ROXBURY, NJ – In 1965, Bell Telephone was ready to change the way the world made phone calls. It chose Succasunna as the place to do it.
On May 25, in a low, flat building that still stands at the corner of Hunter Street and Route 10, computers were merged with the public telephone system. The future of phone calls arrived at 12:01 a.m., when "Ma Bell" activated the world’s first commercial electronic switching system, and the 4,300 residents of Succasunna had first dibs.
Former Roxbury Mayor Louis Nero was one of a select 200 who got to really see what the new “No. 1 ESS” switching system could do. It didn’t take him long to figure out how to use something called “three-way calling.” The mayor, still at home, could simultaneously direct his minions in town hall and chat with township attorney Alex Lozorisak while the counselor was in his office across town.
The mayor also got to test another Computer Age miracle called “call forwarding.” According to the December 1965 issue of “Popular Science” Nero did OK with the three-way calling part but stumbled somewhat with the call forwarding, which he used to transfer calls to the home of a neighbor he visited.
“One thing about that transfer business is that you’ve got to remember to have your calls put back on your phone when you get home,” he told the magazine. “I had mine transferred to a neighbor’s house and the exchange kept right on transferring them. My neighbor kept telling everyone who called that they had dialed the wrong number and they kept calling back to deny it.”
The town lawyer said he liked the speed-dialing afforded by the new computerized system. They called it “abbreviated dialing” back then.
Hans Fantel, who wrote the article, was sufficiently impressed. “Judging from the results of the Succasunna tests of ESS thus far, abbreviated dialing is here to stay,” he predicted, adding that “no matter what shape your telephone takes in the years to come – Touch-Tone, Trimline, or even Picture-phone – electronic switching, or ESS, will serve as your unseen genie.”
The Succasunna deployment of No. 1 ESS, or "1ESS," came after 10 years of intense Bell Telephone research. The quiet new system was designed to be “immortal,” according to the Popular Science article, but its lifespan ended up being only 26 years; 1ESS was replaced with 5ESS on Sept. 28, 1991.
In an upcoming entry to his blog, electrical engineer Devlin Gualtieri of Ledgewood pays tribute to 1ESS and discusses details about its cutting-edge innards. “Circuit boards containing 64 magnetic reed relays arranged in an 8X8 matrix acted as a smaller, automated version of a telephone operator’s plug board,” wrote Gualtieri. “Computers in the mid-1960s were primitive by today’s standards.”
For example, Gualtieri said 1ESS boasted 731,000 bytes of memory, just shy of one megabyte. “This is 2,000 (times) smaller than the memory of a cellphone,” he pointed out.
But the passage of time should not diminish the awe at what Bell created fifty years ago. “Tomorrow’s Telephone is Reality,” was the headline of a story in the June, 10, 1965 “Rome News-Tribune.” The paper said the equipment at work in Succasunna was the result of “more than 2,000 man-years of research and development and a $100 million investment” and was “the Bell System’s largest research and development undertaking” to date.
In a June 1965 Bell Laboratories publication, the company said the desire to replace slow, noisy and limited human and electro-mechanical phone call switching with electronic switching pre-dated World War II. “Note that this was years before the transistor was invented or named,” said the report. “Thus, we come to the fruition of 20 years of Bell System organized effort directed toward an electronic switching system.”