Engineering Ethics Blog: Telephone Museum, Anyone?


The spirit of modern
science and technology is forward-looking, always reaching out for the next new
discovery or invention and neglecting that which went before.  The creative destruction of the global
technological economy means that every new technology is on a moving conveyor
belt taking it to the dustbin of history, where its physical component parts
are destroyed or recycled and knowledge of it largely vanishes. 

But there is still value
in understanding where we came from, what life was like for previous
generations, and what mistakes were made back then that we could possibly avoid
in the future, if we only knew what they were.  So it is especially notable when a person engaged in the
very anti-historical pursuit of communications engineering spends a lifetime
preserving the technology that he himself helped to make obsolete.  And it would be something close to
tragic if the fruit of his efforts ends up falling off the end of the conveyor
belt anyway into scrap heaps and obscurity.

Around 1962, a young Texas
farm boy named Don Capehart got a job with Western Electric, which was then the
manufacturing, engineering, and design arm of the monolithic Bell System.  Capehart’s job led him to the secretive
innards of the giant electromechanical machine that was the telephone network
back then.  About that time,
Western Electric engineers were installing the equipment that enabled direct
long-distance dialing by customers, who then no longer had to call the operator
to set up a long-distance call. 
For the next twenty years he installed and maintained Bell System
equipment throughout Texas and neighboring states, and gained an intimate
familiarity with it that few others enjoyed.

Then came 1982 and the
breakup of the Bell System.  No
longer would Bell equipment be manufactured, used, recycled, and rebuilt
entirely within a single corporate structure.  As the individual operating companies started to buy
non-Western-Electric equipment, huge piles of old telephone gear showed up on
surplus, or headed for the scrap heap. 
Something in Don rebelled against the idea that an entire way of life,
telephone-wise, was to vanish from the earth.  So he bought a disused soft-drink bottling plant in his home
town of Corsicana and began collecting old telephone equipment in it, and he kept
it up once he became an independent telecommunications consultant who was often
called in to replace antiquated gear with modern stuff.

Today, the Capehart
Communications Museum houses everything from 1880s switchboards, to a
Western-Electric-built Vitaphone phonograph system linked to a 1927 movie
projector for the first sound films, to civil-defense supplies stored in nuclear-strike-hardened
telephone exchanges of the 1960s, to an entire portable telephone office used
during the Vietnam War, and much, much more in about 10,000 square feet of
space.  Would you like to see the
racks of equipment that it took to form the microwave-link network that made
transcontinental network television possible in the U. S. in the 1950s?  It’s there.  Would you like to see switchboards that have starred in
movies?  They’re out there. 

As fascinating as the
hardware is, listening to Don himself as he gives a guided tour is even
better.  In 2011 he was featured on
the TV show “American Pickers,” and that episode proved to be one of
the most popular ever screened.  On
that show he might have told the following story that he experienced during his
days of laying some of the first fiber-cable runs to be buried in West Texas, when one day they started digging on some ranch property.

A day after his crew started, they got up and headed back to
where their equipment was, and found it surrounded by a new barbed-wire fence
and four guys with shotguns.  Don
knew better than to try to talk to anybody with a shotgun, so he sent to town
for a cop and waited.  When the cop
arrived, Don explained the situation to him, and the cop went over and said to
the rancher, “Juan, get your men to put those guns away, we gotta
talk.”

           

“All right, but my family’s owned this land since the
1880s and damned if I’m gonna let these guys onto my land.”

           

Don said, “Sir, see over there, that notch cut between
the hills?”

           

“Yep, what about it?”

           

“That’s a railroad cut.  A railroad used to go through here, and a telegraph
line.  The railroad’s been pulled
up, but AT&T still owns the right-of-way to put a line through here.”

           

“Like hell you do.  My family’s owned—” and so on.  Finally Don called AT&T
headquarters and he and his workers cooled their heels in a motel for three days.  Then Don and his crew got word from
headquarters that everything was straightened out.  They went back out to the ranch, where owner Juan came up to
them and said, “All right, you can put your damned cable through.  But lemme tell you one thing—I hate
Philadelphia lawyers.”  

Don now has a
problem.  He and his wife are
retired and getting up in years, and his museum has never been a success
financially.  Also, Corsicana is
not exactly a major metropolitan area, which it would take to support an
institution such as his museum.  So
he has concluded to put the establishment up for sale.  Obviously, it is a quixotic hope that
someone will come along and pay his asking price—a million dollars—and ship the
entire collection off to a new home where youngsters will be awed by the tremendous
trouble and expense it used to take to do something as simple as making a phone
call.  But if he can’t sell it
intact, he’s afraid that when he’s gone, his heirs will just leave the door
open one day and let technological vultures pick the place to pieces.

This would be wrong, a
shame, and a bad reflection on the entire discipline of communications
engineering to let such a treasure be lost to history.  On the other hand, if Don hadn’t been
quite so enthusiastic over the years, the collection might be more
manageable.  At any rate, perhaps
my effort here to bring the perils of the Capehart Communications Museum to the
attention of a slightly wider public will bear some fruit.  If it doesn’t, and if you have the
slightest interest in seeing this unique collection while it is still intact,
hie yourself to South Ninth Street in Corsicana, ask Don for a tour, and be
generous with a donation at the end. 
It’s the least you can do.

Sources: 
My
wife and I had some extra time during an overnight stay in Corsicana last
December, and happened upon a brochure for the Capehart Communications
Museum.  Don was gracious enough to
give us a tour, and told us several stories and of his hopes to preserve it.  The museum’s official website is
http://telemuseum.info, through which you can
communicate with Don Capehart.



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