People are using phones in their cars, commercial airliners, golf carts, their back yards and every room of their homes. They are using them to say "I love you," shop for clothing, summon paramedics, get the latest ball scores, sell insurance and dissuade the suicidal. How many there are is difficult to say. We know there are about 120 million telephone lines in the United States, and about 425 million in the world, but one line can have many extensions, so no one knows for sure how many phones there are right now.

But at a time when many Americans say they don't have enough time to devote to their careers and children, they are spending more time on the telephone -- about 25 percent more time as in 1980, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The global telephone network is by far the largest integrated machine in the world. Americans make so many international calls that it has become a factor in the balance-of-payments problem. In 1988, the United States sent abroad $2 billion more than it got back in overseas calling -- a fair piece of the $126 billion trade deficit.

Doing without the telephone is unthinkable. It is so ingrained in our lives that its use is habitual rather than conscious. This familiarity has robbed us of the wonder of an invention that converts spoken words into electrical waves, transmits them along a line and reconverts them into sound that is so true there is often no need to ask who is at the other end. It is easy to forget that before the telephone, the experience of talking to someone far away occurred only among the gods of mythology. . .

MARCH 7, 1876 -- The most valuable patent ever issued -- No. 174,465 -- goes to Alexander Graham Bell. Had Bell been just a few hours later in getting his designs to the patent office, Elisha Gray would have gotten credit for the telephone and what we know today as the Bell system might be known instead as the Gray system.

The following autumn, Bell's lawyer offered the patent to the mighty Western Union Telegraph Co. for $100,000; he was turned down contemptuously.

Although it was crude and hardly worked, the telephone was the biggest hit of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The visiting Brazilian emperor, Pedro II, tried it out and dropped the instrument in astonishment, saying, "It works!"

1877 -- The engineer-in-chief of the British Post Office pens a reassuring memo to his superiors. "My department is in possession of full knowledge of the details of the invention, and the possible use of the telephone is limited."

APRIL 4, 1877 -- The first telephone is installed in a private home -- that of Charles Williams of Somerville, Mass. Since there was no one else to call, Williams had a line run to his Boston office so his wife could reach him during the day.

For many years, the telephone company discouraged the use of the phone as a social instrument, but customers persisted in using the electronic marvel for "trivial gossip," and so in the 1920s it began encouraging the use of the telephone for personal conversations.

1877 -- The first telephone exchange is put into operation in Boston by Edwin Holmes, who operated an electric burglar-alarm business. This first switchboard was connected to telephones in six offices that bought alarms from Holmes. It served as a telephone system by day and a burglar-alarm system by night. It was a complicated setup, but the important thing here is that it was the first telephone system; without the exchange, every telephone would need a separate line to every other telephone.

1878 -- The first phone is installed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Timing has always been a key factor in the trading of securities, and the telephone quickly revolutionized the Wall Street operations. Within a few years, many brokers had telephones linking their offices with the trading floor.

1878 -- Emma M. Nutt, a former telegraph operator, is hired as the first female telephone operator. The first operators were young boys, but they proved unsuitable because of foul language and practical jokes. The telephone, along with the typewriter, were wedges that got women into the American office building. This in turn brought about an important new figure in American life -- the operator, called "Central."

Central was a locally known figure, and did more than just connect people on the telephone. In addition to responding to emergencies, Central might be asked to call back in 15 minutes to remind one to take the cake out of the oven, and people would put the receiver in their baby's cradle so Central could be alerted to its crying.

1879 -- The early telephone exchanges listed only the names of subscribers to the service, and switchboard operators had to memorize all of them in order to connect one to the other. The idea of telephone numbers was resisted by customers as an affront to individuality and personal identification. But during a measles epidemic in Lowell, Mass., a local physician recommended assigning numbers because he feared that the town's telephone network would col- lapse if the operators became ill. The practicality of the arrangement was appreciated, and the use of numbers began throughout the nation.

1885 -- The first skyscraper is completed in Chicago. The 10-story, steel-skeleton structure was built by the Home Insurance Co. The telephone made possible the widespread use of the skyscraper in big cities, for without it, messages would have to be carried from one place to another, and there wouldn't be enough elevators to accommodate all the messengers.

1889 -- The pay phone is invented by William Gray (no relation to Elisha), who installed the first one in a Hartford, Conn., bank. Necessity was the mother of his invention; Gray wanted to call his sick wife at home one day, but his foreman refused -- even though Gray offered to pay for the call. So Gray devised a telephone that anyone could use at any time -- as long as they had change.

The first telephone booths were made of carved oak and sometimes had draperies. In hotels, people would stand in front of them and wait, thinking they were elevators. In restaurants they were sometimes mistaken for public restrooms, with very disturbing results.

Today, phone booths are everywhere. There are 2 million in the United States alone: atop Pike's Peak, on many commercial airliners, at the White House, in the middle of Death Valley, and on the Empress Lilly Paddleboat on Pleasure Island in Disney World.

1892 -- The first direct-dial phone goes into service in La Porte, Ind. It is the invention of Almon Strowger, an undertaker who believed that one of the local phone operators (who happened to the wife of a competitor) was diverting all calls for undertakers to her husband's funeral parlor.

1893 -- The first of Bell's telephone patents expires, bringing about a flood of independent phone companies and expansion of telephone use.

1901 -- At first, telephone lines had to be made out of expensive, thick copper wire, making long-distance calling cost-prohibitive. But a less-expensive method was developed by Mica Pupin, a Yugoslav-American physicist, and purchased by the Bell Telephone Co. in 1901. By 1915, long-distance telephony

became a fact with the opening of a line between New York and San Francisco.

1910 -- President Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission cites the telephone as a major factor in "the solution to the rural problem." The early telephones were most popular in rural America because they eased the isolation of farm life. The resultant increase in the morale of farmers is credited with boosting agricultural productivity at the turn of the century.

1920 -- Joseph Stalin vetoes Leon Trotsky's plans to build a modern telephone system in the wake of the Russian Revolution. "It will unmake our work," said Stalin. "No greater instrument for counterrevolution and conspiracy can be imagined."

1925 -- Bell Telephone Laboratories is organized as AT&T;'s research and development subsidiary. It turned out patentable ideas at the extraordinary rate of one per day. The most celebrated came in 1947 -- the transistor -- the key to modern electronics that made possible the miniaturization of many electrical devices. Seven of the ideas, including the transistor, 00 have won Nobel Prizes.

1929 -- Herbert Hoover becomes the first U.S. president to have a phone installed on his desk. His predecessors used an enclosed booth outside the Executive Office.

1931 -- A sociological study of 1,000 telephone conversations in New York City finds that of the 80,000 words spoken, only 2,240 different words were used -- the most frequent were I and me.

1939 -- Abe Pickens, a Cleveland man upset with the world's march toward war, places long-distance calls to Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, Hirohito and other world leaders at a cost to him of about $10,000.

1939 -- At 2:40 a.m. on Sept. 1, the telephone brings President Roosevelt first word of World War II -- a call from Paris informing him that Hitler had invaded Poland. The disruptions of war brought about a sharp increase in long-distance calling. In 1942, the first full year after Pearl Harbor, there were 114 million long-distance calls -- almost double the number of 1941.

1954 -- The telephone company begins listing numbers in the directory using only the first two letters of the exchange rather than the full name of the exchange. Thus, the old Pennsylvania 6-5000 was listed as PE6-5000. It is the first step toward all-numeral telephone numbers. As telephone usage increased, telephone numbers that began with the two letters of a pronounceable exchange name were running out. Also, international dialing was increasing, and problems loomed over differences in alphabets and letter shapes. The only logical solution was to go to all-numeral numbers. -- but it was a radical step and AT&T; balked.

Instead, Ma Bell tried introducing letters that did not stand for a pronounceable word -- such as TL. In the late 1960s, the introduction of all-numeral telephone numbers began, and the first sizable place was Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1960.

1955 -- The Hitchcock Memorial Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, N.Y., begins broadcasting recorded prayers continuously over the telephone, and within a year, churches all over the nation were offering dial-a-prayer services. New York's Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church averaged 800 calls an hour.

About 1927, telephone companies began offering customers the exact time of day by dialing a special number (in New Jersey, you dialed NERVOUS). Giving out weather information was launched in Philadelphia and Cleveland in 1950. The first telephone counseling services involved suicide prevention and poison control and developed in the 1950s.

1959 -- The Princess telephone -- available in white, beige, pink, blue and turquoise -- is introduced.

1963 -- Touch-Tone service -- using buttons instead of rotary dials -- is introduced. Hardly anyone buys a rotary phone anymore, but at Fisher-Price toys, sales of its Chatter Phone continue to be steady. Toddlers still love the toy phone with the spinning dial, and the company has sold 28 million of them since 1961 -- making it one of the most popular toys in American history.

1965 -- The problem of obscene telephone calls becomes sufficiently grave that it is mentioned in the AT&T; annual report. One factor in the rise of obscene calling was the changeover from party lines to private lines about 1960, which decreased the risk of being caught.

1967 -- The first dialed calls from New York to London and Paris are made without the use of an international operator.

1968 -- Welfare authorities in New York City rule that the cost of local telephone service should be included in computing welfare benefits -- and the telephone is thus recognized officially as an essential of life.

1969 -- AT&T; offers a telephone service that automatically reverses the charges -- and creates an explosion in catalog shopping by allowing consumers to place orders, usually day or night, by calling a toll-free 800 number. Nearly 7 billion calls were made on the 800 service last year.

1974 -- The U.S. Justice Department files the largest antitrust suit in history against AT&T.;

1980 -- AT&T; develops the 900-number service in response to requests by television networks for a way to conduct instant polls of viewers. It was first used by NBC after the 1980 presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

1982 -- The final details of the AT&T; divestiture are hammered out over the telephone by a Justice Department official who was skiing in Utah. "Ma Bell," who built the system linking all the world's telephones, passed away on Jan. 1, 1984. In terms of her assets and her impact on the lives of ordinary people, she was bigger than any other company and, indeed, bigger than most nations.

Her assets included 182 million telephones and more than a billion miles of wire. She employed nearly a million people, met an annual payroll of $30 billion and, in her final year, earned $5.75 billion on gross revenues of $69.8 billion. She divested herself of 22 local operating companies with combined assets of $115 billion, and was left with a piddling $34 billion.

Her demise left us with lower rates for long-distance calls, higher rates for local service, cheap phones, competing yellow-page directories and confusing phone bills.

1988 -- Two technological marvels of telephony -- the facsimile machine and the cellular phone -- are used by a team climbing Mount Everest to send back regular reports.

1988 -- AT&T; beams greetings from Earth into the cosmos in the hope that they will be picked up by creatures from other planets.

1990 -- The U.S. Postal Service unveils plans to raise the price of a first-class stamp to 30 cents in 1991. The increase will only intensify one of the telephone's least desirable byproducts -- a precipitous decline in letter-writing. Future biographers and historians will find themselves deprived of an important source -- for only rarely are telephone conversations preserved.

WE CAN REASONABLY PROJ-ect that in the world right now there are more than a billion working telephones, and the one thing they all have in common is that each is more or less readily accessible to the other.

Meanwhile, innovation gallops breathtakingly. Students at the University of Pennsylvania leave messages for parents and friends that are accessed by telephoning the students and then punching in a secret password. The New York Times provides a voice-mail service for readers stumped on its crossword -- dial the number, enter A for Across or D for Down, then the number of the clue, and you get the answer. Voice-messaging is expected to become a billion-dollar-a-year business in l991.

The miracle phone -- portable, wireless and as handy as a pocket calculator -- is not far off. It is an advance on the current cellular phone -- smaller and more versatile -- and will look something like the communicators on "Star Trek."

Beam me up, Scotty.

WILLIAM ECENBARGER'S last story for the magazine was on mailing lists.

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