Suppose that Joe and Sue are neighbors out on the country. The year is 1950. But it could also be 1975. Or even 1999. Even though they live next to each other, and can see each other through the windows, there is still a non-trivial distance between them, especially in winter time with lots of snow and coldness. They don't fancy constantly putting on clothes and walking over to knock on the other's door to ask something.

So, they have a habit of calling each other on the telephone for convenience when they need to ask something and don't feel like going outside for whatever reason. They did consider using two tincans with a string between the houses, but they thought it looked too childish, and they couldn't figure out a good way to signal for the other person to pick up their tincan. So they use the normal telephone.

Regardless of the year, they are using the "POTS" (Plain Old Telephone System).

When Joe calls Sue or Sue calls Joe, being neighbors, would the signal first travel down to some telephone company far away, and then back to the other person? Or would they get a direct connection going straight through the telephone wire right to the other house and into their telephone?

I've tried to understand how telephones work all my life, but never quite managed, so I really don't know if this is a stupid question.

It sounds reasonable to me that, given the extremely short distance between the two parties, the signal will travel instantly between them, not triggering any kind of "log" at the telephone company's equipment (thus being free of charge) and also won't allow anyone to tap into this call remotely, unless they are right there between their houses with a physical thing hooked onto the telephone poles' wire.

Is this a correct assumption by me? Would it be free and private due to the extreme proximity? And if so, when would it stop being free and private? How many houses or what distance triggers a different "route" and the ability for remote wiretapping?

Again, please note that I'm not talking about whatever digital system is in place now, but what used to be the case with the old telephone system.


2 Answers 2


Joe and Sue's calls would go to their exchange where the lines were terminated on an automatic exchange. There is (generally) no electronics between their wall socket and the exchange circuits so there was no way of switching calls.

It was all invented by a funeral undertaker so it couldn't be that hard - could it?

Video links:


Two neighbors living in a city or major town would be able to call each other the "Plain Old Telephone System". In rural areas however they would have been able, but there would have used the telephone differently to city people because rural regions tended to have party lines

Party lines provided no privacy in communication and when the line was being used by one person, no-one else connected to the line could use the line to make another call until the first person ended their call. However, any on the neighbors could listen to the conversation. Depending on location, party lines exited into the mid 1980s.

  • $\begingroup$ We had a party line. Each home that shared the line had a different ring, IIRC. You could talk to your neighbors directly if you both knew to pick up the line at the same time but there is no good way to do that. And, you could not call your fellow party line sharers, I don't think that you could call out to call in to a neighbor, since you're already on the line. $\endgroup$
    – Ack
    Mar 18, 2020 at 20:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.