Newfangled ‘electronic’ mail, 1976

When I’m looking for something on microfilm of old papers, I find a lot of other interesting stories and ads – sometime much more interesting than what I was searching for in the first place.

Here’s one such item. from the Sunday, June 20, 1976, issue of the News-Tribune. It has nothing to do with Duluth specifically, but I found it amusing to see how much times and technology have changed:

Electronic mail eyed

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The Postal Service is taking the first steps toward establishing an electronic mail system that promises overnight delivery of letters at a price no higher than current rates.

The mail agency has signed a $2.2 million contract with the RCA Corp. to study what alternatives are available to the Postal Service in the area of computerized message systems.

“We know it is technologically feasible to have a national electronic message service. We could do it today,” said Ralph Marcotte, Postal Service project manager for the RCA contract.

“The question we want answered now is whether there is a national market for it,” he said. “The chances are very good that the study will come up with at least one alternative that is economically feasible and that would be accepted by the public.”

Technology exists to use leased lines, facsimile devices, communications satellites and other devices to send messages electronically.

One possible application is for the Postal Service to establish “electronic mail kiosks” at such places as shopping centers. A person could enter a message written in block letters into a machine equipped with optical character readers that could convert the message into digital form.

The message then could be transmitted to a Postal Service receiving unit near the addressee. A computer printout of the message could be delivered with the next day’s mail.

Another possibility is for a business to link its own computer electronically with that of the nearest Postal Service message station. “His computer would talk to our computer and then ours would send the message electronically, Marcotte said.

The message could be received by computer by the addressee or a printout could be delivered conventionally.

“The cost of sending a onepage business document would be as low as a nickel per page, not including any delivery costs,” he said.

Marcotte said the chances appear good for delivering an electronic letter for the same or less than the current 13-cent price of a first-class letter.

One potential problem with electronic mail is that private companies now entering the field of electronic message systems may complain about competition from the government.

Marcotte said systems run by private enterprise ”would tend to go along routes of high profitability and high usage” while the Postal Service would try to serve all areas of the country.

Officials point out that the Postal Service already has a nationwide delivery network, an asset that companies do not have.

An electronic system would enable the Postal Service to save considerable mail handling. The Postal Service now employs about 700,000 workers, nearly 1 per cent of the American labor force, in moving the mail.

Postal officials say another possible advantage to the agency would be that electronic mail could recover business that the Postal Service has been losing in recent years. Use of the mail has been declining, partly because of rising mail rates and partly because of the increasing use of privately owned electronic communications at the expense of the U.S. mail.

The Postal Service could begin offering an electronic mail service ”as soon as three years from now if everything goes right,” Marcotte said.

”We have the obvious option of growing in steps as demand for the service grows. We could start with leased lines and then later go to satellites, for example,” he said.

Marcotte said a possible ”second generation” is for people to buy a ”black box” to receive mail electronically in his own home. This is not feasible yet, he said.

Marcotte said electronic mail ”would be a supplement to the present first-class mail and eventually might be a substitute.” He concedes that this ”would be a rather radical departure from the present postal system. It certainly would change our image.”

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Minnesota’s last party-line phone system

January 19, 1975

Sigrid Gellerstedt mans the Cotton telephone exchange switchboard at her home in January 1975. (News-Tribune file photo)

Operator rings for last time

News-Tribune

“Hello, Cotton…”

Miss Sigrid Gellerstedt, chief operator of the Cotton telephone exchange, the last hand-crank system in the state, answered a call to her switchboard one afternoon last week.

The late evening sun poured in the windows of her cozy little white house just behind the Wilbert Cafe in Cotton, known far and wide as a good watering spot about halfway between the Iron Range and Duluth on Highway 53.

Miss Gellerstedt sat at the massive old oaken switchboard, a headset crowning her curly hair. On top of the board and the closet full of circuits behind it were a picture of her parents, a plaque with the opening lines of the 23rd Psalm on it and two small American flags.

At her elbow stood her “assistant” and confidante, five-year-old Gwen Rogers from the country store kiddie corner across County Highway 52.

Gwen drops in almost every afternoon after school to chat, “help” tend the switchboard, and play fetch with Miss Gellerstedt’s small but very vociferous dog, Cookie.

The old switchboard looked very much like an upright piano and Miss Gellerstedt “played” it with the skill and artistry of a true virtuoso.

“Hello, Cotton … Oh, it’s you Brenda…”

The switchboard started buzzing and a little brass flap flipped away from one of the plug-in connections on its face. That indicated someone wanted “Central,” the “Operator,” or more often, just plain “Sig,” as Miss Gellerstedt is known by most Cotton denizens.

“Can you hang on a minute, Brenda? … Hello, Cotton … Yes, Liz … I’ve been ringing her all afternoon and she doesn’t answer, must’ve flown the coop … Are you still there Brenda? What is it that you want? …”

Brenda, evidentally another operator, was wondering about a billing or service call or a new listing or something at the Somebody residence.

Miss Gellerstedt explained that Mr. Somebody is now deceased and Mrs. Somebody has entered a nursing home but Mr. Some One Else is now living on the Old Somebody place and has kept the phone in the Somebodys’ name for convenience sake but it’s all right because Mr. Some One Else is the Somebodys’ son-in-law.

More buzzing in the switchboard and about six little flaps dropped at once.

“Hang on Brenda … Hello, Cotton … Just a moment, please … There you are … Hello, Cotton … Well, you’ve certainly called the right place …”

Such was the inimitable style with which Miss Gellerstedt handled the Cotton telephone exchange one afternoon last week.

But it’s all part of history now. At 7 a.m. Saturday, Cotton’s hand-cranked telephones were disconnected and 200 subscribers joined the outside world’s dial system in the form of Arrowhead Communications Corp.

Switchboard “assistant” Gwen Rogers, 5, watches Sigrid Gellerstedt examine the new Cotton phone book in January 1975. (News-Tribune file photo)

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The party lines with up to 17 persons on them are no more. Cotton residents now have automatic dial phones. No longer do they have to “crank up the operator” to place their calls for them.

Instead of having phones operated from 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. with only emergency service in between, Cotton residents now have 24-hour-a-day service and direct dialing to just about anywhere in the country.

Yes, “Sig” and her two assistants, Madge Peterson and Dagney Kwiatkowski, have been replaced by a small windowless building filled with automatic dial equipment. It’s located on County Road 52 about three miles east of Cotton.”

“It’s the end of an era,” said George Nustad, independent company relations supervisor for Northwestern Bell. He had mixed feelings about the progress that comes with the discontinuance of the crank telephone.

“These people don’t know what they’re going to miss,” he predicted.

The new dial system will obviously be faster, more convenient and efficient but the hand-crank did have some unique advantages and characteristics.

For one thing, Cotton residents will be deprived of a free answering service. Under the old system, they were hooked up to party lines. If one family wasn’t home, a neighbor would answer.

For another, there probably won’t be any township-wide fire alarm. Under the old system, Sig or Madge or Dagney could give a “general ring,” four long rings on all the phones in the area, to alert volunteer firemen of the time, place and intensity of fires.

For another, they’re going to miss Sig, Madge and Dagney. The operators, particularly Miss Gellerstedt, recognized many called by voice. That’s personalized service you probably won’t find in other places.

And if you were lonely or bored, Sig, Madge and Dagney were glad to discuss local events, give evaluations of the weather or chat about anything you cared to mention and had the time to talk about.

They were a social service and a news medium all rolled into one.

“People could save on the News-Tribune” joked Miss Gellerstedt. “All they had to do was talk to us.”

She has been the Cotton operator for more than 30 years, starting her career in the communications industry on May 4, 1944. At first she had it all alone and worked about 15 hours a day, seven days a week, although her mother helped out.

Now Madge Peterson, an 18-year veteran switchboard operator, works Mondays and Dagney Kwiatkowski has Tuesdays and they split the duty on Thursdays. But sometimes they switch days and then the schedule is different.

The rest of the time Miss Gellerstedt is on duty. She said she works about 76 hours a week.

The duty is not without certain hazards in the summer when thunderstorms are prevalent. A lightning strike can really make the phone wires snap and crackle and several times fuses have been blown in the closet behind the switchboard.

“Last summer we had a few bad ones but they always seemed to happen on Tuesdays when I was off,” Miss Gellerstedt said. “I was just lucky, I guess.

“And don’t forget our faithful lineman, Ernie (Ernest) Nordberg,” she added. “Without him, I don’t know what we’d do.”

Now Miss Gellerstedt is looking forward to getting the big switchboard and its accompanying wiring out of her house, although the unit will remain in service for a short transition period.

“There’ll be a lot more room and you can’t even clean the dumb thing the way it is now,” she remarked.

What does she plan to do? Surely she is too young to retire.

“Now don’t you try and flatter me,” she said. “It so happens I probably could retire if I wanted but I plan to stay on for a little while yet.”

She took out the new Cotton Telephone Directory, which reads like a “Who’s Who in Cotton.” On the back it says for reporting trouble and service requests to call a certain number with the new 482 prefix.

“That’s my number,” Miss Gellerstedt said with a certain hint of pride. “That’s how I found out what I am going to be doing.”

She reported she’s already gotten a number of calls from people wanting to buy the old phones as antiques. Apparently people think the Cotton residents have the old box-type phones that hung on the wall but actually they have standard desk model instruments with cranks.

The dial unit can be installed in the old phones, she said. The old wall models were replaced many years ago and sold for about $5 apiece; now they’re worth more than $100, she added.

Miss Gellerstedt claims she isn’t sentimental about the passing of the old hand-crank system but she has collected a large scrapbook of information on them.

She said the Cotton exchange was the last in the state and one of only three remaining in the country.

One is in Bryant Pond, Maine, and has about 400 subscribers and plans to stay in operation for some time yet.

Miss Gellerstedt was just going to tell where the other one was when the switchboard started buzzing.

“Hello, Cotton…”

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This story reminds me of a passage I’ve always liked in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, in which he writes about a former switchboard operator for whom it seems Sigrid Gellerstedt could have been a model. Here are a few lines:

The pantry off her kitchen holds the old switchboard, still in good condition, and also the steel cabinet with the switching equipment that took over from it when they went to dial telephones in 1960. … If someone doesn’t answer their phone by the fifth ring, she does, and usually she knows where they went and when they’re expected. … If you do reach her instead of your party – say, your mother – she may clue you in on things your mom would never tell you, about your mom’s bad back, a little fall on the steps the week before, or the approach of Mother’s Day, or the fact that when you were born you were shown off like you were the Prince of Wales.

But modern, 24-hour, direct-dial phones are better… right?

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