The Joy of Exploring: Old Phone Systems, Pizza, and Discovery

This story involves boys pretending to be pizza deliverymen using a working automated Strowger telephone exchange demonstrator on display in a museum, which is very old and is, to my knowledge, the only such working exhibit in the world. (Yes, I have video.) But first, a thought on exploration.

There are those that would say that there is nothing left to explore anymore – that the whole earth is mapped, photographed by satellites, and, well, known.

I prefer to look at it a different way: the earth is full of places that billions of people will never see, and probably don’t even know about. Those places may be quiet country creeks, peaceful neighborhoods one block away from major tourist attractions, an MTA museum in Brooklyn, a state park in Arkansas, or a beautiful church in Germany.

Martha is not yet two months old, and last week she and I spent a surprisingly long amount of time just gazing at tree branches — she was mesmerized, and why not, because to her, everything is new.

As I was exploring in Portland two weeks ago, I happened to pick up a nearly-forgotten book by a nearly-forgotten person, Beryl Markham, a woman who was a pilot in Africa about 80 years ago. The passage that I happened to randomly flip to in the bookstore, which really grabbed my attention, was this:

The available aviation maps of Africa in use at that time all bore the cartographer’s scale mark, ‘1/2,000,000’ — one over two million. An inch on the map was about thitry-two miles in the air, as compared to the flying maps of Europe on which one inch represented no more than four air miles.

Moreover, it seemed that the printers of the African maps had a slightly malicious habit of including, in large letters, the names of towns, junctions, and villages which, while most of them did exist in fact, as a group of thatched huts may exist or a water hold, they were usually so inconsequential as completely to escape discovery from the cockpit.

Beyond this, it was even more disconcerting to examine your charts before a proposed flight only to find that in many cases the bulk of the terrain over which you had to fly was bluntly marked: ‘UNSURVEYED’.

It was as if the mapmakers had said, “We are aware that between this spot and that one, there are several hundred thousands of acres, but until you make a forced landing there, we won’t know whether it is mud, desert, or jungle — and the chances are we won’t know then!”

— Beryl Markham, West With the Night

My aviation maps today have no such markings. The continent is covered with radio beacons, the world with GPS, the maps with precise elevations of the ground and everything from skyscrapers to antenna towers.

And yet, despite all we know, the world is still a breathtaking adventure.

Yesterday, the boys and I were going to fly to Abilene, KS, to see a museum (Seelye Mansion). Circumstances were such that we neither flew, nor saw that museum. But we still went to Abilene, and wound up at the Museum of Independent Telephony, a wondrous place for anyone interested in the history of technology. As it is one of those off-the-beaten-path sorts of places, the boys got 2.5 hours to use the hands-on exhibits of real old phones, switchboards, and also the schoolhouse out back. They decided — why not? — to use this historic equipment to pretend to order pizzas.

Jacob and Oliver proceeded to invent all sorts of things to use the phones for: ordering pizza, calling the cops to chase the pizza delivery guys, etc. They were so interested that by 2PM we still hadn’t had lunch and they claimed “we’re not hungry” despite the fact that we were going to get pizza for lunch. And I certainly enjoyed the exhibits on the evolution of telephones, switching (from manual plugboards to automated switchboards), and such.

This place was known – it even has a website, I had been there before, and in fact so had the boys (my parents took them there a couple of years ago). But yesterday, we discovered the Strowger switch had been repaired since the last visit, and that it, in fact, is great for conversations about pizza.

Whether it’s seeing an eclipse, discovering a fascination with tree branches, or historic telephones, a spirit of curiosity and exploration lets a person find fun adventures almost anywhere.

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