We are awed by really old stuff and really new stuff. Last weekend, while people were snapping up the new iPhone, I was wandering through...

Share story

We are awed by really old stuff and really new stuff.

Last weekend, while people were snapping up the new iPhone, I was wandering through a nondescript Georgetown building looking at some of the earliest telephones.

They were technological marvels once, too.

The Museum of Communications also displays Teletype machines, a huge early phone answering system, military field phones, even movie equipment from Bell Labs.

It’s operated by volunteers. There are about 100 of them, but a core group of 15 really keeps things running.

The building on East Marginal Way South has the panel switch that brought dial service to Seattle in 1923. It still works.

One of the volunteers described the operation of the wall-sized machine as a ballet of movement. Each phone call set off a dance of rods and levers that led to the desired number.

Younger people may not remember, but until the 1980s, one system owned and operated nearly all the telephones in the country. The Bell System was broken up in 1984.

When the new phone companies started replacing electromechanical switching systems with digital switches, the chief engineer here suggested saving some of the old equipment.

Former and current employees of the telephone industry responded and created the museum in 1985.

Dale Thompson, who gave my wife and me a tour Sunday, was a phone-company engineer for 28 years.

Don Ostrand, the museum curator, started with the company in 1955 and retired in 1990. Ostrand is 71, but volunteers aren’t all retirees.

Stephen Jones started helping out a few months ago. He’s 37 and worked until recently as an engineer with a cellphone company, but his father and two of his grandparents worked for the Bell System.

They all love the technology, and it’s a social thing, too.

When I visited the museum again Tuesday, I rode to lunch with a few of the guys in Ostrand’s 1967 Pontiac Tempest. He’s restoring the car, which used to belong to his father.

These aren’t guys who like to throw things away.

They talked about how the phone company made its equipment to last. It was in the company’s interest because the phone on your desk belonged to Ma Bell.

Now the idea is to get you to buy a new phone as often as possible.

Jones was using his wife’s iPhone at lunch. It’s a year old, ancient, so she gave it to him. She’s getting the new one.

My wife and I went in Sunday because it was one of the stops on the Georgetown Art and Garden walk.

Georgetown itself has a lot of history, which some people are trying to preserve as the neighborhood moves upscale.

The museum fits in, telling a story about changing technology, business models and society itself.

Times change. Visiting a museum not only helps you understand how we got to where we are, but that no way of being or doing is set in stone.

The museum is open 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, or by appointment. www.museumofcommunications.org, (206) 767-3012.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.