My new phone is smarter than I am…

So for Christmas, my wife and I decided to buy each other what the cool kids call “smart phones.” So we wandered down to the nearest Apple Store, and bought a couple new iPhone 4S’s. Their boxes, carefully wrapped are residing under the Christmas tree in the front room while we try to divine the secrets of their operation.

As a person who remembers living out on the farm with phones that did have dials, but required calling the operator for “long distance” calls, which were all the way to Aurora and Naperville, this whole thing is pretty interesting.

Phone service got to our small farm town in 1897. On Dec. 1 of that year, the Kendall County Record reported that “The telephone poles are now all up and the trees all trimmed.”

Two weeks later, the wires were up and calls started circulating around the community.

It was a new technological experience, especially for the country folks whose homes were near enough to the phone lines to be hooked up.

In January of 1901, a farmer marveled: “We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

The Chicago Telephone Company's new switchboard in the Burkhart Building on South Main Street, March 1911.

The Chicago Telephone Company’s new switchboard in the Burkhart Building on South Main Street, March 1911.

In fact, we had an embarrassment of riches when it came to phone companies, with both the Chicago Telephone Company and the Northern Illinois Company stringing lies and doing business in Kendall County. The two battled it out for nearly a decade. In 1901, the Chicago Telephone Company bought the local assets of the Northern Illinois company. By that time, there were 286 local phone users. In 1920, the Chicago Telephone Company was renamed Illinois Bell Telephone.

Out in the country in the 1950s, while we were on dial phones, we were still on a party line. I can’t, for the life of me, remember what our ring was—each subscriber had a distinctive ring so they’d know when an incoming call was for them. But I DO remember our phone number: 2225. That was it; no exchange prefix, no area code, just the four subscriber digits.

The whole party line thing was sort of interesting, too. In an era when we have lots of questions about someone listening in on our phone calls, it might be of some illumination to recall the party line era when anyone on the line could pick up their receiver and listen in on the calls.

One neighborhood farmer was notorious for listening in on calls between other farmers and the commission man who handled livestock sales with the Chicago Stock Yards so he’d know how much they were making on the sale. Everyone blamed it on his Scots heritage (including his own relatives). In reality, I suspect he was just a nosey old man.

When we moved into town, we were still on a party line, but there were only two other neighbors on it. And that situation changed within a few years so everyone in town had private lines. Wow!

Starting in 1955, Illinois Bell started holding annual Telephone Community Nights in small towns all over northern Illinois—including Oswego. At these events, the latest in communications technology was showcased. It was at one of these events in the early 1960s where I saw the first picture phone and the first wireless phone. Very impressive!

A few years later, Illinois Bell installed one of their very first electronic switching centers in our town, and things really started to modernize.

In 1971, thanks to the advanced telephone switching system, Oswego became the first community in Illinois to offer four specialized electronic services: speed calling, conference calling, call forwarding, and call waiting.

Nowadays, we’ve gone more and more wireless, and are enjoying phones with more computing power than the space craft that went to the moon had.

While we still can’t “talk to planets Saturn and Neptune,” like the Kendall County Record’s correspondent predicted back in 1901, we can do all sorts of other stuff on our new smart phones, including play games and e-mail people on the other side of the earth. We can even still make phone calls.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

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