Originally posted June 13, 2014:
When discussing Telephones at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have to remember that some of my readers have a completely different perspective of telephones than me. My children grew up probably never seeing a real rotary dial phone except in movies or old TV shows. It might be a little hard for them to imagine a telephone being a possible murder weapon. Telephones have come a long way since I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s.
When you turned the dial on a Rotary phone you put your finger in the hole on the number you want to dial and then you swing it around until your finger bumps up against the metal bracket. When you pull your finger out of the hole, the phone sends a rapid succession of pulses to the telephone company telling them what number you just dialed. It was very… well…. tedious and manual…. and not even electronic. It was electric signals and switches. “Mechanical” is the word I think I’m trying to say.
Even the way you received a dial tone was by sending something called a “Ring-to-ground” signal to the telephone company. That would happen when you would lift the receiver off the hook. There are only two wires used to communicate in an old phone and only one of those had voltage on it. when you ground that wire (called the “Ring”) momentarily, the phone company would then send a dial tone to your phone.
You could actually do this on a dead phone line at times when the phone company had shut off your service. On an old pay phone, when the proper coin was inserted in the phone, the coin itself was used to ground the ring wire, thus telling the telephone company to send the dial tone, allowing you to use the phone. In 1983 there was a movie called “Wargames”.
I had learned about how these telephones worked from Bill Rivers just before going to watch this movie. During the movie Matthew Broderick’s character needed to make a phone call at a pay phone but didn’t have a coin. By taking the mouthpiece off of the transmitter, and using a metal pop top he found on the ground, he was able to ground the “ring” wire to the pay phone, and he received a dial tone. There was a good ol’ boy sitting behind me in the movie theater that said, “You can’t do that!” — Being the newly educated smart (-alec) guy I was, I turned around and said, “Yeah. You really can.”
Anyway. This isn’t a story so much about how old phones work. I just wanted to bring the younger readers back-to-date on phones since now they don’t really call them telephones anymore. It is more like, “Smart Phone” and “Cell Phone”, “Mobile Phone” or just “Phone”. The phone in the house isn’t even referred to as a telephone. We now call them “Home Phone” to distinguish them from the actual phones that we use.
Anyway, when I joined the electric shop in 1983, I learned about the phone system. We didn’t use the older Rotary Dial phones at the plant. We were one step up. We had “Touch Tone” Phones.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, we had our own telephone computer at the Power Plant. It was called a ROLM phone system. See the post “A Slap In the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant“.
To give you an idea of the technology used by this phone system, you connected to it using a “teletype” terminal that you connected to a telephone by clipping the receiver in a cradle. Then you dialed the phone computer. When you connected, it was at 300 Baud. Think of 300 bytes per second, only using audio…. like a fax machine. — It was like connecting using a modem. 300 baud meant that when it typed out the results on the paper that scrolled out the top, you could watch it as it slowly printed out each line. The maximum speed of the terminal was 300 baud.
In this picture you can see the cradle in the back where the phone receiver would fit in those two rubber cups.
After many years of going to the lab to connect to the telephone computer to make changes and to monitor the telephone traffic, in 1992 I decided to bring my 8088 computer to work and set it on the desk in the electric shop. We didn’t have our own computer yet. At that time the only people that had computers were office workers and the Shift Supervisor. We had started a computer club and having a computer in the shop was a big help. I had just replaced this computer at home with a 486.
I had a modem on my computer, so I tried connecting to the telephone computer, and it worked! So, sometimes during lunch when Charles Foster and I were sitting there talking about movies we had seen while eating vegetables from his garden, I would connect to the ROLM computer and just watch the call log. I could see whenever someone was dialing in and out of the plant.
We had a special call in number into the plant that allowed you to make “trunk” calls. This is another term you don’t hear much anymore. You see….. for the younger readers (again)…. long distant calls used to cost a lot of money. You would be charged by how many minutes you were on the call. During the day, it could be as high as $3.00 a minute to call across the country. Amazing huh? Because today, most of you with cell phones and even your land lines (which are rarely real land lines anymore) long distant phone calls are now free with your phone plan.
Yeah, if you wanted to call someone in the next town over, you would have to pay a fee for every minute you were on the call…. That was when AT&T had a monopoly on the phone lines in the United States. Sure, you only payed $7.00 each month for your phone, but you could only call people in your immediate area or you would be charged extra.
A Trunk line gave you access to a much wider area. The Electric company had a trunk line that gave them access to most of Oklahoma. You could dial into a local number that would connect you to the company phone system. Then after entering the correct password number, you could dial access numbers that would take you to another office location in the electric company. Once on that phone system, you could dial to get an outside line, and then dial a local number in that area.
Our plant had three access numbers that allowed you to dial out locally to Stillwater, Ponca City and Pawnee. This was useful when a foreman needed to call people out to work. They could dial into the plant, then back out to one of these other towns and then dial the local phone number of the crew member they were trying to reach without incurring a personal charge on their phone line.
So, here I was in 1992 during lunch watching the phone traffic in and out of the plant (not exactly NSA style, but sort of), when I saw something unexpected. A long string of numbers showed up. Someone had dialed in on the Stillwater trunk, then dialed out to the Corporate Headquarters trunk, then out to Oklahoma City and from there they placed a long distance call to a phone number in the same area code. The prefix on the phone number was familiar to me. It was a Ponca City phone number. I had lived in Ponca City for three years when I had just been married, from 1986 to 1989. I knew a Ponca City phone number when I saw one.
I thought this was odd, because it wouldn’t be normal for someone to dial from Stillwater through our plant to Oklahoma City only to call a Ponca City phone number when they could have dialed the local Ponca City access code. Then they wouldn’t have had to make a long distance call which bypassed our trunk call system causing the electric company to be billed for the long distance telephone call.
At the time I was a CompuServe user. This was when the World Wide Web was in it’s infancy. I was still using a DOS computer. When I connected to the Internet, it was either by using my dad’s Internet account from Oklahoma State University where I would use Telnet to access a bunch of mainframe computers all over the country, or I would use the DOS-based version of CompuServe. CompuServe was the king of Internet access before America Online came around and seemingly overnight made CompuServe obsolete.
In 1992, CompuServe had a service where you could look up phone numbers and find out whose number it was. Imagine that! Yeah. That was one of the neatest features on CompuServe! That and getting stock quotes. — Like I said…. There was no “www.whitepages.com” online. The only catch to using the reverse phone number feature, was that it was like making a long distance call. It cost money. You were charged by the minute for using the CompuServe reverse telephone number service, with the least amount being a dollar.
So, I bit the bullet and accessed the Phone Number lookup section of CompuServe. I quickly typed in the number. When the name and address of the user popped up, I quickly hit “Print Screen”, and then exited the service. My fee came to $1.00, but at least I knew what number had been dialed in Ponca City.
Charles, Scott Hubbard and I were a little excited by the time Terry Blevins walked into the electric shop office after lunch was over, I told him what I had seen.
When I told Terry the name of the person that had received the long distance call, he recognized the name right away. When I gave him the address, he was sure he knew who it was. The phone number belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School. His son was attending college in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Well, that sort of cinched it. We had a pretty good idea who had made the call. It was a college student calling home, who had been given the phone number most likely by a fellow student who knew the code to call home in Oklahoma City. So, the only local access code this guy knew was how to dial through our plant to Oklahoma City and back out where he was free (but it was not free for us) to make a long distance call home.
Armed with this knowledge, I headed up to the front office. I went straight to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. I told Ron what I had found. I explained in detail how the person had dialed from Stillwater into our plant and then to Oklahoma City and out and then placed a long distance call to Ponca City leaving us with the phone bill. Since it was the middle of the day, the cost of a long distance call was not cheap.
I told Ron that I had used CompuServe to lookup the phone number and that Terry had said that it belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School and that he had a son in college in Stillwater. I was all ready to pounce on this guy. This was a fraudulent use of the telephone service and there were some pretty strict laws then about stealing long distance from someone else.
Ron, being the more level-headed of the two of us thought about it for a minute and said, “What would be the best way to stop this from happening?” — Oh. Well. I was so intent on catching the culprit, I hadn’t thought about that angle…. “Well….” I said, “We could change the pass code used to log into our phone system. We would just have to tell our supervisors what the new number is.”
Ron asked me what it would take to do that. I told him I could do it in two minutes. We quickly settled on a new 4 digit pass code and I left his office and returned to the electric shop and made the change essentially turning the tables on the Telephone Interloper. I suppose the college student in Stillwater was lucky that our plant manager at the time was the type to forgive and forget.
Three years later the entire electric company phone system was replaced by a new AT&T computer which was managed by AT&T. As you can tell… Technology just keeps moving forward making seemingly really neat new inventions quickly obsolete.