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Antique Telephones On Display At UW-RF

A display of antique telephones in the Telephone Services office at UW-River Falls lends a visual and historical perspective to an instrument most of us rely on heavily but take for granted, as if it has always been there for us. Those who are old enough to remember know that prior to the end of World War II, telephone service was not always available.

Al Murray, UW-RF telecommunications supervisor from Hudson, displays his personal collection in the office he shares with Kara Albrecht, telephone system coordinator for the campus, in Room 14A of North Hall. Both are available during office hours to share their knowledge of the history of telephones, and both are willing to provide a running commentary of interesting facts.

The exhibit begins with a wall-mounted "crank" telephone, the type that was manufactured from 1888 to 1940, which was taken from the home of Murray's parents in Cameron, Wis.

"This is from the days of party lines, when the phones were operated by 'telephone girls,' " said Murray. "You would crank the phone and the operator would plug the cord into your number. You would tell her the number you wished to be connected to, and she would plug the other end of the cord into that number."

Next is the rotary phone, or "dial phone." "This was invented by a mortician, who thought his competitors were paying off the operators to give his business to them," said Albrecht. "So he invented a step switch that took out the human element by counting the numbers and mechanically connecting the party to the number requested."

Albrecht is particularly fond of the pay phone, soon also to become obsolete because of cell phones and calling cards. The phone is in working order, and the cost of a call is only 25 cents. "There is such a long tradition in this country of making a phone call for a quarter," she said. "It is in all the old songs. I just couldn't raise it to 35 cents, which is typically what the charge is now."

A collection of cell phones follows, beginning with a huge car phone by Motorola that hooks into a cigarette lighter for power, and ends with smaller, more recent models.

The exhibit is punctuated with historic photographs and print ads that have been produced over the years by Western Electric or Bell Telephone.

For Murray, the collection is a work in progress. A former employee of the Bell System in Wisconsin, Murray has been collecting telephone equipment and memorabilia for years. He will complete the exhibit with items from his private collection, as well as some things he says are from the estate of the late Roger Heikel, a former engineer with Western Electric.

Together Murray, Albrecht and a media technician ensure that approximately 5,500 students and 585 faculty and staff members receive efficient, uninterrupted phone service on campus.

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