• U.S.

Alexander Graham Bell, Call Home

3 minute read
J. Madeleine Nash/Hinsdale

The good news in Hinsdale last week: teenagers did not tie up the telephone lines. The bad news: there were no lines.

Since a Mother’s Day fire destroyed a major Illinois Bell switching station west of Chicago, 35,000 people have learned how inconvenient and nearly unmanageable modern life can be without phones. Fax machines went down. Credit-card verification systems blinked out. Automatic cash machines popped up electronic apologies: OUT OF SERVICE. Houses were not sold, dental appointments not made, pizza not ordered.

This communications Stone Age disconnected more than Hinsdale. More than half a million other suburban residents could not make long-distance calls, or even ring up nearby Chicago. O’Hare Airport endured two days of flight delays when controllers lost contact with the air-traffic control center in Aurora, Ill. From posh Oak Brook, where companies like McDonald’s have their headquarters, to the high-tech corridor along the East-West Tollway, circuits were jammed for days.

In Hinsdale and surrounding communities, residents desperate to talk to the outside world lined up at temporary telephone booths, waiting up to an hour to make calls limited to five minutes apiece. “My cousin had a baby yesterday,” sighed Janet Smith. “I don’t even know yet whether it’s a boy or a girl.” Behind her stood Michael Derrane, an insurance salesman looking a bit frayed at the edges. “I’ve come here three hours a day for the past two weeks,” he said.

Local merchants could no longer let their fingers do the walking. “I drove to 30 offices the other day to post a new listing,” moaned Real Estate Broker Marge Novak. To cope with municipal business, Hinsdale Village Manager Ron Ruskey installed a cellular phone in his briefcase. Eight police cars with two-way radios were posted to permanent stations around town to help residents report emergencies. When students realized that attendance officers could not call home to check up on them, Hinsdale schools reported a sudden surge in truancies. Patients found they could not call their doctors, and the emergency room at the local hospital experienced a sudden surge in admissions.

By week’s end, service had been restored to most of the affected area. Illinois Bell announced that it had reconnected at least limited phone service to all but a few hundred customers. The company promised to replace the switching equipment in Hinsdale completely by mid-June. That was not enough for Attorney General Neil Hartigan, who filed a petition with the state commerce commission demanding compensation of telephone customers affected by the outage. Declared Hartigan: “Illinois Bell owes these people some relief, and it owes the public at large some answers.”

If the Hinsdale telephone system could go down so easily, some wondered just how vulnerable other crucial communications hubs around the country might be. Without Ma Bell, Hinsdale discovered, a community can quickly become an orphan of the electronic age.

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