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#101 :: Bell Telephone Operator’s Headset

May 21, 2004

nurse capsule ‘popup’,’width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>This all began as a way of codifying one of my most organic impulses. To hold a thing that is small, has some weight and purpose in the world is to own it, whether it takes up space in my drawer or just in my mind. I have acquired these 100 (so far) objects as a way of fulfilling that need quickly – in the mercurial snatch-it-now breath of the moment I first picked them up – and tried to make sense of them as sort of a test. I don’t know if I have succeeded. I did it to see if I could do it, to see if it would amount to anything. It’s become popular, thanks to Mark at BoingBoing. It has invigorated my drive to write and shoot again, though I’m not sure if it has any deeper meaning. At the very least, I have completed the traditional Japanese artist’s exercise of creating 100 demons in tribute to the Buddhist challenge of defeating 100 demons in a lifetime. If you have followed HLO at all, you have my humblest thanks, and if you want to introduce a friend to it, this entry is as good a place as any to start. In gratitude, I can only offer you this chunk of chain, which I’ve fiddled with for years at my desk. It is considered a deadly weapon, yet the strength, weight, intricacy and integrity of its 6-piece links and the unholy pressure used to force them together as one are taken for granted. You can twirl it like a watchman’s keychain, whip it through the air like a bullroarer, or crush ice in a dishcloth with it when your highball gets low. Put it around your neck and go punk. Dip it in paint and make prints. Hook it up to any number of drive systems and it will work flawlessly, without maintenance, for thousands of hours without a failure. There are few archetypally perfect machines left to invent in the world. This was one of them.
pharm ‘popup’, physician ‘width=500, order height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>Fossil tech, the earbone of a giant. Fifty years ago, thousands of operators huddled at thousands of switchboards, plugging and unplugging calls from millions of jacks at the Bell Telephone Company nearest you. The nationwide American Telephone and Telegraph conglomerate was as close as anyone had come to building a nationwide monopoly without inviting antitrust litigation. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that lawsuits from a put-upon public finally brought down mighty Ma Bell and splintered her like an enormous, brittle tree, her branches taking wild, chaotic root in the hundreds of telcos that have sprung up since. Chances are, if you called information back then, the operator was talking on one of these. Like everything else Bell made, it is extremely durable and thanks to the (now missing) wire headstrap, reasonably comfortable. My first six years as a newspaper reporter, I was on this stupid macho head trip, convinced that only obit writers and women wore headsets for interviews, real reporters crunched the phone ‘twixt shoulder and ear while typing and drawling from the side of their mouths, “Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah. Is that riiiight.” After a lovely bout of crippling neck spasms and trips to the chiropractor, I relented, and began using one of these while at the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to a web site maintained by an antique phone phanatic, this is a telephone supervisor’s headset, model 52BW. It’s fitted with an HC3 receiver, an N1 transmitter, an L4AH cord with a 289B plug, and 29A connecting block. I used it for years, cutting the huge brass double-pronged cord off and splicing in a standard 4-pole modular phone plug so I could use it on the LA Times’ Rolm PBX system (if memory serves) but eventually they phased it out and began using phones with digital jacks that took only shitty Plantronics headsets made of plastic, with staticky, short-prone plugs. I can’t tell you how many interviews I conducted through this thing. But I did stack up every single clipping I ever wrote, and the stack of tiny shreds of newsprint is close to a foot thick.

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1 Comment

  1. rob May 24, 2004 @ 2:14 am

    These were very common in the TV biz as intercom headsets, as well. They were known as B-52s, from the model number, 52B, and from their resemblance to the headphones bomber pilots wore in old movies. I just dug one out of my desk drawer the other day.


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