Phone history, full of steampunk designs and rotary dials

Crave's Nerdy New Mexico series geeks out in a building full of telephone bygones, wallowing in the beauty of rotary dial phones, giant switchboards, and a brick-size early mobile phone.

Magneto phone
This Magneto payphone would make a great steampunk prop. Amanda Kooser/CNET

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.--Standing in front of a row of rotary telephones, a volunteer at the Telephone Museum of New Mexico tells me most kids have no idea how to use them. Most have never even seen a rotary phone before.

I'm familiar with rotary phones from my childhood, but there are even older phones here I've only seen in old movies.

This museum is the place to go to see how we got to modern smartphones from Alexander Graham Bell's cone-shaped devices that carried the first sentence by telephone in 1876: "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." Bell's utterance to his assistant allegedly came as a result of spilling acid on his hand. All these years later, we still use our phones to summon help.

The Telephone Museum of New Mexico is one of those little specialty places that most people who live in Albuquerque have never heard about. It has four stories full of phones, switchboards, maintenance gear, and scale models of Telstar satellites. Be still, my geeky heart.

I love the steampunk aesthetic of the Magneto pay phones from the late 1800s, with their dark wood bodies, exposed bells, and old-school mouthpieces.

I see what may be one of the earliest examples of a hands-free headset. It's an earphone and chest transmitter worn by switchboard operators. Can I get one of these to use with my cell phone? That would be awesome.

As much as I love today's fancy, sleek smartphones, I'm also hopelessly nostalgic for the burnished wood and polished metal designs of early telephones.

I just want to sit at a switchboard and plug and unplug cables for hours, doing my best Lily Tomlin impression while a supervisor zips by on roller skates. Yes, roller skating was a desirable skill for switchboard supervisors at one time.

I'm not ready to surrender my cell phone for a wall phone from 1891, but there must be a way to bring the good looks of vintage phones together with modern technology. Hurry up and get on this, Etsy.

Bell System payphone light
This Bell System light is attached to an old phone booth in the museum lobby. Amanda Kooser/CNET

 

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