Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of the Pound Key

By | September 19, 2019

Guest post by Elizabeth Losh

The things I study have a tendency to disappear. Tweets are deleted, YouTube videos are removed, stories on Instagram vanish, and entire social media companies go out of business. Often I spend hours frantically capturing screenshots before content is purged. Hashtags might come to life as an arrangement of pixels for a moment on a screen, but that particular flickering configuration of geometry and letters can easily expire.

The mechanical pieces of a traditional telephone, in contrast, are obviously material artifacts rather than temporary projections. For example, I have visited the Museum of the Telephone in Budapest, Hungary, which is full of functional gewgaws. An entire room is devoted to a complete working rotary sub-exchange. I’ve seen the last operational switchboard that was in use in my home state of California. It has been preserved intact in an exhibit in the town of Crockett.

From direct experience in my childhood I know that sturdy devices for making prank phone calls are tangible objects. I’m a little younger than the touch-tone phone, but we are close to the same age.

So in deciding to tell the story of the creation of the midcentury modern pound key in the book Hashtag, I knew that there must be an actual plastic button on an early prototype that I could seek out. But trying to pinpoint its exact geographical origin turned out to be much more disappointing than I expected. I knew that the pavilions at the 1962 and 1964 world’s fairs were intended to be temporary structures, but I wasn’t prepared for the obliteration of the landmark buildings of Bell Labs itself.

First Transistor at Murray Hill

While writing Hashtag I visited the two most famous campuses of Bell Labs in New Jersey – Murray Hill and Holmdel – and was shocked by what I saw.  There was still a small self-guided museum on the old Murray Hill campus that offered some clues. One highlight of the exhibition during my visit was the first transistor, which was cobbled together by Bell Labs’ engineers in the forties. It was an ungainly object with a tangle of wires and a bulbous tumor of brown material. It was difficult to imagine such primitive hardware as the progenitor of space age technology.      

Touch-tone Prototype

The artifact I had come to see bore this caption: “An early 10 button touch-tone phone. In 1968, the * key and # key were added in anticipation of computer-based services.” The phone on display was a very early test model with round buttons in two horizontal rows, one of the trial-and-error configurations that led up to the number map we have today. It was labeled with an antiquated RIverside-9 exchange.

Nokia had taken over the rest of the building. I hung around embarrassing myself by begging for the email of the AT&T archivist who had an office in the building but apparently was on vacation. Sometimes the people at the front desk yelled at me for going anywhere on the premises but the museum, where I was the only visitor for the entire three hours I was in Murray Hill. They also yelled at me for getting too close to the statue of Alexander Graham Bell, even though everything said “Nokia” and nothing said “Bell.” It was Nokia’s campus now.

Touring the Holmdel campus was even more depressing. Except for a few photos and timelines that commemorated Bell Labs in its long ago heyday, the company had abandoned its enormous space. What had once been flagship architecture was being devoured from without and from within. A blight of yellow cookie cutter Cape Cod dwellings was encroaching upon the massive mirrored structure designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. His iconic modernist masterpiece was slowly being swallowed by garish housing developments.

Holmdel

Inside Saarinen’s soaring cathedral-sized spaces the old Bell Labs offices were mostly deserted, although they were starting to be colonized by new inhabitants. The site had been rechristened as a “metroburb,” a mall for various local businesses including a co-working space, a food court of bakeries, an artisanal concrete company, and an urgent care medical office. The café was decorated with phone books and phone booths as kitschy props.

I didn’t include descriptions of my trip to these two haunted houses in the Hashtag book, even though these places were certainly significant in the story of the hash symbol and how it was repurposed for a succession of communication technologies: typewriter, teletype, touch-tone phone, and smart phone. Including my visits to these ghost towns of the information age seemed obtrusive.

Instead I would encourage readers of Hashtag to visit the old Bell Labs sites in Murray Hill and Holmdel to see the places for themselves. Please tag your photos with #hashtaghistory so I can see them too. Maybe these locations are not as destitute as I remember them. 

Elizabeth Losh is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at William and Mary, USA. She is the author The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014), winner of the Mina Shaughnessy Award, Honorable Mention, Modern Language Association 2017, Conference of College Composition and Communication Outstanding Book Award 2016, and Donald McGannon Award for Social & Ethical Relevance in Communications Technology Research 2015. Her book Hashtag is now available.

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