Miscellaneous History

Why is there no "Q" or "Z" on many telephones?

This fascinating story came from http://www.LearningKingdom.com, now out of business.

Some voice mail systems don't take into account that not every phone has a Q or Z . . .

The telephone's pad of twelve buttons reflects its history. There are three letters on most buttons, except for zero, one, octothorp (#) and the star symbol (*), which have no letters. "Q" and "Z" are usually missing from the list. Why?

Instead of twelve buttons, telephones used to have circular plates with ten holes numbered from zero to nine. To make phone numbers easier to remember, the phone companies assigned letters to the numbers, so people could remember mnemonics like "Charleston" for C-H instead of the first two digits of a number. Of the ten digits, zero was already used to dial the operator and one was used for internal phone company signals. That left eight numbers to which letters could be assigned. Three letters per number took care of 24 of the alphabet's 26 letters, and the least common letters "Q" and "Z" were left out, but not forever. Many telephones now show "Q" on the seven button, and "Z" on the nine button.

Wither the busy signal?

A comment from a reader: "The busy signal is going away . . ."

True; with voice mail and answering machines you don't get one. In 1995 The New Brunswick Telephone Company announced they would do away with busy signals for calls made within their territory. Instead of a busy signal callers got a recording which asked them to make one of three choices: send a message, for a price, hang up, or be notified when the line was available. Again, for a price. I wonder if anyone in that province misses the busy signal.

SBC/Pacific Bell offered this service in my area earlier this year, people hated it, I think because it was so aggressively pitched. Instead of getting a busy signal, a frustrating experience by itself, people got a come on, a promotion to buy something. If the Canadian telco didn't sell it too hard then perhaps people accepted it.

Since we haven't always had them so I shan't miss them when they go. They were an interlude only, although a longish one, good I should think for another decade or two. When calls were manually switched there was no need for a busy signal. An operator knew if a line was busy by looking at a lamp or a marker, what was called a drop, on a manual switch board. The operator then told the caller the line was busy.

When dialing became automatic network progress tones such as dial tone and busy signals were needed to tell the subscriber the status of a call. There is another busy signal, of course, that one being a "fast busy" signal, going at twice the rate of the normal tone. It indicates that telephone company circuits are too busy to handle a call. Not often heard on landline phones but quite common on cellular telephone networks.

Voice mail and answering machines and call waiting are, I suppose, just automatic operators, a step up above the obnoxious busy signal and of course quite a few steps below that of a real person to take a message. Although their people don't switch calls, perhaps answering services for doctors and lawyers are the last remnant of the always present, human attended exchange.

Did Alexander Graham Bell help dispel the ether theory?

Did Alexander Graham Bell help dispel the ether theory? And how much did it cost him? The answers are yes, and 200 bucks. The fascinating reading below is from Science in American Society: A Social History by George H. Daniels, 1971, Borzoi Books, Alfred Knoph:

"In 1881, a young American physicist then studying in Germany received a grant of $200 from Alexander Graham Bell to conduct an experiment on one of the most fascinating questions of nineteenth-century physics: the reality of the ether. The ether was a mysterious, jellylike, invisible entity which was thought to fill all of space; it was even present in solid matter. The vibrations set up in this ether made it possible to explain how the wavelike radiations of light could be carried through millions of miles without weakening or diluting their initial energy. Although the behavior of light seemed to demand some such medium, Albert A. Michelson doubted its existence, and he designed a relatively simple experiment which he thought might resolve the question unconditionally."

"With his $200 provided by Bell, Michelson had a machine of his own design, called the interferometer, constructed by a Berlin manufacturer, and he took it to the observatory at Potsdam for the crucial experiment. His conclusion, published in the August I88I issue of the American Journal of Science, was that 'the hypothesis of a stationary ether is erroneous.' Although Michelson later repeated the experiment, with more sophisticated apparatus, in collaboration with Edward Williams Morley it was the first experiment which, as Albert Einstein remarked, 'showed that a profound change of the basic concepts of physics was inevitable' and led eventually to Michelson's becoming the first American recipient of a Nobel prize."

Epilogue III: Graham versus Gray

I haven't given my opinion directly as to who was first at the patent office, Gray or Bell. I'm not sure I can do it now, at least, not without being long winded. But let me try, in long sentences.

Detractors claim that the 600 court cases which followed the most valuable patent ever issued settled nothing. They say there was never any evidence that Bell did not cheat Gray. They try to prove a negative. They can't find any evidence that he cheated but they find nothing that absolutely clears Bell. He must have cheated.

But in his entire life of being a man and a humanist, for all his later works of invention, and contributions to charity, the founding of the National Geographic Society, his continued work with the deaf, in his voluminous note taking of all things scientific, in all of this, in this incredible record, there is absolutely nothing in Bell's character that suggests he was a cheat. Nothing. Nothing!

It is tough in this age of cynicism to admit that both Bell and Watson were truly great, gentle, brilliant men. Who deserved every bit of fame and accolade that came to them. Bell surrounded himself with sharp Boston lawyers to protect himself. But the animosity people had against his legal staff should in no way detract against Bell himself. Bell was an honest, courageous soul who long suffered being called a cheat. It was completely undeserved.

What about 1984 to the present? Read an excellent summary of technology development since the mid-1980s by Terry Edwards. It is a free .pdf file from his book Gigahertz and Terahertz Technologies for Broadband Communications (28 pages, 360K in .pdf)

Epilogue II: A personal note on W.E.C.O.

Yesterday I brought home a battered and rotten wooden crate I found outside a second hand store. I say outside because it was in such bad shape that not even the thrift store thought it saleable, they discarded it instead. Hardly fit as even a garden planter, I brought this oily and broken box home because of two words stenciled in three inch letters on the lengthwise sides: Western Electric. Gone are the rope handles and original hinges, and although the clasp appears genuine, it has been torn off once or twice and mounted in a new location each time. The stylized Bell System logo accompanies the lettering. There is an address on it. In handwriting that could only be penned by someone now in their 70s, the labeling reads, WECO, 1610 N. Broadway, Stockton, California. B/C 45738. I'm not sure if I will restore the box, put plants in it, or put the boards with the wording into a frame. It seems so sad and I keep thinking of the Ralph Myers' quote I used above. . .