ASCII by Jason Scott

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A Payphone Map, 25 years on —

I was recently sent mail about a payphone textfile that has found new life on Google Maps.

Here it is, along with some background history from the author, which I’ll reprint below:

“A collection of payphones in Santa Barbara that I compiled in 1982 when I was 14 years old. I still have the address book so I called all of them to verify which were still in use. I knew if I got a voice mail or a business or even more obviously a disconnect message then the payphone was no longer there. Out of an original list of 300 there are only 73 left which comes out to 24% which is still higher than I expected. I uploaded it as a textfile to my best friend’s BBS (the predecessor to the internet) in 1986 and he said it was his number one most downloaded file. So apparently there were other teenagers out there with a fascination with crank calling payphones. It’s somewhat normal for teenage boys to crank call but I didn’t want to disturb people in their homes so I was a considerate crank caller.”

I’m also including the map itself, although this might not work for everyone.


View Larger Map 

Some people might not be aware of this, but it’s the sunset of the payphone. AT&T is pulling them out of places by the truckload, giving up that maintenance and accounting nightmare in lieu of the cellphone and the internet connection. Phone phreaks are sad, and of course I have my own memories, but keeping vending machines around for sentimental reasons would be silly.

I’m assuming the list he refers to is this one, which is in a nice directory of similar compilations. These were handcrafted things, made by driving or walking around and noting what was where and what the numbers were and generally being a bird watcher type, selecting the world’s interesting points for later recounting.

In case anyone missed it, many payphones stopped accepting incoming calls years and years ago, because they were being used by drug dealers as points of contact and business. That action turned them from places of communication and community to the aforementioned vending machines, in my opinion; you could pay and call out but never get someone calling back, or able to find you there, or anything else. With that, the phone numbers themselves became less important, because nobody could call them.

We’d have killed for something as cool as the Google Maps interface to payphone lists like we have above. It puts it all in perspective, with locations shown, descriptions of the places, and easy directions. This was, in a rare exception, when you could have excursions related to telephone hackery, finding all the places payphones could be shoved and keeping track of what the numbers were.

The miraculous is becoming mundane, perhaps.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. Chris says:

    And I thought that I was the only kid that made lists of payphones! I had a pretty substantial list of payphones that were located in the vicinity of Pawtucket, Rhode Island back in the late 70’s. Sadly, this list, which took hundreds of kid-hours to research and compile, is long gone now.

    I remember that some of the phones were in booths, some were in open enclosures, some had dials, and others had those new-fangled touch-tone keypads. Some wouldn’t accept incoming calls, and others would. Some were the “old” type, painted green or black, with the dial at the top, and others were the “new” rectangular, chrome-plated style with the armored handset cable.

    It was a strange hobby for a kid, I suppose, but I wasn’t good enough to play any sports, and didn’t have many friends, so it helped pass the time. It really did have a lot in common with hunting and/or collecting, and it was always fun to add another previously “undiscovered” payphone to my list.

  2. The Public says:

    Hell, payphones were cool and all, but I craped my pants when yahoo maps first became available and I could plot where all the central offices were. Granted, it was one at a time, and I had to make a list of links, but it was the fastest way to plan the evening “activities.” You know, back before you could use AltaVista and quickly find all the things you could pull out of the trash.

  3. Sufferin Succatash! I am the author of that list. And I went around on my bicycle around Santa Barbara to compile that list. I had just moved there and I had no friends

    Payphones have an advantage that most people don’t think of: you can call FROM them if you want to be anonymous, such as calling someone who owes you money or calling an ex girlfriend who owes you an apology.

    Along with cell phones, EVERYONE has caller ID nowadays, which makes me wonder how collection agencies and telemarketers stay in business.