ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

That Really Cool Phone —

I was lucky enough to have three phone lines in the house when I lived with my dad in Chappaqua. One was the house phone, one was the BBS line, and one was a dial-back line for my father’s job, which I proceeded to use mercilessly until Dad almost got fired for my charges and I basically left the house forever. Wait, that’s not nostalgic at all. Let’s back up.

The phone line was the host to a ton of phone conferences. Basically, this involved fraudulently making calls to Alliance Teleconference, a company that had 0-700 numbers that you could call and start multi-party phone calls on. Since it was galactically expensive, you were either a major business, or a bunch of punks stealing the services. Let’s just say I was never in the first group.

A big forgotten secret to the success of online life was how much of it was offline. And what of it that was offline (meeting in person, hanging out at restaurants or someone’s house or going through trash bins looking for cool crap) was augmented by telephone calls. Telephone was great when you wanted to pass a lot of information around and talk about a lot of stuff to people, but you all weren’t nearby or didn’t have cars. As it was I didn’t learn to drive until I was 26 so I mostly stuck with the whole telephone conference arena, occasionally making use of the commuter rail to head down to White Plains or points North and South to hang out.

Since so much of stuff was centered around the phone, I really really liked screwing with the phone. I was so far from a electronics-aware kid that I couldn’t even give you directions to where the electronics were. Everything I got was kind of by osmosis or screwing with stuff until it either died or did what I wanted (sort of, with a lot of crackling). One of these was to hook up RCA cable to the monochrome output of my IBM PC so I could have a remote monitor near my bed and see what people were doing on the BBS. This is very geeky. But on top of that, I hooked a switch up next to my bed as well. This switch, created using a Radio Shack-purchased item driven into a 35mm photo container, was hooked directly to the phone line itself. In this way, I could see someone being an assnut on the BBS, press this switch, and POOF! Off they’d go, having “lost carrier”. Word of my BBS’s special feature spread among friends and became known as the L00ZER-B-G0NE button.

But the other thing I did was majorly screw with my telephone, back when screwing with telephones didn’t need an EEPROM burner and a web forum. Instead, I jerked around with clipping wires and attaching parts and eventually I had an RCA out on the phone itself. This meant I could hook it up to my stereo and blast out whatever I was dialed into. Cool stuff. And then, when I was on phone conferences, I could record them, simply pumping the RCA out into the tape deck and recording it on tape.

All well and good, but when I ran a phone conference, I went a little farther. I’d hook the phone up to the tape recorder, then dial myself into another phone in the house, and hook THAT phone up to the tape recorder. Each recorded phone would have a stereo channel in the recording. These recordings are somewhere in my collection and I will do my best to digitize them, but until then, I’ll just describe what was neat about this.

When you ran a conference, you could either be in the conference, or in an “operator mode” where when you pressed a button, you’d go off and get a dialtone and dial in a person, talk to that person, then press the button and you’d both arrive at the conference. (Nowadays, a machine/software program does this work for you, or a hired hand does the work.)

So imagine, if you will, this stereo conference going on. It sounds almost mono when everything’s connected. Then you hear a button press in one ear, and the conference goes on in the left channel, while the right channel has two people talking, as the operator dials up, chats with the newcomer, and then you both return. It’s surreal and lovely, one of those bits of fun I still like to think about, when I don’t want to think I wasted my teenage years.

That’s the kind of memories a kid has when his life was around technology: the cool hacks, the weird little things you do with what you have to make it cooler. This isn’t to say I don’t have plenty of memories of people, but there’s something special about these whacked little tools I made on my own to make whatever I was doing a little more fun, even if it was totally ungrounded and outside the building code.

There is a (slight) danger that the MAKE magazine fad that is sweeping through the online/tech/engineering world could lead to an impression that your projects have to ultimately do something. For my really cool phone I made, I must have killed five, their little husks buried about my bedroom like forgotten murder victims. Sometimes I tried to wire music directly into the phone, and this was spectacularly unsuccessful (and cost a few friends good hearing for the evening) until I got it (sort of) right. It doesn’t always work out, I wasn’t always the hero, and I still can’t tell you what’s what with electricity, no matter how many times I’ve looked at drawings with water and pipes and symbols for voltage and so on.

But that phone? That phone was cool.

Here’s hoping we never lose that urge to make something else cool too.

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  1. Dan Moniz says:

    I don’t get why you think _MAKE_ will make neophyte tinkerers turn towards, shall I say, professional (for want of a better word) projects. I think _MAKE_ is enormously successful in getting people to play with the stuff they have around, and many of the projects I’ve seen have no serious point or end, they’re just fun.

  2. Jason Scott says:

    MAKE’s an odd animal to me. I am delighted with how much they’ve done wonderfully and well, from design to PDF-issues to organizing events.. I’m just worried they’re going to turn on a dime into everything being political and having a “point”. Like I said, this is a very, very minor fear.

  3. Jim Leonard says:

    Stringing a composite cable to a remote monitor near your bed isn’t geeky, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever read!

    I swear, we lived parallel lives. I, too, hacked up electric things as best I could. Next time you’re over, make me drag out the AT&T PC 6300 with the extra drive bay — that I sawed into the case. And if I had my original AT&T PC 6300 (our first, which sadly has gone to that dumpster in the sky), I could show you the headphone jack I made using a jack, wire, and alligator clips (was afraid of soldering). I used this to hook my IBM PC to my boom box and compose music in Music Construction Set. It sounded a little bit more like actual music that way (and less like stunted robots in a murder-suicide pact).