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From the stick phone to the iPhone

Jim Willis Published: June 27, 2013

My mother passed away June 6, just shy of her 104th birthday. In reflecting on her long and fruitful life that began in 1909, it struck me that she had seen more than a century of changes, including the ways people communicate with each other.

Always a teacher

My mom was a teacher of young people and launched an innovative, curriculum-driven preschool in

Midwest City, Oklahoma, called Jack and Jill in the early 1950s. As an alum of that school myself, I can attest to the detail and loving attention Mom paid to teaching her young charges how to communicate verbally, how to use basic writing skills, and how to express themselves through art (although I always found fingerpainting a bit messy, even at age 4.)

Readin’ and writin’

Television was just making its entrance into American life, so the Jack and Jill kids learned how to process information the old-fashioned way, through reading and writing. Little did Mom, or any of us know, how much that would change in the decades to come.

After all, Mom wasn’t even at her halfway point in life by 1950. She wouldn’t reach that milestone until 1961.

So what changes in communication did she witness in her life? This is not a complete list, but it shows what I’m talking about:

* Mom was born six years before the first telephone lines connecting the east and west coasts were completed.

* That was the same year (1915) that the Titanic went down and so many lives were lost, partly because the marine radio operator on the nearby Carpathia was alseep and didn’t hear the SOS signals coming from the doomed ship until too late for most of the 2,2oo+ passengers.

* Only 8 percent of the homes in America even had telephones.

The stick phone

* Two of the most popular phones was the Chicago Candlestick Phone (operator assistance needed), and the wall-mounted, hand-crank phone.

* Radio would not become a means of mass communication until 11 years after Mom’s birth.

* Mom would be 35 before the first regular network television broadcasts began on NBC (but you had to live in New York, D.C., or Phillie to see the programs). She would be 42 before the first nationwide TV programs were broadcast.

To infinity and beyond

* The first home desktop computer with a complete keyboard was The HP 9830, introduced in 1972 although few people knew how to use it, and there was no public Internet to connect it to. Mom was 63 years old.

* That was about the time that cable television began its decade-long introduction into American life.

A familiar scene in the 1950s at our place: Mom is surrounded by her Jack and Jill students. Including me.
A familiar scene in the 1950s at our place: Mom is surrounded by her Jack and Jill students. Including me.

* Mom would be 80 before the World Wide Web was launched in 1989. But if you were around in ’89, you know how few of us knew how to access it, because the search engines were in their infancy. Mosaic was the first, and Mom would be 84 before it became useable.

* Mom had spent 81 years on earth before she and Dad had their first cellular phone. It was a bag phone with a 5-pound battery. If you didn’t want to make calls, you could use it as a weapon.

* My mother was 89 and counting by the time Google was launched.

* She was 95 when a limited version of Facebook was launched, and almost 96 by the time YouTube came along.

A Web for all

I find this final fact interesting because we often think of the Internet as a communication tool used only by the young and middle-aged.  Nevertheless — even when Mom was past 100 years — I would send her pix of the family via Facebook and my smart phone. So this woman who began life in the stick phone age, finished it in the age of the iPhone.

And Mom’s final tribute is now occupying space on YouTube. It’s there now at Hazel Willis Tribute if you’d like to see what it takes to live nearly four years past the century mark.