“Was The Wheel Invented When You Were Born?”

phoneHave you ever tried to explain something to someone that you felt was pretty self evident but it just wasn’t getting across? Where you were positive you were explaining it clearly, but they clearly weren’t getting it?  No?  Try describing a rotary dial phone to two girls under the age of nine.

It started with a question that really threw me off balance:

“Daddy, was there television when you were little?”

I regarded them sourly.  They had to be kidding.  I mean I know I’m old enough to be their father (ok, I AM their father) but still.  Television?

“Yes, of course there was,” I answered not a little defensively.  But then I started thinking.  Was it really the same?  Their childhood experience of television is a flat screen on a wall, a billion channels in full color (some in hi definition) and you change the channel by pushing a button on the remote in your hand.  About as similar to our Admiral black and white set (biiiig box on a rolling table, seven channels, horrible reception that only improved when one of us stood next to it and held the antenna, needed to be unplugged to be turned off, and required a visit to the set to change the channel) as a cheetah is to a housecat…same species, sure, but hardly the same thing.

So I started to tell them about the Admiral.  They were fascinated.  “Wow, only seven channels???  How did you find anything good to watch?”  “You got UP to change channels?  What was wrong with the remote?”  And so on.

Then I decided to get adventurous.

“And you know, the phone was different too.  You couldn’t walk around with it like you can now because it had to stay plugged into the wall all the time and you had to do the numbers using a rotary dial.”

“What’s a ‘rotary dial’?”

“Well, it’s … well you put your finger in … each number had a hole in this plastic spinning wheel and…”

I was completely stumped.  How to explain this?  They looked at me.  Not a glimmer of comprehension.

“Ok, well you had this wheel made out of plastic, and there were ten holes in the wheel and each hole was a number for you to dial.  You would stick your finger in the hole for the number and spin it.  Then it spun back and you’d move on to the next number.”

“Why?”

Why?  Why?  Because that’s what you did and that’s how it worked, that’s why.

“Ummm.  I think it had something to do with the clicking sound the rotating dial made.  It clicked as many times as the number you chose, and that told the phone line which house to connect to.”

Stephen Hawking had explained black holes to millions of people more simply and clearly than this.

“That’s so cool!” said Anna.

Hardly.  The phone number on which my friends used to call me was: 988-7000.  It took 45 minutes for the damn dial to go back and forth on that monster.  The number of phone calls coming my way that gave up hope and decided to call someone else after misdialing the second “0” had to have been staggering.  I know I would have been more popular in high school with a number like 312-1121.

We spent a few more minutes discussing the idiosyncrasies of this particular device.  I even showed them my grandmother’s Tiffany dialer (she and I share the same initials, so it came to me after she died) explaining that ladies used these instruments to dial numbers without breaking fingernails.  They were enjoying it.  But…I definitely sensed an aura of smug indulgence emanating from them as they listened to the old man talk.

So I decided to go on the offensive.

“You know, IM’ing wasn’t invented until after either of you were born.”

Shock.  Gasp.  Touché.

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13 Responses to “Was The Wheel Invented When You Were Born?”

  1. Debbie Stier says:

    Everyone once in a while I tell the asssistants at work the “when I was an assistant” story —

    …………” there were no computers” (well, there were…..but not in the book publishing world I was in)…..”and it would take me 3 weeks to write a multiple submission letter” (I worked for an agent then….who seemed very very old at the time…..but I believe she’s still an agent to this day); and when we did “mailings” in publicity (my second job), we had to type every label for every mailing.

    And when we finally did get computers, there was ONE “dos” PC for the entire department of 20 publicists to write their press releases on (this was Random House circa 1990), and we’d have a sign up sheet and you’d get one hour in the middle of the publicity floor before it was the next girl’s turn (there were NO boys in the dept.).

    Finally we got computers of our own. It was maybe 1991? I was at Warner Books. We were the first major publishing house to get them, to my knowledge. Larry was ahead of the curve. But no email yet. Can’t remember when email happened. Maybe 1992? When it did, the earth moved.

    So tell your kids there are other dinosaurs out there who grew up on stone tablets and rotary phones — and learned math on an abacus….and believe it or not, some people still find us relevant and cool (though it may only be each other).

  2. elizabeth! says:

    I didn’t know about the Tiffany dialers… cool!

  3. Michel Danon says:

    what’s IM’ing?

    “You know, IM’ing wasn’t invented until after either of you were born”

    signed
    another old man

  4. Daniel Danon says:

    ohhhh Daddy!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Matthew Martin says:

    Wow, Debbie, you really are old, or maybe I was just at more technically advanced publishers in the early part of my career. When I was at Putnam in the late 80’s, we also had just one computer that the entire department used. I typed memos on an IBM Selectric with an eraser tab. When I moved to Harper & Row (have you heard of Harper & Row?) in 1989, everyone had their own computer. I guess Random House really was in the dark ages . . . at least then.

  6. Jodie Burke says:

    I remember beeeeegging my bosses at Knopf in the early 90s (okay, it was 1989) to get a computer, and they never even glanced up from their MANUAL TYPEWRITERS, as they said, “Whatever would we need one of those for?”

  7. Debbie Stier says:

    When I told my boss at the time (a very prominent book agent) …..1989 maybe? (certainly NOT the dark ages) that I could bring in my own computer (an early Mac) so that it wouldn’t take me 3 weeks to type ONE submission letter over and over — she snarled at me……. “you didn’t tell me you needed special machines to work here.”

    I swear. True story.

  8. Ann Kingman says:

    Oh good, a “let’s make publishing people feel old” thread!

    First of all, David, you’re a kid compared to me, I guess! We only had *3* channels, and to call other people in town, we only had to dial the last 4 digits. (OK, you were in the big city, that’s why, right?).

    Re: publishing. My first publishing job (Dell, 1986) I was hired because I knew how to use a word processor. That summer internship at IBM worked out well for me, I guess. Instead of the standard issue IBM Selectric, I talked my boss into getting me a machine that was just a dedicated word processor. There was a computer in the department, but it was for ‘special” projects.

    When I was the assistant for the VP of sales at Bantam, I had a computer with a printer that was the size of a refrigerator. And I remember getting a disk in the mail that was part of an advertising package from a company called “Prodigy” that was somehow hooked up with Sears. They wanted to have shopping on the computer, and wanted Bantam to partner with them.

    As a sales rep, we got our first laptops in 1988 or 1989. 2400 baud modem. I remember asking the IT person how big the hard drive was. “30 megabites,” she said. “More than you’ll ever use in a lifetime.”

  9. Jennifer (sister) Naggar says:

    Actually, David’s not telling it as bad as it truly was. We started out with 7 channels but, as the set gradually got older and had to constantly be fixed by our father (bulbs, wires, tubes all over our living room carpet), it kept on losing channels until we were only left with one – PBS. To this day we are suspicious if this was not pre-meditated sabotage to deprive us of the junk we loved to watch…

  10. David says:

    I never thought of that. YOU’RE RIGHT!!! AAaaaaaaaargh! Y’see? Even when you’re an adult and a parent blogging about parenting, you’re still able to uncover the twisted secrets of your parents’ parenting methods.

  11. Michel Danon says:

    hey guys, relax

    My parents only got a TV in when I was eleven when it was time to send me to boarding school, it was black and white, and only one channel running from 7pm to midnight….

    You want to talk about computers! card punchers? 300 baud modems ?

  12. peter says:

    Dude, might want to double check the IM/age of your kids chronology, lest you dig yourself further into a hole…

  13. Uncle says:

    Actually Sister and Brother there was a remote it was this big boxy thing and one would click it to advance the channel and watch as the dial turned on the TV. That was all well and good until that mechanism went bad and the dial began to turn on it’s own. I suppose our Father could have fixed it so the remote would have worked again but nooo he chose to take that option away, so we went backwards in technology and had to get up to change the channel. Our only hope was the thing was so old it would just die… no luck there “planned obsolescence” was not a term used by manufacturers in ’02 (1902) when this monster was built and on top of everything else as previously reported we had an electrical engineer for a Father who took the time each year to clean and replace tubes with great care providing us kids with this most cruel of torture a black and white TV that would not die.

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