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I'll connect you...

We've very recently received a donation from Robbie Colvin of the original phone switchboard of the President Madison Inn (James Madison Hotel, Madison Inn). The Inn opened its doors the evening of Wednesday, March 21, 1928 with an "informal" grand opening, welcoming in the public and its first guests.

The Inn was constructed along modern lines but in conformance to the architecture of James Madison's home, Montpelier. The Inn was a luxury resort, complete with stables, carriage house, and quarters for the drivers. Eventually, those buildings were converted to accommodate automobiles and drivers, then eventually gave way to private homes.

1930's postcard of "The James Madison Hotel". The name has varied, but always with Madison's name incorporated.

The operator switchboard (or Private Branch Exchange; PBX) is a Western Electric Model 551-APBX T. Looking at the image you can see that only 1/2 of the switchboard was actively used. This is probably because the rooms of the Inn were rather spacious suites, thus there were fewer rooms than you find in modern buildings of the same size.

The unit is fully intact and cleaned up rather nicely - thanks to the efforts of our OCHS intern, Yancy. The cabinet is Mahagony with a metal infrastructure. The rotary dial is very solid - it has a soft clicking sound when it retracts from the number dialed. It reminds me of the phone my grandmothers had in their homes. They were heavy/substantial, and made that same sound when dialed. It reminds me of the 1960 Judy Holliday movie "Bells Are Ringing"; the "girls" ran an answering service using a PBX like this one, though many more connections are used. Still shot from "Bells Are Ringing" is from TCM images.

On our unit, you can see that the area code on the dial reads "703." The 703 area code was used for this region until June 19, 1995, when the 540 code was added. It's hard to tell if Orange County was once part of the 804 area code region, it's a little fuzzy in the boundary descriptions. For example, the 703 code was from Annandale to the Virginia borders with Kentucky and Tennessee. However, Danville and eastward were assigned the 804 code. Orange County is much farther north than Danville in Pittsylvania County, but east of Danville. Yet it is in the swath southward to the Virginia borders with Kentucky and Tennessee. It would take a little more research to address that blur.

The switchboard unit has both a hand-held receiver unit and a headset. Both units and a 2-prong plug that connected them to the switchboard.

The PBX is not a computer, nor does it contain a CPU (central processing unit). It is not Turing Complete, meaning it has neither a computer nor a system to "run any algorithm or solve any computational problem, provided it is given the necessary instructions, time, and memory. Most modern programming languages are Turing Complete, such as C++, Python, and JavaScript." (I had to look that up! It utilizes the Punch Card technology. This is where I bring in information from a source far more knowledgeable than I:

For those who wish to understand how the operator used the system, I have copied this from the August 15, 2021 web page of Michael H. McCabe should you care to delve more fully.

In very broad terms, the various functions of this switchboard can be broken down as follows:

1. The switchboard provides talk-battery current to each extension telephone.

2. Operator intervention is signaled by illumination of a lamp associated with each extension or central-office trunk (and optionally, a buzzer that sounds when an extension goes off hook.)

3. Upon receipt of an off-hook lamp, ring signal from a CO trunk, or the alerting uzzer, the operator selects an available (rear) cord circuit and plugs into the corresponding jack for the extension telephone or CO line.

4. After plugging in a cord circuit, the operator operates the associated listen key to connect her handset or headset to the calling party. After determining what the calling party wants, the operator can then connect the (front) cord circuit to the desired extension or trunk line.

5. If placing an outgoing call, the switchboard operator dials the number using the desktop dial and can either remain on the line to deal with other operators or drop-offline and let the original caller fend for themselves.

6. If placing a call to another (internal) extension, the operator operates the ring key associated with the cord-set to signal the called extension. After the called party answers, the operator can drop-out by disengaging the listen key associated with the cord circuit.

7. Two supervisory lights adjacent to the cord circuit show the status of the call currently in-progress. When either party hangs up their telephone, the circuit is broken and the supervisory light illuminates. If additional operator intervention is required, the party can “flash” the supervisory lights by momentarily closing the hook switch on their telephone to get the operator’s attention. When both lights illuminate, the operator “takes down” the connection by removing the cord circuits plugs from the jacks and returning them to the key shelf.

8. Additional functions of the board provide “night service” to selected extensions by plugging them directly into a CO trunk line and operating the “night service” toggle on the cord set. This takes the switchboard out of the equation and allows direct access to a CO line by users of one or more extensions.

There are other things the operator can do with this switchboard, like take a request for a long-distance call, place (or schedule) the call, and then ring-back the original caller. In the days when long-distance service was expensive and not always available, it would be common for somebody to call the operator and arrange for a long-distance call. When the connection was finally established, the operator would then call the first party back.

Western Electric:

1869: An entrepreneur, Enos Barton and an inventor, Elisha Gray, partnered to supply a rapidly expanding world of electricity and modern communications with quality manufacturing. Booming demand for electrical equipment was good for business. But Barton and Gray’s small Cleveland workshop was also a place for imagination, always buzzing with the energy of something new. This is the original vision of Western Electric.

For more of the company's history visit their website.


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