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Dial ‘M’ for Museum

An installation at the Telephone Museum of New Mexico depicts a lineman at work on a telephone pole.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

An installation at the Telephone Museum of New Mexico depicts a lineman at work on a telephone pole. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Return with us to yesteryear when phones had handsets and dials and stayed put on tables in a den or living room, on nightstands in a bedroom or in nooks in the hall.

This was in the dark ages, back before cellphones were introduced in the early 1980s, or smartphones in the early ’90s, before phones had screens that could tell you how your baseball team did last night or who starred in the “Laramie” TV series.

bright spotThink back.

Remember pay phones, some of which were in phone booths? Sure you do. There are some still out there.

But how about wall phones with hand cranks? OK, maybe not. But you’ve seen them in movies.

And you can see them at the Telephone Museum of New Mexico at 110 Fourth NW in Downtown Albuquerque.

“This museum is a history of how the telephone actually developed,” said Tom Baker, museum president. “And we include the years from Alexander Graham Bell to 1984.”

Cool operator

The nonprofit museum opened on June 29, 1997, in a 1906 brick structure that served as Albuquerque’s AT&T building into the 1970s. Exhibits, spread over four floors, including the basement, range from the most primitive of telephone equipment to Mickey Mouse telephones.

“The switchboards are pretty popular,” said Baker, 86, a retired telephone company man. “There are a lot of ladies who come in here who were operators.”

Switchboard operators used electric cords to manually connect people placing a phone call with the person they were calling. Early automatic systems were developed late in the 19th century, but manually operated switchboards were used in some places into the second half of the 20th century.

The museum has two switchboards from Albuquerque’s grand old Alvarado Hotel, which was torn down in 1970. There’s a switchboard from Presbyterian Hospital that indicates connections for the maintenance department, the pharmacy and the operating room.

And, most famously, the museum has in its collection the switchboard, complete with bullet hole, used by operator Susan Parks of Columbus to call for help on March 9, 1916, when Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa and his men attacked Columbus. About 20 Americans – soldiers and civilians – were killed in that raid, but the audio presentation that is part of the exhibit credits the operator’s cool courage under fire with saving Columbus from annihilation.

Company veterans

Displays in the museum’s System Room, trace the development of telecommunications from Bell’s introduction of his telephone in 1876 up until 1984 and the federally mandated antitrust breakup of the old AT&T Corp. into seven Regional Bell Operating Companies. In between, exhibits detail the laying of a telegraph cable connecting the United States and Europe beneath the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the 19th century, the launching of the first Telstar communications satellite in 1962 and other significant events.

Baker is especially fond of the System Room, because he played a major role in building the displays.

“They kind of gave us a sketch and said, ‘Can you make it where people can enjoy it?’ ” Baker said. “I think we did a pretty good job.”

Like Baker, many of the other 28 or so volunteers who help run the Telephone Museum are telephone company veterans.

Baker started his telephone career when he was a senior in high school in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and went to work acquiring rights of way for the Meadville Telephone Co., an independent business.

“I was studying auto mechanics in a vocational high school, and my hands were always black with grease and oil,” he said. “I decided I did not want a life as an auto mechanic.”

Not that he didn’t do hard work in the telephone business. Baker toiled as a lineman, worked splicing cable on poles and underground, did some time troubleshooting problems and even, briefly, took on a role in management. Over the years, he moved from the Meadville Telephone Co. to the New York Telephone Co., south of Buffalo; to Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph; and to US West, the latter two in Albuquerque. He started at the museum a year or so after retiring from US West in 1997.

“Myself and a couple of other people built a lot of the museum, and I enjoyed that,” he said. “We didn’t know a lot about museums, but we learned along the way.”

Talking tin cans

The Learning Center is not part of the museum’s regular tour. It is reserved for the entertainment and enlightenment of groups of children from schools, clubs, Scouting organizations and so forth.

In this room are tin can phones, on which two people can communicate by talking or listening into tin cans connected by a taut string. Kids used to do this for fun, but there hasn’t been much point in it since cellphones came into widespread use.

And on the subject of mobile phones, children visiting the Learning Center can see and handle military field phones, among the first mobile phones, which were in popular use from the 1910s into the 1960s.

The highlight of the Learning Center, however, may be a working switchboard on which kids can put through calls from one internal phone to another. A notice on the wall behind that switchboard lists the 13 rules for proper switchboard operator behavior, including “sit up straight,” “no chewing gum,” “always be polite” and “the customer is always right.”

“These operators weren’t paid very much, but they had a lot of responsibility,” Baker said.

Calling Elvis

The exhibit most popular with kids is not in the Learning Center but in museum’s “Big Room,” a space that was filled with switchboards and operators back in the early history of the building.

A display there now features an Elvis phone, a Barbie phone and a Goofy phone, among others. By dialing a two-number code on a phone available for that purpose, kids can set Elvis to singing and hip-swiveling, and Barbie to doing the twist. Once the youngsters figure it out, that is.

“They live in a push-button world,” Baker said. “Some of them try to push the numbers instead of dialing them. But once you show them, they understand it.”

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