Mid Century

If Ma Bell Had Lived: Some Thoughts on the History and Downfall of the Bell System

Bell System logo 1969-1983

I was three years old when “Ma Bell” met her demise on the last day of 1983. However being a student of history and a mid-century buff, I have read and absorbed a considerable amount of information on what was once the Bell System. For 107 years there was one main provider of telephone service to the United States – the Bell System which operated as several regional systems and was owned by AT&T before they were a greedy company with questionable methods for how they provide service in 2010. Despite the fact that the Bell System (Ma Bell as it was nicknamed) provided universal service at the cheapest price possible, the US Justice Department felt it was a monopoly and not in the public interest for them to control nearly every telephone line in the nation. While they were right, they also should have looked at the old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Truly the Bell System was a well oiled machine and a rarity in the American corporate landscape – the company was a cross between both a for profit organization and a social service agency.

There were several other companies that were co-owned by AT&T (again, back when they weren’t a disgraceful monster) who contributed to the success of the Bell System – among them Bell Labs which developed new products that benefited the consumer and society in general. Another division/sister corporation was Western Electric whose job was the manufacture and leasing of the actual telephones. Yes – there was a time when you really couldn’t own your telephone but instead had to lease it from the

Midcentury rotary phone – olive

telephone company (If you think this Orwellian, don’t – you likely “rent” your cable box or a similar device.) Because of this the equipment was top shelf – the very best made from the best materials and designed to last… and it has… many people STILL use equipment made before 1984 for landline service… and much of it is in demand as being “retro cool” with old phones selling for over $100!!!

When Ma Bell was laid to rest and broken up into the “baby bells” (ie: NYNEX, Bellsouth, Southwestern Bell, etc) they also gave customers the option to buy their phone or continue leasing it. Sadly this also was the time that other phone manufactures were allowed to market and sell their own products which were often cheap, flimsy, and disposable.

By the way – here’s a funny fact… rotary phones were actually DIGITAL and touch tone is actually ANALOG!!!  (http://www.porticus.org/bell/telephones-technical_dials-rotary.html)

So why do I bring this up? Yes, the first of the year is always an anniversary of the death of Ma Bell, and yes I’m a big nerd for all things mid-century.

There’s another reason though. What if Ma Bell had lived? I have a Palm Centro and it is an absolute piece of rubbish. As a matter of fact nearly every cell phone I’ve owned has been expensive junk that is full of bugs and breaks easily. Most of the people I know have similar feeling about their phone. I also currently have Sprint but have had both Verizon and AT&T in the past (as well as Cingular) and have come to the realization that all of them suck in their own ways.

So I ask – what if the Bell System had never been destroyed? After 107 years the company never got greedy, never charged “whatever they wanted” (very much the opposite), and continued to do their best to serve the public.

Imagine if customer service was actually good? Imagine if the company employed Americans and didn’t outsource as many jobs as they could? Imagine if the company owned the equipment and thus ensured that it was made of quality materials and functioned as expected… and if didn’t the company made an effort to avoid any interruption to your service. I could go on and on about it but when I think about how good the Bell System was it makes me jealous… I don’t think any company exists today who could match their level of being a public servant instead of just a greed bag.

Simply put – if Ma Bell had lived, we’d all have good service, get a real value for our money, and quality equipment.

For more on the history of the Bell System check out this most awesome site: