Driving into Tulsa recently, I got to noticing how many people had a cell phone stuck in their ear. It seemed like at least 50%, maybe more. I had a flashback to my days with Ma Bell when cell phones didn’t exist although car telephones were a big part of my job. To say they were crude compared to today’s technology is an understatement. The transmitter/receiver was huge, heavy, and had to go in the truck of the vehicle. A thick cable went under the back seat and carpet, came out under the dash, and connected to a control unit, complete with handset and multiple buttons for different channels. To add insult to injury, we had to drill a ¾ inch hole in the rear fender to mount the antenna. Car owners cringed as we bored through the expensive metals of Cadillac’s and Lincoln Continentals. On one occasion, I took particular delight in lowering a drill bit into a new Rolls Royce.
Our system started off with only two frequencies (channels) which meant that out of all our mobile customers, only two could talk at one time. It worked because few could afford the ridiculous cost, almost $70 per month. But the popularity grew as folks discovered the tremendous convenience of not having to locate a phone booth to call back to the office and conduct their business. Contractors found them indispensible. Others had them for show and to impress the women. Eventually more channels were added for a total of seven. When the handset was lifted from the cradle, you got either a green light and a dial tone or a red busy light meaning all seven channels were in use. When we reached over 200 users, the busy light got a regular cussing.
Rumor had it that a new and wonderful technology called cellular service was on the horizon. But at the projected cost of one million bucks per cell, Southwestern Bell dismissed it as a passing fancy and not worth the investment.
A comment often heard at the time was “Ma Bell makes money in spite of what they do.” It was true. Deep pockets and a monopoly covered a lot of mistakes.
I still worry about my pension.