How were people billed for telephone usage before computers?

Discussion in 'Community Discussion' started by senseless, Aug 11, 2014.

  1. senseless macrumors 68000

    senseless

    Joined:
    Apr 23, 2008
    Location:
    Pennsylvania, USA
    #1
    In the early 1900s, people would pick up their telephone and an operator would place the call. But how did Bell Telephone keep track of the billing? There weren't computers or sophisticated enough calculators to manage billions of calls and the charges.
     
  2. chabig macrumors 68040

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2002
    #2
    There weren't "billions of calls" in the early 1900s. One operator to one call...operator writes down time in ledger...customer billed.
     
  3. simsaladimbamba

    Joined:
    Nov 28, 2010
    Location:
    located
    #3
    In 1902 the Bell company had around 3 billion calls logged over 1.3 million phones (including non-Bell phones) in just the US.

    As far as I know, one had a leasing service before one called via switchboard.
    One had one telephone per line, thus if you wanted to call your parents and your job, you had to have two phones and you would have to pay a lease for two phones.
    But I cannot find any data how billing worked when switchboards came into use. Maybe those calls were logged, but even with 3 billion calls in 1902 you would have more than 8 million calls per day and 342.000 per hour, which would require a lot of manpower to enable personal logging via the switchboard.
     
  4. chabig macrumors 68040

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2002
    #4
    But only the long distance calls would have had to be logged, right? That must have been a small minority.
     
  5. senseless thread starter macrumors 68000

    senseless

    Joined:
    Apr 23, 2008
    Location:
    Pennsylvania, USA
    #5
    Oh, that might be the answer. Maybe.
     
  6. localoid macrumors 68020

    localoid

    Joined:
    Feb 20, 2007
    Location:
    America's Third World
    #6
    Leasing phones in pairs, etc. would have been in the very early years -- ~1870s through the time when switchboards came into use beginning in the 1880s.

    Every call that to be manually patched/connected in (and out) by a human operator, so there wouldn't have been any extra manpower needed to log the calls -- but, I'm pretty sure calls made within the local exchange area weren't billed by the minute, you just paid a monthly fee.

    To call outside the local exchange, you had to ring the local operator, then ask for a long distance operator to make the connection. You'd give the number to the long distance operator, then you'd be told to hang up the phone and wait for the operator to call you back once the long distance connection was established.

    My grandparents operated a business during the 1890-1930s, and my grandmother often remarked about how making long distance calls greatly simplified doing business. They made long distance calls on a routine basis, to place and check on orders, inquire about prices and availability, to make sales calls, or simply to talk to friends and relatives in other cities. Somewhere around here, I have some of their old phone bills, but I'd have to dig through "the archives" to find them. ;)
     
  7. Scepticalscribe, Aug 12, 2014
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2015

    Scepticalscribe Contributor

    Scepticalscribe

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2008
    Location:
    The Far Horizon
    #7
    Fascinating thread.

    My grandmother ran a post office in a rural area, which included telephone and telegraph services (and my aunt succeeded to the business retiring only a few years ago in her mid 80s, by which time, of course, everything had long been automated).

    As a house involved with the communications industry (and I still have cousins working in this field, as did my father and grandfather both), the house had a wireless, in the days when batteries were 'wet' batteries, (this was nearly a century ago, back in the 1930s) and many in the village would assemble to listen to the commentary from a sports event being broadcast live on the national state radio service;

    So, that house, an old building over 200 years old with incredibly thick walls, also stocked a wireless, and was equipped with telegraph, post office and phone exchange, while the office itself boasted a large, extremely solemn and accurate clock, with a second hand that gave an audible 'click' every time it crawled across the cream clock face……..I remember the old exchange as a very young child - some of these rural areas didn't get connected to the automatic system until the 1970s.

    However, I do recall stories of the the long working days, and having to connect long distance calls, (including on Christmas Day - many people wished to make calls to distant loved ones on Christmas Day), and of never being able to 'switch off', as emergency services might need to be called, or urgent calls might have needed to have been made, sometimes at short notice….

    As to how the calls were billed, I am not certain; however, the state phone company rented the lines and phones out, hence a flat rate applied. Indeed, when I was a child, local calls were also billed at a flat rate, irrespective of duration. Only long distance calls were billed by the minute.
     
  8. senseless thread starter macrumors 68000

    senseless

    Joined:
    Apr 23, 2008
    Location:
    Pennsylvania, USA
    #8
    At some point, phone calls were billed by the minute. Local may have been called "message units", out of town was a "toll call" and far away was "long distance".
     
  9. D.T. macrumors 604

    D.T.

    Joined:
    Sep 15, 2011
    Location:
    Vilano Beach, FL
  10. jeremy h macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jul 9, 2008
    Location:
    UK
    #10
    My grandfather's family also ran a post office in the early 1900's.

    Their telephone number was 3. You would ask the operator for ... 'village name' 3.

    Number 2 was reserved for the doctor and of course number 1 was claimed by the 'big house'.

    He used to deliver telegrams on a bike as a 'paper round' type job. In the first world war the sight of him on his bike was absolutely dreaded and people would collapse if they saw him coming.

    I have no idea how it was all charged for. You paid over the counter for a telegram.

    Telecoms have come a long way. Back in the 70's we used to have (for a while) a party line. We shared it with another house. You could pick up the handset and listen to their calls if you wanted to. (They could do the same to us.)
     
  11. Peace macrumors Core

    Peace

    Joined:
    Apr 1, 2005
    Location:
    Space--The ONLY Frontier
    #11
    That's funny.

    One of my very first jobs was as the hotel switchboard operator.

    A trunk was assigned to each room.

    If a room wanted to call locally we would route the call though an outside line trunk reserved for local calls. If they wanted to make a long distance call I would call the local operator and she would route me to a long distance operator and then plug the room into that trunk.

    The customer was charged X amount per minute while the hotel got a cut of the price.

    Good times..Good times..
     
  12. vrDrew macrumors 65816

    Joined:
    Jan 31, 2010
    Location:
    Midlife, Midwest
    #12
    For much of the early history of the telephone local calls were not billed individually.

    As a result long-distance calls, which up until 1951 HAD to placed through a long-distance operator, were priced very expensively - since they essentially subsidized the low-cost "flat-rate" local service.

    The US Government felt there were considerable social, political, and economic benefits in encouraging near-universal telephone service. And part of that was the availability of flat-rate local phone service.

    Since telephone companies did not bill for each local call, the record-keeping requirements were much lower. And I suspect that they did not keep track of each local call.
     
  13. senseless thread starter macrumors 68000

    senseless

    Joined:
    Apr 23, 2008
    Location:
    Pennsylvania, USA
    #13
  14. Apple fanboy macrumors Core

    Apple fanboy

    Joined:
    Feb 21, 2012
    Location:
    Behind the Lens, UK
    #14
    And the phones were rubbish. No music app or Angry Birds!:D
     
  15. senseless thread starter macrumors 68000

    senseless

    Joined:
    Apr 23, 2008
    Location:
    Pennsylvania, USA
    #15
    I think you have it here. Before the 1950s, medium and long distance minutes were probably manually timed and hand written on a paper bill. The local service was unaccounted for until the 1950s when computerized systems could automatically keep track of all the minutes used. What a logistical nightmare it must have been. There must have been a lot of employees just doing bookkeeping and making many mistakes. No wonder our progress accelerated so quickly after the computer was invented.
     
  16. snberk103 macrumors 603

    Joined:
    Oct 22, 2007
    Location:
    An Island in the Salish Sea
    #16
    In 1985 I was working at a new hotel in Windsor, Ontario. We had the (then) modern telephone system. However, I got a tour of our competing hotels. They were still using an old patch-cord switchboards. Pull the cord and plug it into the hole/trunk/room you wanted to connect a call to. They had the ability to do a couple of things we couldn't do though. With the turn of a switch they could 'break in' to a call… that is, the hotel operator could join the conversation with or without the outside party being put on hold. And - the operator could simply just listen in to any conversation they wanted.

    Of course, I had just come from a hotel where we were still using Telex's to communicate with the other hotels in the chain. Ding Ding… chatter chatter chatter….
     
  17. mwa Suspended

    mwa

    Joined:
    Jun 3, 2013
    Location:
    Memo: A Slower Seesaw!
    #17
    My parents still get a bill in the mail last I heard.
     
  18. Anonymous Freak macrumors 601

    Anonymous Freak

    Joined:
    Dec 12, 2002
    Location:
    Cascadia
    #18
    Of course, even before computers, there were ways to bill for things delivered "automatically," and measured "by the unit", such as electricity, water, gasoline... There were electrical and mechanical systems capable of measuring usage.

    And even if it was manually-measured, it's not as if all 3 billion calls for 1.3 million users were recorded by a single person. Each telephone company office would serve only a couple dozen to a couple hundred users at most - and each would be responsible for its own billing. It's not like the US Post Office would let people mail letters willy nilly, then try to bill every person in the US from a central system, tracking them after the fact. They use local offices. In the case of the postal system, it's prepaid; for telephones, it was post-paid, but in small enough numbers as to be easy to keep track of.

    All of New York City wouldn't have had one single office - it had many. Those are where "prefixes" came from. In the old song "Jenny", the phone number was 867-5309. That meant that within the area code (which is unspecified,) it was based in the central office that housed prefix 867. Back before computers, prefixes were normally only two characters, and were commonly said a word that began with those two letters. Jenny's phone number might have been TOwnsend 7-5309. The "TO" would be translated using the letters on the phone to "86". Before computers, there usually wasn't a third digit in the prefix, so it might have only been "TOwnsend 5309." That's only 10,000 numbers per office, maximum. And since not every number was assigned, and not everyone made calls every day, you're looking at a manageable workload for 2-10 operators (busier areas had more.)

    So even if it was manual, it wasn't outrageous to track, when you consider that the tracking was all at a local level.
     
  19. Southern Dad macrumors 65816

    Southern Dad

    Joined:
    May 23, 2010
    Location:
    Georgia
    #19
    One of my aunts was a switchboard operator for many years. After they connected a call, they recorded the time in a ledger with the number calling and number called. Then they recorded the time the call ended. There was a light that would be lit, as long as the call was connected.

    In the 80's there were still towns that had 5 digit dialing. I had a friend who lived in Toccoa, GA. Every telephone number there started with 886, if you were local you just dialed 6-XXXX and it went through but if you were in another town you had to dial the 886-XXXX and if you were out of the area code then you had to dial 404-886-XXXX. And yes the first two digits were the town. TOccoa 6-XXXX.
     
  20. rdowns macrumors Penryn

    rdowns

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2003
    #20


    My family's summer house in upstate NY had 5 digit dialing until the mid to late 70s. Coincided with the town becoming a commuting town instead of a summer home town.
     
  21. FieldingMellish Suspended

    Joined:
    Jun 20, 2010
    #21
    I visited a telephone museum in Maitland Florida that had equipment from 1910. There was a display series that took you through telephone's development in the ensuing years.
     
  22. Scepticalscribe Contributor

    Scepticalscribe

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2008
    Location:
    The Far Horizon
    #22
    Actually, I recall - as a child - our home phone number going from four digits to five, (very exciting) and then - when I was an undergrad, to six……..progress…...
     
  23. NewbieCanada macrumors 68030

    Joined:
    Oct 9, 2007
    #23
    Why didn't they just text each other instead? (Anyone under 20 upon hearing that)

    My father, on the other hand, can't get his head around the fact that local exchanges now haven have 1s and 0s in the middle position. My exchange is 900 and he's always referring to "calling you on your 900 number" and doesn't understand it's just an ordinary phone number
     
  24. Scepticalscribe Contributor

    Scepticalscribe

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2008
    Location:
    The Far Horizon
    #24
    Oh, yes.

    Remember the old rotary dials, anyone?

    Well, I must admit that I used to love them, (that satisfying slide all the way back to the digit zero after you dialled each umber) and would still rather like to be able to use one except for the inconvenient fact that many of these idiotic modern businesses require touch phone responses before you ever get to speak with a real, living, human voice…

    Then again, as a child, I remember watching - with rapt fascination - how my father - who was a telephone engineer - set about adapting an ancient phone (one of those old candle stick models) for a neighbour, (who himself was an engineer, and who was intrigued by this technology) so that he could use it on the automated state system....
     
  25. bunnspecial macrumors 603

    bunnspecial

    Joined:
    May 3, 2014
    Location:
    Kentucky
    #25
    Remember that the Bell System dumped huge amounts of their profits into Bell Labs for research, and a lot of modern technology came out of it. Everyone benefited from the results in the form of things such as the transistor.

    In any case, a long distance call would have been patched through the local exchange to a long distance trunk to reach the local exchange for the party you were trying to reach. Usually this would involve some combination of both human operator involvement and automated exchanges, at least up until probably the 1950s or 1960s when things became somewhat more automated. Once the connection was established, billing was pretty simple- the local operator would trip an accumulator that would record the total time of the call and then the customer could be billed for it. On something like a step-by-step exchange this was incredibly easy, as when the final switch would "step" to a long distance trunk it really just took an extra relay to flip on the accumulator(and flip it off when the connection was terminated). Tracing it back to the subscriber from which it had originated was not at all difficult either. Remember-again-that long distance call volume was not huge(and labor was cheap) so it was not a big deal to match the bill up with the customer. More complicated mechanical exchanges like crossbar(telephone company employess who I've talked with and worked with crossbar exchanges have told me that no one really completely understood how they worked :) ) had even better methods(beyond my comprehension) to keep track of this stuff. Ma Bell started computerizing a lot of this-including both exchanges and billing-in the mid to late 1960s(it's hard to build a mechanical DTMF switch-the only way to do it is to use a tone-to-pulse converter which is a poor solution) and long distance billing got a lot easier. As said, local calls weren't tracked.

    And, if you really want to get your grandparents/great grandparents excited, ask them about direct distance dialing :) . Before that came along, you would call an operator, request the long distance call, and then hang up. The operator would complete the connection, then call you back when the connection was complete.
     

Share This Page