From the Stone Age to the Phone Age

You have, no doubt, heard of the many “ages” this old earth has gone through. There was the prehistoric Ice Age that lasted millions of years, then came the Stone Age, another prehistoric time that lasted roughly 3.4 million years, ending between 6000 and 2000 B.C. It was in that age that man learned to use stones for tools and communicated using smoke signals. Next, we see the Bronze Age, a time that ended between 1000 and 500 A.D., followed by the Iron Age, where we find ourselves now.

Those are the official “ages,” but I want to propose some unofficial ages I have seen us go through just in my lifetime, the last 98 years. I see them as times when emerging technology has helped mankind entertain itself and better communicate. Let me explain …

First, there was the “Phonograph Age.” In the early 1920s, I remember seeing my parents play their Victrola for hours at a time. It was a nice piece of furniture, a spring-driven, hand-cranked, wind-up record player that played 78 rpm records. We listened to one record at a time, changed records by hand for the next song, rewinding when the music started slowing down. As a child, I once accidently wound it too tightly and broke the spring. My parents never got it repaired, but I continued to play it by turning the record by hand. I could make the music go faster or slower, making it sound “funny.” 

Next, the “Radio Age.” In the mid 1920s, we got a battery-operated radio. To hear it, we had to wear headphones. I remember sitting in a circle, warming ourselves by the fire, listening to whatever program radio station WFAA in Dallas had to offer. A few years later, one of my teenage friends taught me how to make a crystal set radio. It had no electric power, but was powered by a small piece of crystal about the size of a grape. It was connected to an antenna and a ground wire, and, like the battery-powered radio, used headphones. That was my personal radio.

Later, in 1933, we got our first loud speaker radio, a little table model Crosley. That opened a whole new source of home entertainment. No longer tied to headphones, we could recline or sit around and listen to good programs like “The Dick Tracy Show,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Stella Dallas,” “As The World Turns,” “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Shadow.” For some reason, we usually stared at the radio as we listened.

People wanted radios in their cars, so, Chevrolet, in the 1920s, put radios in a few of their cars, but the sets were big, bulky and expensive. It was the 1960s before the majority of new cars came with radios.

Do you remember Citizen Band (CB) radios? There was a short-lived fad when we had CB radios in our cars. We called our buddies in other cars saying, “Breaker one-nine” and proceeded to tell them the location of highway patrol, (“Smokies”) or whatever came to mind, just to be talking.

Then there as the “Phone Age,” one which lingers with us stronger than ever today. Long before my parents got a telephone, sometime in the early 1930s, three of us neighborhood boys rigged up our own “phone system” by stringing a wire between our houses. We put on our headphones, connected them to a ground wire and to the wire strung between our houses, and, with no power, had a phone system that we could talk from my house to three houses a distance of two city blocks away. We called each other by knocking the headphones together, making a slight clicking sound. By the way, we discovered one night, that under the right atmospheric conditions, our phone system could sometimes pick up a radio station. Such were the magic workings of Mother Nature and teenage boys. 

The first real telephone we had was in 1951. It was a wall-mounted, hand-cranked, party line model. To get your number, you turned the crank and got a live operator who said, “Number, please.” In a small town like Frisco, if your party did not answer, the operator sometimes offered to help locate the person, saying, “I think he or she might be at the drug store or the lumber yard.” Small town folks were very helpful like that.

Rotary dial telephones arrived in the late 1950s, and even the schools took the time to teach how to use them. My son, Don, remembers when he was in the eighth grade being called to the front of the class to demonstrate the correct dialing procedure. He was embarrassed when corrected for dialing before picking up the receiver.  

Many of you have lived through the remaining days of the “Phone Age,” watching us go to the push button dial and to today’s constant companion, the cellphone. It seems everyone from kindergarten and older has one, and, when not otherwise occupied, is using it. Walk into any waiting room and you will find most everyone with their heads bowed as if in prayer, but on closer inspection, you will see they are looking at their phones or iPads. Admittedly, phones are a source of so much more than mere conversation. Google can, in a minute, tell us more than we could learn from a set of encyclopedias, and Waze can guide us to our destination faster than any road map. 

But, let’s back up to another important age, the “Television Age,” which has arguably been the primary source of our home entertainment since it came into being in the 1950s.

My first television was a little 17-inch RCA table model. Long before color television, the picture was black and white. I bought it in 1953 while living in East Texas, about half way between Dallas and Shreveport, the only two cities that had television stations and were within my reception distance. So, in order to receive the signal, I had to have a 50-foot antenna, which could be rotated toward the city with the station I wanted to watch. The television set and antenna cost more than $400, a hefty price for that day.

We were the first in our neighborhood to have a television, so we were instantly very popular. Neighbors came uninvited most every night and filled our living room to watch whatever was on the little screen. The reception was usually very poor and snowy, but we all watched anyway. When warm weather came, I turned the television to face the window, and visitors brought their lawn chairs and watched from the yard. Such were the early days of television.

Those are the highlights of the “ages” I have lived through, but I must say I have seen many other important events and advances during my almost 100 years. I have seen us go from the horse and buggy days to electric and self-driving automobiles … from dirt roads to paved six-lane highways … to luxurious air-conditioned homes, fine shopping malls, great athletic facilities … and the list goes on.

Now that we have all the comforts and necessities of life, you youngsters have little to worry about, except remembering all your passwords and keeping your electronic devices charged and working properly. Us old-timers are left to worry about such things as the weather, politics, our cholesterol levels and keeping track of doctor’s appointments. But, such is life, so let’s do our best to help each other enjoy it!