By Kevin Leonard
6:00 AM EDT, April 27, 2013
In the May 27, 1954 edition of the Laurel News Leader, Editor Gertrude Poe wrote in her front page "Pen Points" column: "A miracle occurred in Laurel precisely at 12:05 a.m. Sunday, May 23."
What was this miracle? Laurel was entering the modern telephone age with the advent of dial telephones and direct toll calls. As Poe described it: "This writer experienced a mixture of suspense, thrill, awe, and incredulity as she witnessed the dramatic death of the operator-telephone-system and the birth of the dial system in our hometown. … When, within a matter of a few minutes, almost with a single stroke, some three thousand telephone users are enabled, with a mere manipulation of their finger, to effect their own calls, it would appear that only a miracle could bring it to pass."
In today's environment of 8G cell phones, it's hard to imagine the quaint and simplistic telephones in Laurel in 1954. Laurel's phone system worked like we saw on the old Andy Griffith Show where Sheriff Andy asks the unseen operator Sarah to "get me Aunt Bea, please."
Long-time Laurel resident Jim McCeney remembered that all he had to do was pick up a phone and say, "I want to talk to my mother," and the operator would put him through without asking who he was.
Even with operators, phone numbers were assigned sequentially, beginning with the phone number "1," which was the News Leader's number. Why did the hometown newspaper get number 1? McCeney said it was because they shared a building with the telephone company at the time.
A Laurel phone directory from 1948 reveals the phone numbers of residents and long-departed businesses. The infamous Laurel Hotel was number 116; Academy Garage was 109; Block's Department store on Main Street was 77; the Laurel Hardware Co., also on Main Street, was 123.
For the upcoming switchover to dial service, Laurel was assigned the "PArkway 5" extension for its local phone numbers (which is where the 725- extension originated).
Local politicians and civic leaders were invited to a lavish program to witness C&P Telephone's switchover (promoted as "A $1,000,000 Dial Conversion Project") at 11 p.m. on May 22, 1954. The program for the event explained its purpose. "Tonight we are changing your telephone service from Manual to Dial operation. With the installation of this million dollar dial telephone center in Laurel, it will be possible for you to dial not only your local Parkway 5- telephone calls, but calls to Washington, Baltimore and their metropolitan areas as well as certain out-of-town points."
After a tour of the telephone building and remarks by C&P's Laurel station manager Glen Brown, the group witnessed the actual switchover at precisely five minutes after midnight. Then, in a pre-arranged ceremony, then-Laurel Mayor Harry Hardingham Jr. dialed the first call to Hiram Soper, president of the Laurel City Council.
"There was an understandable look of pride and relief on their faces when the first dialed call was successfully completed," Poe wrote in her column.
She described the excitement felt by those in attendance in the C&P equipment room: "Thirty minutes before, the room had been silent. Now there were clicking noises to be heard. … This is just a beginning! It will ultimately be possible for us to dial California or Florida direct!"
The publicity leading up to the switchover was very successful.
"Everybody in town stayed up late to hear the dial tone," McCeney said.
Learning to dial
The switchover represented a huge technological leap for Laurel's phone system, which had grown slowly. In 1900, only 13 phones around the city were attached to a single phone line. Laurel's first phone directory wasn't published until 1928. By the time of the switchover in 1954, more than 3,000 users in Laurel were affected. Actually, Laurel was among the first communities in the nation to offer direct toll-call dialing to its residents.
C&P embarked on an ambitious educational program to teach its customers how to use the new system. It's likely that many Laurel residents had never seen a rotary phone, let alone used one.
In booklets distributed throughout Laurel prior to the switchover, C&P provided some handy advice under the heading "How to Use Dial Telephones":
Assume the call is to PArkway 5-9970.
1. Lift the receiver and listen for the dial tone.
2. Place your finger in the opening over the letter "P".
3. Turn the dial clockwise until your finger strikes the finger stop.
4. Lift your finger and allow the dial to return to normal position.
5. In the same way, dial the letter "A" and then, in turn, each of the five numerals "5", "9", "9", "7" and "0".
Other basics in using a telephone were explained, such as, "When you have finished dialing, you should hear in the receiver the 'ringing' signal, a frequent burr-r-r-ing sound, indicating that the telephone is being rung, or the 'busy' signal, which is an intermittent 'buzz-buzz', indicating that the called line is busy." C&P also instructed users that "Repeated busy signals on a number of successive attempts to dial the same number may indicate that you are dialing a party on your own line."
Targeting people who needed convincing that the new system was considered progress, the phone company ran public service ads in the News Leader. One ad not only claimed that "You save time when you call by number," but also appealed to the patriotism of its customers in 1954: "That means better service for you — and better service for all America, right now when telephone lines are carrying urgent industrial and military calls."
C&P Telephone took advantage of the excitement the switchover caused and launched an advertising campaign to promote extension lines in the home, something that had been unheard of. One ad promised to solve the problem of "How to keep from walking in your sleep" by ordering an extension:
"Save steps with a bedroom extension telephone. Sometimes — especially late at night — the telephone seems a long way off when it rings. But you can answer those late calls without wandering all over the house — with an extension telephone right beside your bed."
Another ad asked the question, "What's a poor wife to do?" and answered it with, "Get a kitchen telephone extension, of course!"
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? E-mail Kevin Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org.