At one time, a rotary-dial telephone was the latest communication technology.
In the early days of the 20th century, neighbours called on their friends and relatives by stopping by their home to visit. The Dickies from Gunton: Canadian Brothers in Two World Wars connected with others in-person. The telephone was a new technology and they could not even begin to imagine how people would connect with it in the future.
According to the Manitoba Historical Society, the first telephones came to Winnipeg in 1878. But it would be a long time before most people, including the Dickies, had a telephone, or what we now call a landline. They didn’t have one when Percy went overseas in the First World War, nor when Percy got married in the 1920s, nor when Earl went overseas to serve in the Second World War. The family relied on visitors and mail for news. They wrote letters to their family and friends at a distance, even those across the city. More official and immediate news sometimes came in a telegram. Both the CN and CP railways had telegraph offices in Winnipeg.
The Dickies weren’t alone. Many families did not have telephones. Some had shared lines or party lines, with each person on the same line designated a slightly different ring. Some had telephones and then gave them up for a time, during financial struggles of the Great Depression. Some would run over to a neighbour’s to use the phone. In 1948, many people posting want ads in the newspaper still listed addresses rather than telephone phone numbers.
By the brothers’ more senior years, the telephone had become a fixture in most homes. Users could finally dial direct rather than asking the operator to connect them. They dialed the numbers with a rotary dial. Longer distance calling gradually became available, but it was a luxury because it was very expensive. Over the years, telephone numbers evolved, and grew in length to accommodate more and more people on the network. For example, in 1922, General Typewriter Exchange’s phone number was A4639. Soon phone numbers had five (23 786), then six (206 115), then seven digits.
Today, many people have canceled their landline or what Percy and Earl knew as the telephone. We’ve embraced the cellular phones that keep us immediately and cordlessly connected by call and text and video chat from different rooms and different countries alike at a tap of a button on the screen.
Young Canadians growing up in the early part of the 20th century would be astounded.