Time Piece: Answering the Call

BOSTON (06/15/2000) - True story: When dial telephones first replaced the crank variety in one Iowa town, the phone company set up two pay phones a block apart and taught the local farmers to use them by having them call each other.

Since Alexander Graham Bell, then a 29-year-old professor of elocution working out of a Boston machine shop, patented his fledgling device in 1876, telephones have gone from being an object of ridicule to one of mystery to one of ubiquity.

The telephone and its offspring have transformed commerce and industry, certainly, but more than that, they have transformed our social lives. With the advent of long-distance calling, faraway family members no longer seemed so far away. Party lines gave us a more intimate view of our neighbors than porch sitting ever could. The phone revolutionized adolescence, and the coveted Princess variety, released in all its pastel splendor in 1959, paved the way for the sleek cell phones and pagers that today hang from the waistbands of drooping cargo pants.

But while industrialized nations like ours take the phone for granted, much of the world has never been interrupted during dinner by its shrill ring. Tunisia, for example, averages fewer than six telephones for every 100 people; in Angola, there is just one for every 250.

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