Heart of Louisiana: The 140-year history of the telephone

Published: May. 13, 2015 at 12:10 AM CDT|Updated: May. 13, 2015 at 1:49 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - There once was a time when you might have to go to a place like the Tupper General Store in Jennings just to use a telephone. The phone was a luxury that many families couldn't get or couldn't afford.

"It would be a community phone that people would have to go to where the phone was located instead of the phone being where they were located," said Dextor Norris.

Before there was Facebook or Twitter, homes had a party line where up to eight families would share the same phone line.

"You picked up the receiver, you could hear their conversation, which was a big news-spreading operation," Norris said.

Norris has worked in the phone business for the past 45 years. He started as a lineman and eventually became a network manager. He and other members of the telephone pioneers have created this museum that shows the 140-year history of the telephone.

"I always enjoyed history, and I never thought that one day I may be telling history that I lived through," Norris said.

With the earliest phones, you had to rely on an operator sitting at a switchboard to connect you with someone else.

"It would light the light on the board and she would plug in the corresponding cord to whatever port or number that you are dialing, which would make the connection," Norris said.

Then came rotary dial phones.

"Kids today will ask, 'well how did you make a phone call on this?' Well you actually stuck your finger in the rotary dial and dialed the number," Norris said.

Dialing created a series of clicks that triggered a mechanical switcher at the company's central office. This 1915 map of Lafayette shows the wiring grid for every block in the city. The lines were strung on utility poles, and bad weather meant long hours for linemen.

"When everybody else is hunkered in, us and the other utility workers are out there trying to keep service going," Norris said.

Ever wonder what it's like beneath those manholes in the street? Here's an underground view of what's going on down below.

"Normally a manhole is not this clean or comfortable," Norris said. "They are full of water and mud and varmints and reptiles."

And when was the last time you saw one of these? The familiar pay phone is almost gone, just like the nickel phone call.

These tools come from a time when the phone company installed your home telephone. And if there was a problem, you called the repairman. Now, that really old technology can only be seen in a museum.

The children's telephone museum is located on Main Street in Jennings, inside the Tupper General Store museum.

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