Saturday, October 30, 2010

Life before Cell Phones

We are all familiar with BC and AD for designation of years. The invention of cell phone has affected the humanity in such a big way, in years to come the labeling of years will be redone as BC ‘Before Cell’ and AD will be replaced by AC – ‘After Cell ’. Human memory is short and I am certain that most of us have forgotten what life was like in the distant past when there were no cell phones and human beings had to use an ordinary telephone to communicate. Probably Alexander Graham Bell if he were alive today would have been the best person to answer it.

Mr. Graham Bell patented his unique invention of telephone machine with the appropriate authorities in the U.S., on 7 March 1876. Graham Bell, after three days of patenting his discovery, on 10 March, 1876, transmitted the first message ever sent by the telephone. It is recorded that Alexander Graham Bell's notebook entry of 10 March 1876 describes his successful experiment with the telephone. Speaking through the instrument to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, in the next room, Bell utters these famous first words, "Mr. Watson -- come here -- I want to see you". History also notes that, five years earlier in 1871 an Italian American named Antonio Meucci had applied for patenting his invention of telephone with the authorities. Unfortunately he could not find enough patronage or supporters for his unique invention, and as such, could not afford to pay the $250 required for getting the patent for the discovery. Be that as it may …. Invention of telephone impacted mankind like no other invention in the 19th century, it influenced every facet of life and the world changed permanently.

Bell uncle may have used the telephone in 1876 but I had to wait for another 80 long years. There were many reasons for this long delay. The main reason being I was born only in 1949 and had to wait another five years to visit my uncle who as the Divisional Commissioner of Mysore had a telephone. I still remember the telephone was kept on the left side as we entered the house and was an object of awe and mystery. We could only see it being operated by others and never got to use it. The instrument remained a stranger for many more years.

The only telephone we knew as youngsters was one made out of two empty 555 cigarette tins connected by a length of twine. I and my childhood friend Kanthu shared a private connection.

I do not remember what life was like without a telephone in the house or for that matter in shops or booths. How did we manage to spend an entire day without calling somebody? It must have been very weird and scary not receiving any call – not even a wrong number call.

I landed up in the Institute of Armament Technology (IAT) Khadakwasla - Pune in early December 1975 as a part my training to become a specialist Gunnery and Missile officer in the navy. All along from Kochi to Pune I had dreamt of going across to Mumbai to meet my fiancé. On reaching IAT, the first thing I learnt to my dismay was, that the next day was not a holiday and there was not going to be any meeting up with the fiancé. This was a very big disappointment for a 26 year old boy madly in love and who had not seen or talked to the apple of his eye for many moons. My course mates tried to pacify me but there was no way I could be consoled. I headed straight to the bar to drown my sorrows and Kats joined me with his western cowboy novel to keep me company. After a few Gin and Tonics down the hatch the picture became clearer and the way ahead seemed simple. I decided that enough was enough and booked a trunk call to my fiancé. Half an hour later I checked with the operator to be told that the line was down and it would take some more time. Notwithstanding a few more G and Ts, there was a steady note of disquiet and frustration building up – I raised the precedence of the call to urgent which yielded no result. Kats by now was equally involved in my struggle to get through the call and suggested I raise it to the ultimate ‘LIGHTNING’. Within a jiffy I got the call and spoke to Jai and was all smiles thereafter from ear to ear. The euphoria remained till next morning only to be shattered when the telephone bill was handed over – The lighting call had cost me Rs 1400 when my monthly pay was less than that figure. I was truly struck by a lightening. What all one has to do – when you are in love? Jai as a wife disagrees and entirely blames the G and T for the fiasco.

To make a telephone call in them days was a herculean task. Firstly you had to find a telephone and more importantly the person you wanted to contact also had an instrument. Having overcome the first obstacle, there was the question of having the right coin. People in India are very ingenious. A friend of mine made an important invention to beat even the best minds in AT&T. He used to stick a length of horse hair to the coin with a very light layer of glue and with this contraption he was able to insert the coin –dial - speak – withdraw – reuse – continue to use. I think the ‘Horse Hair Coin’ remained in active service all his bachelor days. The contraption had to be unceremoniously retired when he came to know his wife to be was a close relative of the Post Master General. Not to be left behind in the race for most important 20th century inventions, another friend of mine studying in Baku - Azerbaijan in the Institute of Petroleum and Chemistry discovered that the Indian 25P coin otherwise of no use to Indians or Russians, was capable of passing of as 1Rouble coin for weight and dimension. With this discovery he was able to talk his way through the entire Soviet Union. One day the mandarins in Kremlin realized that their coffers were full of Indian coins, which ultimately led to the fall of Soviet Union. Please don’t tell me we are not scientifically inclined.

Telephones those days were rare. They did not come naturally as tap and light fittings in the house. Having lots of money was not good enough, one needed to know at least an MP or a Minister to make the telephone talk. Then you waited for a long time – like people these days do for club membership – at times the waiting could bypass an entire generation. The problem of owing a telephone did not end there. The moment a telephone was allotted to you the entire colony in a radius of 2Km came to know about it which propelled you into instant stardom. Almost everyone claimed to be your friend or a distant relative. Your telephone number was immediately transmitted to their friends and relatives to be used only in an emergency. My father used to receive calls from strangers at all odd hours asking for someone or the other to be informed or to be brought to the telephone. Mr. Murthy habitual caller would ring up asking for Mr. Krishnaswamy from 28. My father by then was short of hearing due to constant imbibing of a BP medicine by the name of Emdopa. He would send our man Friday ‘young Rama” to fetch Mr. Rama Swamy from 32 instead. Mr. RS who was also of the same age and afflicted by similar acoustics problems would be facing Mr. M who by now who would have forgotten why he had called in the first instance.

When we were posted in Port Harcourt Nigeria we had to go to the local telephone office to make an ISD call. It would take ages to get Bangalore. Exasperated with the system I complained to an Indian Expat, who immediately offered a solution. Mr. Baweja said “Ring up Omashola Babatunde on 261832 and ask him to connect you to anywhere on earth and he will do it in a tick” I said “what about the money the receipt and all that” Mr. B said “you don’t worry – he will send it to you once a month and it will be half the government rate”. Initially I was hesitant and later on I realized it was the only way to communicate. Later on I was shocked to learn that this system prevailed in our own Rajdhani the land of all possibilities – New Delhi. This was much before the CWG.

When we came to Bangalore we were given an out of turn allotment of telephone as a retired government officer. The connection came with STD and we had to put a code for its usage. Next to the most well guarded secret in the world ‘Coca-Cola concentrate secret’ kept under lock in Atlanta USA, was our STD code. It had to be guarded day and night from being stolen by my adolescent son and daughter. Whilst in service I had free phone facility and the children had gotten used to it. It took a while for them to realize that poor daddy had to pay for all their calls.

Cross connections, wrong connections, multiple subscribers on the line, delays, abrupt cancellation, and background noise were very common. Telephones could land you up in peculiar situations. When posted in New Delhi I had a telephone which once belonged to Mr Arjun Singh the politician and minister. I used to get calls for favours, approvals and decisions.

Once my brother in law from Mumbai booked a call through the naval trunk lines to speak to his wife in Bangalore. I was posted in New Delhi and unknown to my relative by marriage had also come down to Bangalore. When the call came, I took the telephone and greeted him. Thinking I was in Delhi my BiL thought the call had been connected to Delhi and let the exchange staff have it. It took some time and effort to sort out this humor in uniform.

Some Gyan. The first telephone exchange in India was opened in Calcutta in Jan 1882, six years after its invention. Exchanges were also established in Bombay, Madras and Ahmedabad in the same year. Indian Telephone Industries Ltd (ITI) was the first public sector undertaking started in 1948 by Government of India after independence. The main objective of ITI was to design, manufacture & supply telecommunication equipment such as telephone instruments, electromechanical exchanges, transmission systems, electronic exchanges & ground stations for satellite communications.