PHILADELPHIA FIFTY YEARS AGO

By John "Ace" Holman Jr. PA
1 Beth Circle
Malvern, PA 19355

This picture has been hanging on my wall for a good many years - so long,
in fact, that it seemed to recede into the wallpaper at times. I took
renewed notice recently, on realizing that 50 years have gone by since it
was taken.
Despite the rather unexceptional view presented, it was indeed an epic
moment in Morse telegraphy and a significant event in telephone history. It
would be a shame to permit this half-century mark to slip past unnoticed
and unsung, even though we might have to turn and wave good-bye as it
disappears into the gloaming behind us.

The photo was taken the evening of August 21, 1943 in the AT&T Long Lines
Department's Philadelphia No. 2 office, on the first floor of the Bell of
Pennsylvania building at 9th and Race streets. This building was also home
to the Lombard-Market-Walnut exchanges. Chinatown to the west; flop houses
to the east. Diagonally across the intersection, Neff's pharmacy advertised
live leeches for sale. An interesting neighborhood.

Seated at the table facing the camera are Joe Martinelli in the far corner,
seemingly dozing but really in deep contemplation; to his left Cecil Doyle
has his gaze fixed on some far horizon. The young fellow opposite Doyle who
looks like his spring is all wound up, ready to propel him across the room,
is me.
The others at the table and nearby testboard are transmission men whose
names I've forgotten. The nearer of them might be Ralph or Dick Gross. Both
Joe and Cecil were members of MTC Brotherly Love chapter in later years but
have been gone from us for quite some time. Doyle was a particularly good
friend to me and it's hard to imagine that when this photo was taken, I
thought of him as one of the "older" guys. Maybe being 17 at the time
accounts for that.

Dawn of an Era

The occasion that brought us together that evening and into the wee hours
of the 22nd was the cutover of all the Long Distance toll circuits between
Philadelphia and points in the northeastern part of the country from the
manual switchboards at the Long Lines office in the Bourse Building, a few
blocks away, to terminations on the world's first four-wire crossbar toll
switching machine at 9th and Race. This switch, designated a No. 4 machine,
was a marvel of electro-mechanical technology in its time. It was, in fact,
a highly specialized computer using relay logic, although we didn't think
of it in those terms back them.

This cutover, limited to the northeast as it was, nonetheless was the
inaugural step in a program that led to nationwide operator toll dialing by
the end of the '40s. During the following decade, the conversion to direct
long distance dialing by the subscriber, taken so much for granted today,
was fully implemented.

When the dust had settled by the opening of business on the morning of the
22nd, the change was a subtle one, not all that apparent to the average
long distance caller. To the more observant, it might have seemed that
calls to points involved in the previous night's activities went through a
bit faster.
Prior to this, the LD operator would pick a direct circuit to the called
city and ring on it to reach an inward operator, to whom she would pass the
desired number. Inward would in turn give this information to the local,
who would complete the connection. Now, it was merely necessary to pick one
of a large number of identical trunks into the machine and key in the area
code and number. This was multi-frequency pulse dialing, forerunner of
modern touchtone dialing. The call would automatically routed to
completion, in most cases without any further operator intervention.

Viva Morse

Little known outside the relative handful of participants was that the
cutover of these Long Lines toll circuits was coordinated entirely by Morse
telegraph. The sets on the table were cut in on wires extending to the
Bourse and all the other Toll Centers and administrative offices involved.

You might ask, "Why Morse?" After all, this was strictly a telephone
undertaking. Well, in those earlier days, before the advent of
high-capacity carrier systems, toll voice circuits were a cherished
commodity. The trunks making up the intercity toll groups were counted in
dozens rather than hundreds or thousands as they are now. It was with great
reluctance that any were removed from revenue service.

On the other hand, there wasn't an inch of intertoll wire or cable in the
Bell System that didn't carry telegraph in some form, right along with the
voice traffic, and without any mutual interference. Although there were a
few voice-frequency telegraph carrier systems in service, telegraph on
simplex and composite-derived facilities provided for the bulk of the
leased-wire business, as well as much of the company's internal
communications.
There were plenty of operators, from first class men who could hold down
any job in the business, to order-wire hams. New hires in the Plant
Department were all given a thorough course of instruction in Morse
operation. With some, it took; with others, no.

That's my bag

My role in all this excitement was a humble one at best. As the cutover
progressed, it was my job to change transmission levels on all circuits of
a group when it was released and ready to throw. That entailed scurrying
around the office, pulling out small six-pronged plugs that resembled
vacuum tube bases (1C pads) and substituting others with different values.
That's what was in the paper sack on the table - pads for the next step,
not someone's lunch.

When I had finished, I'd report it to Cecil or Joe who would put it on the
wire. No, they wouldn't let me near those sets. "Too important," they would
say, and it certainly was. Perhaps the only claim to fame I might have in
this entire episode was to have cut the first Morse wire into the Philly 2
office.

In the spring of '42, a few months after being hired, I was working as an
equipment attendant for a supervisor by the name of Bill Heneke, who was
responsible for maintenance of the toll terminal equipment at the Bourse.
That was everything between the primary testboards (cable and wire
terminations) and the secondary boards (switchboard terminations).
Repeaters, coils, composite sets, ringers - the works.

Phila 2 was embryonic at that stage, under Bill's wing. He had two
equipment attendants up there. Also, there was a transmission man who
reported to one of the supervisors under the Chief Testboard Man.

Who? Me?

One morning I was at Heneke's desk, awaiting his pleasure, while he was
gabbing on the phone. Now, Bill was a prince, like most of the men I worked
with and for. And he knew how to deal with smart-alecky kids too big for
their britches. Looking me right in the eye, he said, "Oh, and I'm sending
this guy up to you. Maybe you can get some work out of him."

So the next morning I wended my way past the hock shops, gypsy store fronts
and tattoo parlors to 9th and Race and went to work.
It was just plain fun. I had no earthly idea what all the activity was
about. When I first went up there, the Long Lines quarters were pretty
empty - you could have put in a 20-lane bowling alley without getting in
the way of anything.

We were making acceptance tests of equipment turned over to us by the small
group of Western Electric installers as they completed their job. This
involved a visual and physical inspection of every connection and
component, as well as a complete operational test of every function. I took
these to be normal procedures, followed for jobs of this kind. What did I
know? In retrospect I realized it was a no-slack job - nothing was left to
chance.

Bedlam

At first, things were pretty calm, the pace leisurely enough to leave
plenty of time for kidding around. All of a sudden, it seemed, the rest of
the Western Electric Company came pouring through the door. It was bedlam:
Equipment bays, cable racks, fuse boards going up; cable being pulled in
every direction. Mercy! Try rolling a bowling ball now! It would come
bouncing back at you.

Somewhere in all this chaos they dragged in a little Morse board, a
cut-down version of a No. 5 or No. 9 TLT board. Since I was such a red-hot
Morse guy, this board fell to me, more by default than any other reason -
the story of the one-eyed man, as it were.

The first Morse wire extended into the board was a loop of 013, the Eastern
Area telephone transmission order wire. It was my lot to cut it in and test
it with "F," Phila. Telegraph. We subsequently wired it into the first
group- of 17C testboards as they were turned over to us. That's where those
peculiar upside-down keys, so sought after by collectors, came from.

As time went by, more and more people came up to help out. Eventually,
later in the year, Philly 2 was assigned its own full-time supervisor and
reports clerk, well on the way to becoming an office in its own right.

I wound up back at the Bourse working our "A" tour, midnight to 8 a.m.,
occupied with more mundane tasks. There were a lot of bread-and-butter
chores to be attended to, of course, but much of it was directly related to
the activity up in Chinatown. I remember spending endless hours tuning the
oscillators that fed the operator's keysets, beating them against a
laboratory-grade instrument. We had to be within one cycle per several
minutes.

Something to remember

When it came time for the cutover, I was sent back to P2 for the occasion.
It wasn't too long after that I went into the Army, and it all managed to
get along without my help. It sure was a lot to cram into a couple of
years. It may seem primitive today but it was the "cutting edge" then -
pushing the envelope, as they say - and even as a spear-carrier in the
chorus, I'm glad I was there and a part of it.

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