Technical audacity and telephone directory
I often think that we – or maybe the people who control our money – lack the courage to take on really big projects. It is difficult to imagine laying the transatlantic cable for the first time today, for example. When I want a good example of this effect, I usually say something like, “Can you imagine going into a boardroom of a large corporation today and saying, ‘We plan to connect every home and business in the? world and connect them all ”. Yet that is what the telephone company did. But it turns out that getting copper wire all over the place was just a major challenge for the phone company. The other was printing phone books. In today’s world, it is easy to imagine a computer system that keeps track of all the phone numbers that may spit out a printed version for duplication. But this is a relatively recent innovation. How did major city directories work before the advent of the computer?
Turns out the Saturday Evening Post explained how it all worked an article from 1954. We are not sure that there were no computerized registers in 1954, but the whole process was still largely manual. That year, about 60,000,000 directories were released each year in the United States alone. Some of them were small, but the Chicago directory – not counting the suburban directories – was over 2,100 pages long. In New York, the solution was to print a separate book for each borough. Even then. the Manhattan book was three inches thick and is expected to grow to five inches by 1975.
It’s in the book
If you’re not old enough to remember phone books, they were printed in tiny, tiny print – usually in a font called Bell Gothic – and on very fine paper. So five inches of a pound is quite a number of names. We don’t know how they arrived at the figure, but the article claims the book is 91.91% accurate. It sounds like a terribly accurate number and it reminds us of the old adage: “88.72% of all statistics are made up on the spot.”
Only nine printing presses in the country were able to handle the printing and binding of thick directories. About thirty additional stores could handle the smaller ones. But we can only imagine the amount of work involved in assembling, updating and composing. The article also talks about something that would be easy today but was a massive undertaking in the pre-computer age: directory assistance.
Extract from the article:
Manhattan Island alone has five information exchanges; to each about 90,000 requests per day are received in automatic rotation by long rows of operators. The girls are seated in glass booths surrounded by district and suburban directories. Handy is the printed daily addendum of some 500 new numbers, which reaches information operators about 24 hours after the phones are put into service.
For some people it was how lucky they are to see their names printed.
Telephone books have been slowly dying out for a long time. It is not surprising that some Canadian students have difficulty using one.
It is difficult to think of such ambitious and daring projects today. Maybe that’s because, with computers and other modern technology, the whole business would be manageable. Of course, we are going back to the moon, but it has been done and with modern technology it is less daring than in 1969. We mobilized the COVID 19 vaccines in record time, but it was in response to a crisis.
Of course, we spend a lot of money on big projects. Expensive telescopes and supercolliders come to mind. Quantum computers are expensive, but it’s just not the same scale. Where are the projects that really innovate on a large scale? Maybe the hyperloop if we ever build one. It’s hard to define why, but telescopes, supercolliders, mainframes, and hyperloops don’t seem to have the great reach of the phone system, transatlantic cable, or delivering 60 million phone books a year. There are a few examples. The swarms of satellites to provide Internet access feel like a large-scale project. Spinning fiber wherever there are telephone lines isn’t very exotic, but it’s a lot to deal with.
What do you think? What is the most daring engineering project of our time? Which is the most daring that you would like to see? A space elevator? An underwater city? A flying airport? Let us know in the comments. Meanwhile, [Mike] thinks we shouldn’t even be using phone numbers anymore. When it comes to large projects, of course, they are expensive, but the payout can also be huge.