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Wordless tribute to a machine that moved millions of voices

Short 1974 film features assembly of AT&T's Electronic Switching System

By Paul McNamara on Mon, 03/12/12 - 2:34pm.

AT&T has given new life to "The Hello Machine," a 1974 wordless film that celebrates the hand-crafting by Western Electric workers of a complete Electronic Switching System, which at the time was not yet 10-year-old technology. Directed by Carroll Ballard ("Never Cry Wolf," "The Black Stallion"), the 11-minute "film-poem" was posted to the AT&T Tech Channel on YouTube earlier this month.

The Ballard film starts at the 1:54 mark of this video after this introduction from George Kupczak of the AT&T Archives and History Center:

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"The film examines the building of an Electronic Switching System in Southern California. The new system replaced the electromechanical system that came before it, tripling the number of calls that could be placed over AT&T's long-distance network. It was the culmination of nearly 20 years of research at a development cost of nearly $500 million, 10 times its original budget. By 1974, when this film was made, more than 5 million customers would have had their calls routed through such a system and it's this kind of human-to-human connection that Ballard tries to spell out in this poetic film. He especially lingers on shots of the hands building the system, the people at Western Electric weaving, sewing and wrapping the wires that would soon carry voices."  

The first Electronic Switching System - known as 1 ESS -- was activated in Succasunna, N.J., on May 30, 1965, and initially connected 200 subscribers.  And because your curiosity knows no bounds, here's a paper written the year before that spells out how everything worked.

Finally, the YouTube introductory notes for the film add this tidbit: "There's a little irony in the title: 'The Hello Machine' used to be a nickname for the telephone, but Alexander Graham Bell, the machine's inventor, always thought that 'Ahoy' would be a better greeting for a phone call than 'Hello.' 'Hello' was more of Thomas Edison's idea, and is, of course, the one that stuck. In fact, the word wasn't quite as popular as a greeting in English UNTIL the telephone became widely used."

(A hat tip to my Cool Tools colleague Keith Shaw for flagging the video.)

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