What would we do without our phones?
By ANDREW MCGINN
The history of the telephone is one of perpetual innovation — and we’re not just talking about how Sports Illustrated managed to put a phone inside a sneaker back in 1990. (Mind. Still. Blown.)
From car phones to flip phones to smartphones, few inventions have come to be as indispensable to our daily lives, almost dictating modern life itself, with possible exception to the toilet.
And for the first time in human history, it’s legitimately possible to drop a phone into a toilet.
It’s not surprising that one particular innovation 60 years ago enabled the birth of what would become Jefferson Telecom’s in-house museum of telephone history.
Still known back then as the Jefferson Telephone Co., the family-owned business in 1957 installed the automatic switching equipment that made direct dialing, at least locally, possible.
Before direct dialing — way before “butt dialing” — an operator had to connect the two callers.
“There was a vacated room,” said Jim Daubendiek, general manager of Jefferson Telecom. “So we started the museum in 1957.”
At the time, it was one of the first museums of its kind in the U.S. to chronicle the history of telephony.
Six decades later, the museum you may remember visiting on a school field trip is getting a new look, turning the Daubendiek family’s odd collection of old phones and equipment into a first-rate exploration of a technology we simply can’t live without. (Go ahead and check your phone real quick for any messages. We’ll wait right here.)
“It’s a technology that’s interesting how it’s evolved,” Daubendiek said.
Renovation of the museum began in 2012, but slowed with the death of Daubendiek’s mom and dad, Mary and Gene, in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
It had been Gene Daubendiek, who followed his father and grandfather into the telephone business, who had collected the bulk of the original objects.
“It was all-consuming. That was his life,” Jim Daubendiek said of his father’s dedication to the telephone industry. “He lived through all of that.”
Originally, the items on display in the museum bore little, if any, descriptions.
The family business — which now includes Jim’s 33-year-old son, Jamie, as chief operating officer — brought on two retired Creighton University professors to conduct research for the renovated museum.
“The hope is to be more self-directed when it’s done,” Jim Daubendiek said.
He said they hope to have the new and improved museum finished within a year. For the time being, it’s open by appointment only.
Let’s just say it’s a challenge to devote a museum to something that constantly is changing, as proven by the museum’s collection of cellphones in use between 1991 and 2012.
“It continues to evolve very quickly,” Jamie Daubendiek said. “It’s hard to keep up.”
Jamie Daubendiek remembers leading a group of school kids through the museum not long ago.
“Somebody,” he said, “asked how you work the rotary dial.”
Work is underway in their free time on an exhibit that replicates a manhole, to show the evolution of underground cabling.
On display nearby will be part of the nation’s first transcontinental toll cable.
“These exhibits mean a lot to me,” Jim Daubendiek said.
They tell the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention of the telephone, the history of the telephone in Jefferson and the town’s original telephone magnate, jewelry store owner Charlie Cockerill, and the Daubendiek family’s contributions to the telephone industry.
For starters, back in the days of party lines — when a phone line might be shared by eight or more homes — Gene Daubendiek devised an automatic timer that would warn a local phone hog with a tone to get off the line after six minutes.
After seven minutes, they were automatically disconnected.
The family also helped create a device that enabled a caller to ring only one home on a party line.
In 1982 — the year Jefferson’s last telephone operators were put out to pasture — the Daubendieks’ company was among the first 10 percent of phone companies in the nation to convert to a digital switching system.
The museum also serves as a tribute to the perseverance of the nation’s independent phone companies.
From 1903 to 1940, Jefferson had two competing phone companies: Citizens Mutual and the Bell System.
That was fine and all, but it required the residents of Jefferson to have two phones — one from each company — in order to reach everyone in town.
Jim Daubendiek’s grandfather, C.H. Daubendiek, who came to Jefferson in 1938 to help modernize Citizens Mutual, eventually made the pilgrimage to New York City in 1940 and succeeded in buying out AT&T.
Iowa is now home to about 145 independent phone companies — Jefferson Telecom among them — but consolidation has taken its toll. Back in 1951, there were upwards of 751 independent phone companies in Iowa.
Arguably, though, the highlight of the museum is its three walls of phones through the years, beginning with a primitive example of a hands-free device.
“That’s not too much different than tin cans and a string,” Jim Daubendiek said of the phone from the 1880s in which the caller spoke into a diaphragm made of cowhide.
It only worked up to 100 feet.
From there, visitors will get to see the 1895 wall phone that hung in the Jefferson home of E.E. Cain and a collection of candlestick phones, as well as a German field telephone used by infantry in World War I and a goofy device called a Hush-A-Phone.
On closer inspection, that single goofy device — an attachment that allowed a caller to whisper into the phone’s mouthpiece, thereby keeping their secrets all to themselves — is what eventually enabled development of the public internet, according to Jim Daubendiek.
Back in its day, if your town was served by AT&T or one of the other companies of the Bell System, you didn’t own your phone. You rented it from them.
Along came the Hush-A-Phone, manufactured beginning in the 1920s by a third party.
“AT&T was at first a maze of lawyers,” Jim Daubendiek explained.
AT&T sued, saying the Hush-A-Phone couldn’t be attached to their phones.
In 1956, AT&T lost the case, Daubendiek said, setting in motion the breakup of its monopoly of the nation’s phone system.
The Daubendiek collection houses plenty of other oddities, like an early example of a phone with speed dial from 1965 — which required the caller to insert a punch card for the device to read — and a surviving example of Mitsubishi’s videophone, the VisiTel, that looks like a prop from “Blade Runner.”
The VisiTel, which sold for $399 in 1987, only transmitted a still-frame black-and-white picture.
Not exactly FaceTime.
Coolness abounds in the museum, too.
A former Jefferson Telephone employee (Bob Dennhardt) donated a secure phone used in the White House between 1963 and 1977.
Naturally, it’s red.
It’s as close to the Batphone as you’ll ever get.
The label next to several examples of the iconic Ericofon notes how popular the model was in mid-20th century Jefferson.
What isn’t said is that the Daubendiek family’s local ownership of the phone company was what actually allowed the sleek, one-piece Ericofon to take off locally.
Designed in Sweden and made from 1956 to 1982 in brightly colored ABS plastic, the Ericofon initially ran afoul of the Bell System’s iron-clad hold over which phones its customers could use.
Instead, according to legend, the third-party Ericofon found a home in places like Jefferson, where independent phone companies flourished.
Today, it’s considered a classic of design, and one can be found in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ironically, it can’t allow you to update your Facebook status on the go, but it still arguably makes better calls than the iPhone in your pocket.
“Landline is still the quality leader,” Jim Daubendiek said. “If you want a quality voice connection, it’s a landline.
“If you’re interviewing for a job, I’d seriously think about using a landline if you want the job.”