE TIME.

    …I have no idea if the kid understands a busy signal. I’ll have to ask her sometime. o_o

  18. We have a wall phone in our kitchen. A couple of years ago our then 6 year old granddaughter finished talking to her mother on it and started to hand it back to me. I told her to hang it up. I just got a blank stare back from her as she looked of the off button on the receiver.

    She did not know what it meant to hang up a phone. She had always used a wireless phone or a cell phone.

  19. Just how old I am came home to me recently when we purchased an older model car as our third vehicle.

    Our daughter, who was newly licensed to drive, sat down in the car and said, “What is this thing on the door?”

    She was referring to the window crank handle.

  20. I have to tell you, I got a busy signal last summer for the first time in I don’t even know how long, and my genuine, honest reaction was, “What the hell is this noise? Is it broken?” This was not in the sense of, “How did I get a busy signal?” but a genuine lack of recognition.

    And I wrote busy-detecting wardialers back in the day. So it’s not like I lacked experience. It had just been so long, that I… forgot, for a moment.

  21. I called a business on their land line and got a busy signal recently, and I realized then that I hadn’t heard one of those in ages.

  22. I had to explain the concept of connecting to the internet via a hardline to one of my undergrad workers. Our tech person had told her to try doing something on a wired connection, and when I told her I had an ethernet port in my office she could use, she gave me a blank stare and asked “So is that like dialup? My grandma had that when I was little.” She had never connected her computer to the internet via anything but wireless and didn’t know what a hardline or ethernet were.

  23. Today, my sweetie’s son came to a convention dressed as Arthur Dent. I told him that had been my first nerd cosplay — in 1986. I’m right there with you.

  24. I don’t know if my 16 year old daughter knows what a busy signal is (she is almost exactly a year older than Athena ;)), but we still have a corded landline. She also knows about vinyl, and is actively saving for a turntable.Her artwork is equally “tactile” (ink, pencils, pastels, etc.) and digital.

  25. I just read this out to MY fifteen-year-old Weasel girl and that led to this conversation:

    Me: You know what a busy signal is, right?
    Weasel: Yup. I haven’t heard many though, people tend not to ring the people I ring.
    Me: You know what a dial tone is even though we don’t dial any more, right?
    Weasel: Of course I know what a dial tone is! It’s middle E!

  26. Do you realize that a whole generation has grown up saying “hang up the phone” who have never had a phone that has anything to hang up or anything to hang it up on? That’s scary.

    I guess she’s never experienced a busy signal because all the people she talks to, they either text each other or if their line is busy when she calls, it automatically goes to voice mail.

  27. First year of university, 1996, we were able to sign up for an address and I didn’t do it for months as I was convinced that “I will never use it!” – I think back then AOL still charged a fee per e-mail…

  28. I remember when the question was “Are you connected to the ARPANET?” rather than “What’s your email?”

    I remember when rotary phones were all there was. My dad used to turn the disk and stick a pencil in it so we wouldn’t get calls during supper.

    Anyone else remember party lines? My grandmother had one. They were cheaper. (For you whippersnappers, a party line was when a group of households shared essentially one line with different numbers. The phone rang in different patterns depending on which number had been dialed, and if you picked up the phone to make a call and heard the neighbors talking, you just put it down and waited until later.)

    I remember when ‘Solid State!’ was a point of advertising, rather than an automatic assumption. Took me years to realize that this contrasted with ‘gas state’ (that is, employing vacuum tubes). Not quite true of TVs in the early days, because at least the picture tube was gas state.

    Speaking of television, I remember when TV stations were legally required to announce that “Some of the programs seen on this station were mechanically reproduced for presentation at a more convenient time,” frequently enough that I remember the actual words some 45 years later. Today they announce when something is “live,” and they’re lying, because everything is on seven-second delay. (Yes, Saturday Night Live used to be really, truly, speed-of-light live from New York. They cussed once too often. Even longer ago, they were funny.)

    I remember being the only kid in my class who knew what a laser was, and even I had never seen one. My science report on this got uncomprehending stares from the other fifth-graders. Today they’re a cat toy. I’m still one of the few people who remember that that word is an acronym (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), and so is the ZIP in ZIP code (Zone Improvement Plan, and a more obviously reverse-engineered acronym can scarcely be imagined).

    When Pete Seeger died, at my request we sang “If I Had a Hammer” at church the next week. They passed out a word sheet. There were people who had never heard the song.

    Xopher wept.

  29. A few years ago, my daughter (three years older than Athena, I believe) was very confused when we were browsing an antique store and she saw a rotary phone. I’m not that old (yet), but I still recall using rotary phones (not to mention landlines with the old-style 505A connectors).

    That said, I’m genuinely surprised to hear of a contemporary food delivery business (even a small independent one) that doesn’t have call waiting and multiple lines available.

  30. ‘Dial’, not ‘disk’. Stupid smartphone. I tried to Preview, but nothing happened when I tapped the button. Works fine on the real thing, but not on Android.

    Sorry for consecutive posts.

  31. You had me feeling old from the first line, with that casual mention that Athena isn’t eleven anymore or whatever her age was was when I started reading your blog.

    A couple of years ago, a young coworker of mine very earnestly began a conversation with “Imagine if computers existed when you were a kid”. I chose to think it was a failure of his history knowledge rather than me looking a lot older than mid-thirties.

    That year I also had to explain how to address an envelope and where the stamp goes when we were sending Christmas cards.

  32. Last summer our grandniece & grandnephew (6&7) we’re eating corn on the cob. My wife told them they were eating it like a typewriter. Blank stares-“What’s a typewriter?”

  33. I came up in the 80s. I learned to write cursive in elementary school and I still remember how, although it doesn’t flow as easily as it did when I was younger. I learned to type on an electric typewriter, and I think my high school got rid of the typewriters the year after I graduated. Before I learned to type, I wrote papers using the hunt-and-peck method on WordPerfect 5.1 which was on a DOS machine (and let me tell you that it was a PITA remembering all the F key shortcuts for various functions). I was 19 the first time I got on the Internet, back when AOL was using dial-up. I think I may still be finding the odd 5 1/4″ and 3 1/2″ floppies for a few years yet, although I have destroyed most of them. And I’m younger than you are.

  34. I used to work at a hotel, from about 1993 to about 2010. When I started working there, guests almost always had used their room phones and had phone bills. Laptops came into being, and we had at least a few guests who had amazingly large phone bills because they had dial up connections to their servers, and forgot to change the phone numbers their computers used to connect, so they would have ginormous long distance bills when their computers called the connections they used in Western Pennsylvania, say, rather than south Jersey, where the hotel was located. One was over $300… By the time I quit that job for one as an assistant manager at a gift shop, almost no one had phone bills when they checked out, unless the phone service they subscribed to had not much service in our area. They would use the phone books in the room to look up numbers for local restaurants, then use their cell phones to call. If they had calls to or from home, they got them on cell phones. And the hotel had put in wifi routers on all the floors, so no more dial up, either. The switch over went through pretty fast, all things considered, and pretty smoothly. My family doesn’t even have a land line any more, and we aren’t the only ones. And while I know a few older (70+ for the most part) who aren’t on the Internet (a few don’t even have computers) they are now the outliers. I also know a few ladies in their 80s who are online, on Facebook, and so on – and for the most part, due to the efforts of their grandkids. I can remember playing ‘Traveller’ when it first came out, where you had to have several square yards of space for even a small, weak computer. Most high end laptops today probably have more computing power than the computer on a Traveller ship that took up one whole deck’s worth of space.

    I have a few LPs left, mostly those that have never been transferred commercially to CD, and have paid to have several of them converted to CD (which costs more than if they were available on CD, and unfortunately won’t last as long as a commercially produced CD) and have a large iTune library and mp3 library. I still prefer to have CDs of my favorites, even though I mostly use mp3 players today, just in case… Emergency backup, as it were. But I know other people who have ripped all their CDs to mp3s, stored the music ‘in the cloud,’ and sold their CDs. I just don’t trust ‘in the cloud’ storage enough yet to go that route.

    I’ve had a GPS in my car (not built in, runs off plug to PowerPoint in car) for five years now, but I still have a few automobile maps in my car, just in case. I’ve seen survey results that indicate older drivers usually have maps on board as a back up, while younger drivers usually don’t. But now that I have GPS, I find I am much more willing to drive new places than I was when all I had was a map.

    I wear glasses, and have wondered about google glasses. If they can make the displays not too distracting, and the price goes down into a reasonable range…

    It will be interesting to see where tech goes next, and how quickly each new wave is adopted. Some will probably fail, due to poor implementation – or because it isn’t something folks are as interested in as the producers thought it would be. I’m sure everyone reading this can think of ‘cutting edge’ products that sunk without a trace. There may well be products that none of us has even imagined so far. I’ve learned that every time someone scoffs at a sf idea as ‘not possible’ that it will be possible, ‘hundreds of years from now’ may be two or three decades, and never say never. What will be really interesting is what is invented that sf authors never imagined…

  35. tom mears siad:

    Two words…
    “Hollerith cards”

    How about two more words, Paper tape?

    I once had to use a machine controlled by a PDP8/L and make corrections in the program which controlled it. The computer had 4K 12 bit words and no disk. Input and output for the system was an ASR33 teletype. To make a change in the program, I would have to load the text editor via tape. Then load the program via tape. Make the changes and then punch a new tape. Then load the assembler by tape of course and then the revised program. Then print out the modified program via teletype and punch the new binary.

    Oddly enough I sort of thought this was fun back in 1975 and 1976 when I was doing this. Maybe it was because I could put my hands on the hardware. I had of course by then had used a modern computer by that time, a CDC 6400 locked away from me in a computer room, a CDC 6400, another oddball computer by today’s standards with its 60 bit words.


  36. It’s not just technology that’s a generation gap. I’m at a con right now, Boskone, and I was in a pickup game of APPLES TO APPLES last night with a sixteen-year old, a ten year old, a twelve-year old, and their father. The green apple was “weird”, and I played “Robin Williams”.

    Only the father had ever heard of him. Because why WOULD they? Williams is still working, but he hasn’t been a phenomenon since before any of them were born.

  37. I visited my aunt about ten years ago with my then 18 year old daughter. My aunt had recently allowed my cousin to hook up a modern landline phone with an answering machine.

    Her old Bakelite phone was sitting next to the new phone. My daughter, fascinated with its rotary dial, lifted just the handset of the old phone, then, startled by its heft, the entire phone. She was astounded that a telephone could actually be used as a lethal weapon.

  38. There’s a story – possibly apocryphal- that when Eisenhower left office and picked up a regular phone, he was mystified by the dial tone. For all his years as a general officer and as president, there was always someone on the other end waiting to speak with him or to place his call.

    I do remember sometime back in the 60s when the dial tone changed from a deeper, more mechanical sounding buzz to a more electronic sounding tone.

  39. How did you learn about the sound of a busy signal? People used to communicate via pigeons. How many still communicate that way (pigeons included)?

  40. Corel recently had a sale on their Wordperfect Office Suite software. I used to use Wordperfect as my standard word processor. I think I only stopped because a new computer came with MS Word pre-loaded, and I was feeling too broke to buy an updated version of Wordperfect. Plus the “ribbon bar” added to MS Word made it a lot easier to use, and I never quite got around to going back to Wordperfect.

    But I was tempted by Corel’s recent sale. Why? Because as a bonus to the sale, they were going to include a manual. An actual, printed on paper, 600+ pages manual.

    Is there any software that comes with a printed manual anymore? I haven’t seen any for a long time. I miss manuals. Besides letting the user come up to speed on using the software a lot faster, I always found it easier, more efficient, and faster to use a manual’s index and /or ToC to find the information I needed than any online help or in-software guide. (Plus I can’t count the number of times I’ve entered a staggeringly obvious keyword on a “Help” search bar, and ended up being directed to something completely useless. With a printed manual, if all else fails, you can read the entire friggin’ thing.) (As I recall, the 2nd-party manuals from Que were always very readable.)

  41. Steve C, there must have been a time when dial tones were new to everybody. Automatic switching came in some time during the mid-twentieth century (a less lazy person can check wikipedia for us). This was long before my time, but before that presumably there was no dial tone. You picked up the hand set, cranked the unit if necessary, and you’d be speaking to the operator. It’s conceivable that Ike’s time as a high muck a muck overlapped the advent of dial tones so completely that he didn’t find out about them until they had become ubiquitous. Personally I think the story sounds apocryphal.

    There’s also the time when George H.W. Bush was astonished and delighted to see a supermarket checkout scanner in operation. Pretty sure that’s a true story, but still too lazy to check.

    Aside from that, I have used Hollerith cards on a PDP8 and I can remember when a tty really was a teletype. But the machine did have a physically huge, logically tiny hdd and I have never known the joys of paper tape.

  42. >> … a telephone could actually be used as a lethal weapon.

    Not only that, it would still work afterwards.

  43. I have a true story I call Millennium Girl Meets the 1960’s. My younger daughter was with her father in grandpa’s basement sorting through things. She found a spindle of old 45’s. At that time (late 1990’s) she was into golden oldies. One of the 45’s was a Beach Boy record. She asked her father if a particular song was on it and he glanced down and said “yes”. She kept looking for the song and couldn’t find it and told her father that the song was not there. He reached down and turned the 45 over and showed her the flip side.

  44. Nefer saith:

    “My daughter, fascinated with its rotary dial, lifted just the handset of the old phone, then, startled by its heft, the entire phone. She was astounded that a telephone could actually be used as a lethal weapon.”

    I have heard, though I can’t confirm, that at one time Western Electric (which used to make all the telephone sets for the Bell System) re-designed the 500 set (the standard dial desk telephone), and the newer materials resulted in it being lighter but just as sturdy as the old model. They tested it with users, who responded that it didn’t feel as reliable because it was so light. So they doubled the thickness of the metal baseplate – which had no impact on the actual reliability, but made it heavier, and the users responded that that’s what a phone is supposed to feel like.

    Quoth Andrew Burday:

    “Steve C, there must have been a time when dial tones were new to everybody.”

    Yes, and the Bell System put out some outstanding short films to educate people. See here, for example. (As a phone guy, I love the shots of the hot cutover to the dial switch.)

  45. “Oh good God, they were using a cortical modem to try and hack your brain! I thought those were banned in the mid-90s!

    Are you seeing fractal halos around people? Do you taste a mixture of Ben-Gay and peanut butter? A mund të flasin gjuhën shqipe?

  46. You’re all youngsters compared to my husband, who went to IBM programming school in 1967. They not only had to use Hollerith cards, they had to *hand-punch* them because a machine to do it hadn’t been invented yet. He helped write the TCP/IP tables that the internet runs on. He had — and was using — an email address in 1974. And he was present at the very first GPS demonstration ever, which took place in the Pentagon parking lot. To this day he hates “user-friendly” electronics; we finally gave up on upgrading his phone and he uses an old flip phone because I got tired of explaining to him how to let his phone just do stuff automatically, and that he can’t just input the source code to get them to do what he wants. He speaks mainframe far better than consumer device.

    But if you want a true generation gap in action: My grandmother grew up on a farm in the Midwest and never even saw an automobile until she was 19. And yet she saw men walk on the moon before she died. I cannot imagine that scope of change in my own lifetime, and yet it’s happening; I never saw a computer until I went to college, and even then it was a single mainframe with teletype access that most of us only used to play Star Trek on. (You had to imagine the three-dimensional universe as it could only print out a static star map for you to try to locate and kill the Klingons. It was actually great fun!) I suspect that before I’m gone, things will have changed even more than they did for my grandmother. I sometimes wonder if I’m prepared for it all!

  47. When my daughter was in highschool, she took American History at a local university. One day she came home and said, “Mom, did you know that a long time ago in this country there used to be people called hippies who protested the Vietnam war and wore funny clothes?”

    I blinked at her for a moment, feeling very old. Then I said, “Yes, that’s what we were called.”

    And hey, we did NOT wear funny clothes. Those paisley monstrosities hanging in the closet at my parents house must have belonged to someone else.

    Actually, a lot of what I wear now, the low-rider jeans a sort-of t-shirt tops are almost exactly what I wore back then.

    When I was a kid, we had a black and white tv with only thee stations and some weird thing called vhf. Our phone was a party line. That was it. No other electronics.

    My older brother got the four of us kids together so we could pool our allowances for however long it took and buy one of those new-fangled color tvs (we did not, of course, use the word new-fangled. We were much too cool for that). And we did indeed buy a color tv, roughly a year later. It is still downstairs in my parent’s house. I’ve no idea if it still works.

    In my pre-teen years I also got a transistor radio. My own radio! I could listen to my music. On am stations, of course. Then the cool new fm stations came in playing rock ‘n roll, and I listened to them.

    I sometimes forget what it was like back then. It’s almost as if I was a different person.

  48. Xopher, here’s one for you: Several years ago, an eighteen-year-old who worked with my wife came up to her and excitedly said, “Did you know Paul McCartney was in another band before he was with Wings?” – and there was absolutely no sarcasm there.

    If there’d been a bottle of Geritol handy, my wife would’ve downed it.

  49. Wait, seriously? I’m only twentysomething, I consider myself a child of the digital age, I definitely know what a busy tone is. There’s even a thing on my cell phone that I can press to send a busy signal to someone if they interrupt me in the middle of a call.

  50. Frank in KC, What’s amazing about that is that an 18-year-old has heard of Wings. And that story was so widely circulated in the 70s that kids started doing it on purpose to freak out the oldsters.

  51. There’s no service like GrubHub where you can order online from restaurants that don’t have the infrastructure to set up their own online service, and they arrange to order the food for you, Sclazi? We used to have a service called Restaurants Direct that not only did that, they also (for a service charge) provided delivery service for restaurants that couldn’t afford to….

  52. Timliebe:

    I live in a rural town of 1,800, which is probably not GrubHub’s main demo (and I just checked with the site; they have nothing there in my town). But, you know. It’s not actually difficult to make a phone call.

  53. Okay – it’s official. We’re all old farts….

    ::sticks a pencil in one of the holes of an audiocassette, twirls it to tighten the audiotape over the heads….::

  54. ::nods:: It’s more college towns, Scalzi – I thought maybe you lived near a college, for some reason.

  55. A few months ago at my former job as retail middle-management I was supposed to call corporate in another state. I couldn’t get it to work. I had to call the help desk. The problem? I hadn’t dialed “1” first (well, second, after “7” to “call out,” but, yeah). This was the first time in probably a decade I’d had to make a long-distance call from a landline, and I’d forgotten that would be necessary. You’d think the “1-800” number I was calling for help would have clued me in, but no.

  56. I was describing my first encounter – in 1971 – with punched cards for programming computers, to an older friend – 80 +. Forgetting that he was a retired professor of computer engineering. “I was programming in the 50’s.”

    Makes me feel like a young whippersnapper at 60. ;-)

    And who can forget rotary antennas?

  57. @Steve C: Didn’t know US dial tones had changed over the years. I did a double-take when I went to England a few years ago (some 18 years after my last visit) and found that the old, deep burr of the GPO/BT dial tone had been replaced with the US tone.

    Which reminds me of another thing that most current US teenagers have never dealt with and probably never will: the pay phone. (And the paper phone book that went with it, where the page you needed was invariably missing due to someone else wanting a number for future reference.)

    Also, in the same vein:

    – Phones supplied by the phone company (and the illegality of wiring your own household extensions);

    – “Ma Bell” a/k/a The Bell System;

    – Answering machines (particularly those with tapes);

    – The Long Distance operator;

    – Named exchanges like MIchigan 7-2600. (OK, these were getting rare even in the ’70s, but they still existed in the semi-rural area where I grew up. )

    – Dialing “1” before a long-distance direct-dial call. (I hate to admit how long it took me to realize that you don’t need to do that from a cellphone.)

    – Dialing only 7 digits for a local call. (May still vary by region, but it’s been at least a decade since I didn’t have to dial the area code due to overlays.)

    – Dialing.

  58. When I started college, the library had a room full of typewriters that students could sign up to use. A little later, I figured out that I could use the programming editor on the school mainframe as a text editor (no spell check, no automatic line feed and a fixed width font, but still better than my typewriting). Before I left school, Macintoshes had arrived, just in time to make my Masters thesis writing tolerable – it all fit on a single floppy). Old, old, old…

  59. The passage of time:

    “Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”
    “Paul McCartney was in a band?”
    “Who is Paul McCartney?”

  60. When I was a kid, we had to make our own flint weapons and hunt wooly mammoth in the snow. Damn it was cold.

  61. Look on the bright side – when civilization ends catastrophically (bound to happen any time now), we’re all going to be the only people who know how to do anything that doesn’t involve an iThing.

    Also, when I was an infant, my parents’ phone number had only FOUR digits. That was it. The full number: 1234. Done. Even now, because they’ve had the same number since the 1960s, their landline number has only five digits. It’s a repeating but thankfully brief slice of hell trying to get anybody to believe that, yes, that’s really the full number.

    Has anybody explained to these gosh darn new fangled whippersnappers that we used to have to type out the entire phone number every single time we called anybody?

    Kids these days… don’t know they’re born… grumble… mumble… grumble…

  62. Well, when I was a lad, we had to hunt woolly mammoth in the snow – with rotary phones. If only we had had flint.

  63. And in the opposite direction, when I was at . My first job there were people older than me stumped by a calculator. Suggested they do it by hand. That was apparently also too difficult.

  64. We did indeed have flint. My very first computer used flint-gears and was programmed in a rudimentary machine-rock language. A rock meant “1”. No rock meant “0”. Our graphical interface was a wall of rock coming at you, i.e. an avalanche. And computer networks consisted of flinging rocks at one another at high rates of speed. Computer operators were a hardy lot, with heavily calloused hands and thick skulls. Eventually we invented databases which were a fancy name for caves, I’m still having a hard time grasping the idea of “software”. It sounds like the antithesis of computer rock-hardware.

    Kids (our code word for what you call homo-sapiens) sure do have it easy these days.

  65. Okay, somewhat seriously, about 20-couple years ago I took a night course for my degree, Trigonometry. Didn’t have a calculator so I dug out my old slipstick. Held it up and asked the teacher if he would accept interpolation. “Sure.” Nobody else in the class knew what either -was-. Sometimes being archaic is fun ;-)

  66. I’ve had a cell phone for over a decade, yet I still catch myself waiting for the dial tone occasionally. In my defense, I rarely use my phone to make calls, preferring texts and email. Sometimes I wonder if my teenage daughters are even aware of the “phone call” function of their phones.

  67. It was 1969, and my Dad was trying to call his brother, who was staying with relatives in rural Maine, to tell him that my younger sister had been born. The operator (in Santa Ana) first told Dad to dial direct. Then she told him that “Merrill House, Andover Maine, ring three” made no sense because a) houses don’t have names, they have street numbers, and b) “ring three” isn’t a phone number. But she finally agreed to patch him through to the operator in Andover, who said, “Merrill House? Ring three,” and connected the call. My uncle picked up with a cheery, “Merrill House!” (Just checked – Merrill House still doesn’t have a street address. But they are using it as a guesthouse these days. If you have occasion to vacation in rural Maine, take a look. It’s nice there.)

    One of my aunts had a “party line” well into the 1980s. Scare quotes because it was only technically a party line. Nobody else in the area wanted to share, so she got a line of her own for party line rates. Finally some accountant noticed and they discontinued the option.

    I tried to plug my push-button princess into a jack in my 2007-built apartment, and it turned out that I could either configure the line for the phone I’d been using for decades, or I could configure the line to accomodate data and a newfangled phone. I bought a new phone. I hate replacing stuff that still works.

    Speaking of – I’ve got what was a fairly nice stereo – 3 CD changer, tape-to-tape, 33/45 turntable, AM/FM receiver. But the tape decks are both stretching tapes. I figure they probably just need cleaning. I can’t find anyone nearby who does that sort of work anymore. Well, there is one, but their website says, basically, if you’re not willing to pay real money for our time, don’t bother us. And I’m not sure it’s worth real money just to hear my old mix tapes again, you know?

  68. They still had party lines in Boulder, CO in the 90s when I lived there. They weren’t the really old kind with different ring patterns, but if too many other households on the same line as you was using their phone you got a busy signal, same as if the person you tried to call was on their phone. Sometimes you could hear other peoples’ conversations very faintly in the background when there was a lull in your own conversation.

    But the quality of the reception was still better than what I usually get with my smart phone.

  69. I was recently hired as assistant curator at the local county museum. One of my jobs is to change out displays. Imagine my surprise when one of the items I found in storage was a slide rule / slip stick. (and my auto correct keeps on wanting to make slipstick into slapstick…sigh.) The curator, who is a good 10 to 15 years younger than I am, had no idea what it was or how to use it. I told her I’d used one in math classes in high school, and it was what we used for calculations before electronic calculators were invented. And for quite a few years after, as even simple add/subtract/multiply/divide calculators ran over $100 when they first became readily available to the public. And I remember using punch cards to program an IBM (I think it was a 350) in college, and I have used computers that used both 8 and 5 inch floppy disks… My first PC was an Osbourne O-1. I tell younger folks it looked like a lopsided sewing machine in a case, and a lot of them have no idea what a sewing machine it. When I bought an IBM Selectrix in college to replace my manual Smith Corona, I thought I was really moving up in the world.

    Now, I don’t think it was simpler back then…just different.

  70. Okay that was hilarious. Too funny. Next, you’ll be pulling out your old Sony cassette player to record a ditty you just thought up. I tried once and found the batteries had melted inside. My son and his friend had no idea what it was. None.

  71. Film cassettes and negatives are other items that those under 20 or so are really puzzled by. I talk about having a darkroom in one of our bathrooms, and they want to know why I had a computer with a photo editing program on it in the bathroom.

  72. Somehow the topic of the old elementary school purple mimeograph papers came up at work. My almost 60 boss and late 40’s me waxed nostalgic for a good 10 minutes about that scent, while my early 30’s co workers looked confused. I don’t remember them in high school, so they must have disappeared early 80’s?

  73. Anyone who thinks all of this is ‘phone nostalgia is neat ought to lay hands on and read a recent book by Phil Lapsley titled ‘Exploding the Phone’. It’s a history of phone phreaking and hacking Ma Bell. Blue boxes, anyone?

  74. Limaro, I can remember using mimeo machines when in AFROTC in the late 1970s. Xerox machines were also by then available, but only in copy shops and the libraries, and the cost was pretty high. It would probably have cost you more to Xerox off a text book than to buy the book new. By the time I was active duty in USAF in 1978 or so, mimeos even in the military had been replaced by Xerox machines. So, late 1970s seems to be when the transition took place…

  75. I started school in 1980 and we had purple mimeos into junior high. It was a poor rural district, so I assume the new tech was too expensive.

  76. In my former life as a librarian, I had to explain what carbon paper was to a couple of kids. They originally wanted to know what that “cc” line in email actually stood for. (Yes! There are still inquiring minds! All is not lost.) Carbon copy of course meant nothing. They were touchingly impressed by how hard we had it back in the old days. We had to correct a mistake separately every single time?

    Lots of people were still using something other than photocopies well into the 80s. I can remember being quite happy when the editor of a newspaper that I freelanced for gave me carbon paper packets with the layers of carbons and papers all fastened together–not that I hadn’t seen them, but I was cheaping out by putting my own together. That meant the thrilling possibility of putting it together backwards and getting a mirror image on the back of the original Why as I that cheap, I wonder?

  77. No limit to the number of old-timer stories, but the Xerox discussion reminded me of this.

    Once there were copy machines (Thermofax) that made an image on heat-sensitive paper — remember fax machines with thermal printers? Same idea. A bright light on a piece of high-contrast original would warm up the paper in the dark places, and that pattern of heat would expose the special paper. Ugly damn copies, but they worked.

    My father developed a terrible dermatitis at one time, which turned out not to be psychosomatic, but a violent allergy to thermofax paper. He couldn’t even go near the stuff, which was in use all the time at the office. You couldn’t put a thermofax copy on his desk,. So he took a great interest in an obscure company in the fim-processing business that had a crazy new plain-paper copier. Haloid Corporation. soon, Haloid Xerox Corp. Which went public and soon shortened its name. Part of the profits from the shares he bought went far towards putting me through school.

  78. It doesn’t seem so long ago – 1978, to be exact – when I was having lunch at a small diner in Cisco, Utah, and I noticed that the phone number was “8”. The phone had no dial. You had to pick up the handset and ask the operator to place a call for you. I think Cisco might have been one of the last places in the US which still hadn’t installed dial phones.

    I was back there last year and the manual phone system is gone – as is the diner, and, in fact, the entire town of Cisco, Utah. The diner is in ruins, and the town is a ghost town, bypassed by the Interstate.

  79. We were one of the last people in our neighborhood to get a touch-tone phone in the late 80s – because back when touch-tone came in the phone company used to charge an extra fee for the service and they kept on charging it long after it became the norm (and we really were that cheap/tight for money). I remember it was an issue because we still had rotary when automated phone answering systems came on where you needed to press buttons to communicate with the system on the other end. For the longest time we could only call certain numbers from my Dad’s desk because he had a special office phone that could switch back and forth between touch-tone and “pulse”. The only other phone in the house was the old AT&T bakelite phone bolted to the wall in the kitchen (that I think we actually bought from the phone company when they stopped requiring you to rent them out).

    I still use carbon paper – I have an old fashioned lab notebook and the carbon lets me make duplicates of the hand written pages. But then I’m a luddite in some ways for using a notebook at all – most people use binders with pre-printed forms.

  80. This past weekend I started rewatching some older TV shows that I’d missed the first time around, starting with the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. First airing: 1997. They had corded phones in the show. I had not realized 1997 was *that* long ago until last night when I did the math and figured out that 17 years have elapsed. Good lord I feel old.

    Unrelated: I’m guessing that not too many commenters here are small business owners. It has only been about 3 years since I last worked in one – they could only afford two lines so yes there could be busy signals on them.

  81. Even if you have Call Waiting and multiple lines, if there are enough calls, eventually all the lines are full, and the next caller will get a busy signal. I’ve gotten one from Domino’s on a cold Friday night.

  82. There have been a couple of comments along the lines of “I’m 17, and I know what a busy signal is”. When Athena is 17, she’ll know what a busy signal is, too. The point is that an ordinary American kid in a prosperous suburban/rural home was able to get to age 15 without hearing a busy signal. When we middle-aged folk were teenagers, that wouldn’t have been possible AT ALL. Any American 15-year-old who didn’t know what a busy signal sounded like when I was 15 either would have had some unusual individual disability (deafness, most obviously) or would have been living in extraordinary circumstances — off the grid in northern Idaho, or something like that.

    I hope I’m not shaking my cane too hard here, but those responses are actually reinforcing Scalzi’s point, by missing it. When we were 15, a kid like Athena couldn’t have been ignorant of what a busy signal sounded like. Now get off my durn lawn!

  83. Andrew Burday
    > It’s conceivable that Ike’s time as a high muck a muck overlapped the advent of dial tones so completely that he didn’t find out about them until they had become ubiquitous. Personally I think the story sounds apocryphal.

    I don’t think it’s apocryphal. In the mid 1950s the phone system in my home town switched from pick-up-and-wait-for-the-operator to dial phones, and that was just about when Ike was president after being a general for a long time.

    When I was in high school in the 1960s, the advanced science class had the use of an experimental mechanical calculator that did multiplication and division using levers and springs.

  84. I worked in a building in the historic district of our town into the late 90’s which only had rotary phones. The bosses preteen niece wanted to make a call from my desk and poked the holes with her finger then told me the phone was broken. I showed her how to drag the dial around after practically wetting myself from laughing so hard. The memory still makes me giggle :-D

  85. Reposted this on FB, where I mentioned how excited my 7-year-old got when she saw her first dial phone. Not to mention her first micro-cassette recorder

    Y’know what, though? I will occasionally get really nostalgic for old tech, and then will dig out the old Sanyo stereo (circa 1985) and play an LP record or an audio cassette. And y’know what? They SUCKED.

    Okay, if you had a top-of-the-line, $5,000 Harmon-Kardon stereo and you kept your records in a nitrogen-filled safe, you might get better sound quality than today’s average, no-name-brand MP3 player. The MP3 format loses the high-highs and the low-lows, got it.

    But most normal mortals didn’t have $5,000 for a sound system in 1982 (or now, for that matter.) We had to live with a crappy $250 Sears or Radio Shack job. The scratchy, buzzy, dusty, only-22-minutes-per-side, ruin-your-record-and-your-needle-with-a-single-bump-Sears-stereo.

    I don’t miss that. I don’t miss telephone receivers that weighed four pounds and could be used as a warhammer in a pinch. I don’t miss busy signals, though I wish I could miss voicemail systems. Someone will be nostalgic for voicemail jail someday. I don’t miss the clatter-bang-buzz of electric typewriters and having to re-type a whole pages of manuscript if I made more than a couple of mistakes. I don’t miss photocopiers that produced grey, fuzzy copies that smelled of vinegar and faded to black in a couple of weeks.

    I get nostalgic for this stuff sometimes, yes. But I don’t miss them.

  86. However, as I read on another blog recently, what’s extremely jarring is when the technology you remember superseding another technology has itself gone extinct. Or even double-double in some cases, if you think of VHS->DVD->Blueray->Netflix.

    I’m not talking about Sega superseding Atari and being superseded by Playstation and XBox. I’m talking about whole CLASSES of technology completely disappearing. I remember the birth and death of audio cassettes, microcassettes, Beta and VHS, CRT computer monitors, 5.25 and 3 inch floppies, CB radio. ZIP drives, CD’s, DVD’s (okay, an ongoing lingering death), giant-screen projection TV’s, telephone answering machines (lingering death 2), analog over-the-air TV, analog home video cameras, video cameras (of any kind) with cassettes, BBS systems, I could go on and on.

    Okay, I concede that truck drivers still use CB radios and you can still buy blank audio and VHS cassettes. DJ’s still perform with LP records. But when was the last time YOU used one? Virtually all old technologies fade into art, craft and specialty uses. Someone, somewhere is making wax cylinders to record music on, but that technology is still dead.

  87. no one on here has mentioned ‘switchboards’, a place where every phone line was a cord that plugged into a hole. can you imagine the look on a ‘kid’s’ face if they saw one of those in operation today? i guess i am OLD!!! (only in age!!)

  88. The relevant “Kids React” Video. I love the Kids React series. Some of these kids are scary smart, but mostly it’s just adorable. In this one they’re in awe of how terrible this old tech is!

  89. Switchboards – Lily Tomlin saying,”One ringy dingy. Two ringy dingy.” And for any phone techs out there, it was switchboards and patch cords that led to the terms “tip and ring”, same sort of connectors that were used (and still are) for headphones (and jacks).

    Speaking of operators and party lines (we had to use both when I was a kid), remember when direct dialing first came about?!

    What led me to this post was I was looking for the old “Ma Bell” ditty, set to the tune of Alouette:

    Dial direct
    Dial it for long distance
    Dial direct
    It’s the way to save

    First you dial the number one
    The area code
    Then the number

  90. Ian Osmand, about 8 years ago, I played on a softball team. One guy said this 20-something guy on our team made him feel old. He’d said some funny line and the 20-something laughed. He told him it was from Robin Williams’ stand-up. The 20-something said, “Robin Williams did stand-up?”

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