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Memories of the Old Days

Of Open Wire Lines and Other Things

From Two Telephone Men in the USA

When I was a kid (1940's) I had to walk a full mile to a one room country grade school. There was a 10 wire pole system along that entire route. In the winter time, the cold would make the wires contract and increase their taughtness. At a certain point this taughtness would cause the wires to "hmmm" or "sing." The colder it got, the louder they sang. At 20 below and with a stiff breeze, you had a virtual symphony. But at 20 below and with a stiff breeze, who's going to spend much time enjoying and out of doors symphony?

One place in particular along my route to school would be closed by drifts in the winter. The road, (now 4 lanes) was little more than a one lane track at the time. The county authorities, when they got all the other roads open, would bring in a caterpillar with a blade on the front and a long wing blade on the side to open us up. Anyway, when it drifted like that, we could stand on top of the frozen drifts and put our heads up among the wires and listen to the "Hmmmmmmmm."

Even when the weather was at its nastiest, we never got to take a "snow day." If our teacher, Mrs Beresford, couldn't get her Model A started or it couldn't negotiate the snow, she would ride her horse to school with her son in tow on skis. This was about a 3 mile trip for her. She would leave the horse in a neighbours barn for the day and walk the remaining 500 yards to the school.

She always cautioned us to never touch the telephone wires because we could be electrocuted. In wintertime, that of course could never happen barring a line perhaps coming in contact with a high voltage line. In the summertime, obviously, it would bewise to heed her caution if there was an electrical storm in the area. But in the summertime we couldn't reach the wires anyway.

Such memories were what caused me to name the TCI Newsletter "Singing Wires" some sixteen years ago.

Oh yeah - one more memory. Halloween time. Outhouses would be tipped over; wagons would be taken apart, hauled up onto a roof and reassembled and farmers milk or cream cans (empty) would be wired loosely to telephone lines, given a good shove and sent sliding out over a valley where the farmer couldn't reach them.

Paul McFadden
Past Editor
TCI Newsletter (Singing Wires)

I too remember very well how those old open wire lines used to sing. I used to walk kitty-corner across the fields to get to school, so I didn't hear the wires singing along the road on the way, but walking or riding my bike along the country roads I sure did. If you put your ear against a pole the volume was magnified. They were like giant amplifiers.

And every one of those magneto lines also had its own particular hum when you talked on them as well. It was different from the "singing in the wind" and was largely dependent on how clear each line was of tree limbs and brush, as well as how close it was to the paralleling power lines, how well it was transposed, how much resistance was in the old rusty splices and what the weather was like. The galvanising was long gone on some of those real old lines and Henry Gray, my boss-mentor who taught me how to run the switchboard, climb poles, splice wire and shoot trouble, used to describe them as "just a streak of rust." The hand-twisted splices many times had developed such high resistance over the years that they were almost "open", but somehow the voice still could be heard through them. Few of them had ever been soldered and mechanical splices weren't introduced until many years after these lines had been built. A high resistance splice made the line unbalanced and this accentuated the noise, but they still worked.

There were also places where line wires touching tree limbs had, after many years, I've seen the limbs grow around them. When the limbs swayed in the wind, the wires would slide back and forth within the tunnel that had been formed over the years in the limbs through which they ran. This of course resulted in low insulation resistance and a lot of leakage to ground, but somehow those old magneto lines just kept on working. There were even places where large trees had been used as occasional replacements for poles, with the brackets nailed directly to the tree trunk. Some of the trees had grown completely around the brackets and insulators which had disappeared below the tree bark.

You wanted to steer clear of the phone during a lightning storm because those open wires were like a giant network of lightning rods. When lightning flashed across the sky there would be a giant pop in the ear. The varistor hadn't been invented yet so there were none connected across receivers to suppress the pop. (That innovation didn't come along until the 500 set appeared on the scene.) And lightning would really make those carbon lightning arresters mounted on top of the old cathedral phones literally snap, crackle and pop. After the storm it was a good idea to remove the carbons and rub them on a rough cloth to clean off the carbon dust that caused leakage to ground. That would often clear the really bad noise.

On a clear summer night when the country sky was full of brightly-shining stars, those lines always had a certain low-level static that wasn't present during the daylight hours. We were too far from the city for its lights to dim the stars.

It has been about 45 years since I last heard those sounds, but I still remember them as clearly as if it was just yesterday. Back in Banfield, Michigan where I grew up running the Kellogg 30-line magneto switchboard (23 of which were working lines); every line had its own distinctive hum and noises. I could pretty much tell which of the 23 lines I was connected to just by its sound.

Roger Conklin
TCI Member (USA)