Reconnecting with our Technology Roots @ a Georgetown Museum


Using a work light, a soldering iron, and a dental probe, Max Arnold carefully unfastens wires from a failed component within a giant electromechanical switchboard that connected phone calls on Mercer Island in the pre-digital era. Arnold, age 23, works in computer security by day, bakes for fun, and volunteers at the Connections Museum in Seattle’s Georgetown. His meticulous attention to detail will return the museum’s Number 5 Crossbar telephone switching system to full working order.

A few months ago, Arnold toured the Georgetown museum. He “loved it very much and decided to start volunteering the next week.” Indeed, there is much to love at the museum which traces the history of the telephone from the late 19th century to the early digital era. Museum volunteers keep the technology working, organize exhibits, and provide guided tours. 

The museum, which opened in the 1980s, and is open to the public each Sunday, 10 am-3 pm, had received a donation of multiple videophones from the Display Department of Pacific Northwest Bell in Seattle. Released in 1970, the videophones did not achieve commercial success. Jay DeJaen, a 26-year-old electrical engineer, recently pieced together components to restore two of those videophones to working condition. She describes them as “a little television studio inside the room.” 

Aiden Kelly, age 22, started volunteering after he graduated from high school. He now studies computer science and “makes dialup systems do fun things.” He worked with others to connect an on old Associated Press teletype machine to the Internet. Museum visitors can now hear the distinctive clacking sound of wire service news delivery. Television viewers of a certain age may remember that sound from the opening of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Arnold, DeJaen, and Kelly are three of the youngest volunteers at the Connections Museum. Ten to 15 years ago, most museum volunteers were age 60 or older. At that time, Sarah Autumn, now age 39, became one of a small group of younger volunteers. She learned about the museum from a Google search. The website she found “looked like it was made in the 1990s. It had hand-coded HTML and textured backgrounds. But I looked at the photographs and I knew I had to visit the place.” 

A week after her visit, she too came back as a volunteer. “The first thing I did was blow a fuse and set off an alarm. I just walked away.” She heard an older volunteer ponder the cause of the alarm. “I never told him.” But he later became a close friend and mentor.

The museum’s 23 active volunteers still represent multiple generational cohorts. A few older volunteers worked professionally with analogue telecommunications technology. About half the volunteers are now under age 40. 

Colin Slater, age 36, began volunteering about 8 years ago. An astronomer by profession, he restored the museum’s newest acquisition – a NORTEL DMS-10 telephone switch. DMS-10s have delivered landline service in North America since the late 1970s. The system arrived from Alabama where it had been carefully disconnected. Upon arrival in Seattle, the packaging did not include instructions for how to reconnect it and turn it on. Slater used a schematic diagram and trial and error to get the system fully functional again.

Claire Violet, age 27, manages the museum library which includes schematics as well as other printed artifacts. Binders contain printed Bell System Practices with detailed descriptions ranging from how to sweep the floor to which bushes to plant outside the building to how to replace a broken relay.

An instruction book from 1915 provided telephone operators (all women) an overview of women’s health. Violet said, “It’s a complete overview course, as if you’ve just suddenly popped into your body on the first day of existence as an adult working for the phone company.”

Violet also creates gift shop items and signage that help connect social and technical history in the museum. For example, a manual switchboard lets visitors experience operator-assisted connections while sitting beneath a picture of Lilly Tomlin as Ernestine the telephone operator. 

Technical exhibits and cultural history are both featured on the museum’s YouTube channel which has 25,000+ subscribers. Videos attract 15,000 to 20,000 viewers — including future volunteers like Max Arnold.

Arnold said his volunteer work helps him “think better about the rest of the world.” Modern computers have removed the “visible logic” from how things work. “With the smartphone, you need to have a scanning electron microscope, to see the transistors. So, there’s really no hope of ever understanding them. But the machines here are clicking at almost human speed.”

Kelly says he can “almost hear how the old analogue machines are thinking. You can look at it and see how it is operating.” He works with dial-up modems and enjoys “the iconic sound of connecting to the internet. I like the idea that these two computers are singing a song to each other.”

Autumn also savors the sounds of analog technologies. The museum has long had 1960s-era equipment to generate dial tones, busy signals, and telephone rings. But she wanted a “ringing machine” from the era of the museum’s 1923 “panel system.” She found one in Connecticut and drove it to the museum where volunteers made it work again.

Autumn said most museum projects require teamwork. “The volunteers each bring their own area of knowledge to the museum. And because of everybody we can do a lot more than any one of us could really hope to do on our own.”

The Connections Museum, located at 7000 East Marginal Way South, is opened to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Donations of $5 are suggested for adults and $2 for youth ages 12-18. Children younger than age 12 can visit with no donation, but a sign in the elevator warns: “Live electricity is exposed in many non-obvious places, and rotating machinery can catch on clothing … be careful with children.”

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


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