Monday, March 06, 2017

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, through which you can communicate with Don Capehart.

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