Every once in a while, during those slow news weeks, the media hauls out one of their old standby pieces, one of which is the one about modern kids having no idea how to use a rotary dial telephone.
Once the Bell System introduced their Touch Tone technology, the old rotary dial instruments were living on borrowed time.
Of course, as time was passing, so were wired phones themselves, except for a few of us dinosaurs who still keep our landlines as sort of connections to a time that is rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror.
Most kids these days, unless they’ve seen one in an old film on Turner Classic Movies, really do have no idea how to use a rotary dial phone. I’ve still got two or three Princess dial phones up in the attic in case the Appocolipse arrives and pushbotton phones no longer work, but I suspect there are extremely few of the old girls still kicking around.
Which is fine. Times change. Not everyone alive today grew up with rotary dials. In fact, I remember when some phones didn’t have dials at all; you just picked up the receiver and asked the operator to connect you with whatever number you wanted.
When rotary dials came in, phone users had to learn how to use them. Now, apparently, at least some youngsters would have to learn to use them again should they have to. Which got me to thinking about all the things we used to use on a regular basis, but which some specialized training would be needed should we suddenly be forced to use them again today.
The first thing that came to mind were slide rules. Back in the ’60s, you could tell the students taking physics and calculus and the rest of those incomprehensible classes where you came into contact with stuff like logarithms—they all carried slide rules. The really serious students carried slide rules in scabbards attached to their belts like hunting knives. They insisted you could use a slide rule to calculate answers to math problems, and apparently most of them did. I could never get the hang of the things, though, because their use seemed more an art than a skill.
But anyway, hand a kid a slide rule today, and the question would be “What am I supposed to do with this?” In this day of pocket-sized electronic calculators that have more power than a room full of computer equipment did 30 years ago, slide rule makers and user have gone the way of the buggy whip makers.
Speaking of buggy whips, getting around at the turn of the century took skills that hardly any of us have today, the primary one being the knowledge of harnesses. In horse and buggy days, the horse was attached to the buggy with a complicated harness of leather straps and buckles, collars, and the rest of what you needed to get a horse-drawn vehicle from here to there. The skill needed to harness a horse is gone from the population at large these days, as are such terms as evener, singletree, doubletree, and the rest of the equipment needed for the direct application of horsepower to transportation.
Just cooking a meal back at the turn of the last century took skills that few of us have today, namely the correct use of a cook stove. Cook stoves could be fired using wood, corncobs, or even coal. The trick was to know which fuel was appropriate for which job, and then to know how to regulate the draft so as to produce even baking and cooking heat. Like using the slide rule, it was more an art than a science. My grandmother used to test the oven heat when she baked bread in her cook stove out on the farm by sticking her hand in the oven to gauge the temperature.
Household operations as a whole, not just cooking, used skills that haven’t been used by most housewives for a few generations now. The cook stove referred to above was central to washing clothes and then ironing them as well. Monday was wash day, with water to wash clothes in heated on the cook stove (or sometimes on a smaller laundry stove). Hand clothes washing gave way to washing using powered washing machines, but the first of those were powered with gasoline engines. That meant housewives had to know a smattering of small engine repair and operation as well as how to get the most out of hard bars of lye soap (Hint: Whittling slices off with a sharp knife helps the soap dissolve in the wash water easier).
If Monday was wash day, Tuesday was always ironing day, with the cook stove pressed into service again to heat the cast iron sadirons. Tuesday usually became baking day as well to take advantage of the hot stove.
Meanwhile, out in the garage, the old reliable horse and buggy had been replaced by a Model T Ford or other automobile. The old cars look familiar—they’ve got four rubber tired wheels, doors, and a steering wheel. But get behind the wheel of a Model T, and it may as well be a space ship for most of us. How do you advance the spark to get the Tin Lizzie started? What does ‘advancing the spark’ even mean? How the heck do you shift gears? What are all those strange pedals on the floor? And what’s the deal with that crank below the radiator in front?
Later when the inside of cars and trucks began looking more familiar to our modern eyes, there were still some strange buttons and knobs. Some cars had separate starter pedals next to the accelerator that took some dexterity to use—some skill was needed to press the starter foot switch and the accelerator with the same foot to start while giving the engine a little gas. And some of those cars and trucks had throttles and choke knobs mounted on the dashboard. How many of us would know what to do with them?
We don’t realize how fleeting even common actions are until we haven’t used them for a generation.
While most of us recognize cook stoves, Model T’s, and possibly even a gasoline engine-powered Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine for what they are, figuring out how to use them is, as folks say down in Texas, a whole ‘nother thing.