From Phone Operators to Web Dating: A Grandmother’s View of Changing Technology

In honor of National Grandparent’s Day, we wanted to get a unique perspective on just how much has changed with technology in a relatively short time. As a mother of three, grandmother of four and great-grandmother of four more, we interviewed Sandra Stonecipherborn and raised in the Midwest— about the changes she’s witnessed, the shocking cost of early computers and how a dial-up Internet chat room led to a 16-year marriage.

Q. What was technology like when you were growing up?

A. I was born in 1940, so growing up in the 40’s and 50’s in Summum, IL – a small town halfway between Chicago and St. Louis with the whopping population of 200 – was like living in another world compared to today. We had no television, a radio with static and a telephone that hung on the wall that you cranked to make a call to a switchboard. Later, we got really modern and upgraded to a dial-up phone. When I got out of high school, I actually worked as a telephone operator with my two sisters – there were cords all over the place and rows and rows of women answering calls. We had to wear a head piece and would pull cords out of different holes to connect phone calls.

Q. What if no one was home? Could you leave a message?

A. If no one answered, you just gave up! No one got through to you, and that was that. Also, the operator could listen in and eavesdrop on every single call … and boy would they ever. In a small town like mine, they knew everyone’s business, even though it was illegal to do so. One time there were some well-off people in town who were going through a divorce, and the operator told everyone and got in trouble over it. There was a big to-do in town about it.

Q. What was the most exciting “high tech” item in your community at the time?

A. A television, believe it or not. We were neighbors with the Clooney family, and they had a black and white set, and the picture was mostly snow and static, but it was wonderful. Even though their family had five kids, they would let me and my siblings pile in front of it. Mrs. Clooney would make a giant bowl of popcorn and we’d watch wrestling. And I hated wrestling, but it was such a big deal at the time and so wonderful to watch anyway. Before television, we just played a lot of games. We’d play kick the can, or we would walk into the woods somewhere and have a picnic. We’d even lay on a blanket and watch the clouds and argue about what they looked like. [laughing]

Q. You were ahead of the curve when it comes to Internet dating, correct?

A. I guess you could say that. In the late nineties, I got my first computer – with a printer and scanner for around $3,000 – with dial-up Internet. I felt guilty, so I got all my kids computers, too, and I think it was nearly $10,000 on a payment plan. And then you would sit there and keep trying to get online for ages. I am so happy that has improved. If not for computer technology, I would not have met my husband. When I first got my computer, I was scared to death of it. I wanted to cry because I just didn’t know how to use it. Some neighbors helped set it up, and I finally started using ICQ, an online chat room program, in 1999. One night I was in a random chat room and said, “I am Sandra, 58, grandmother of four, mother of three, great-grandma of four,” and stuck up a conversation. Then we were talking on the Internet, then on the phone all the time and then meeting each other halfway by driving to another town for dates. Finally he said, “We just live too far apart to date, so let’s just get married.”

Q. What did your kids and grandkids think at the time? Internet dating wasn’t exactly commonplace in 1999, the way it is today.

A. Everyone in town was worried! They all thought I was going to end up with a serial killer. They all knew for sure that I was a goner. Well, it’s 16 years later and we’re still here. And it’s all thanks to a dial-up connection on a slow computer. But I do get nervous every time I see him carrying a shovel through the back yard. [laughs]

Q. What else have you learned about technology over the years?

A. Things that used to be science fiction are now real – remember Dick Tracy’s watch? The world is moving faster and technology changes and improves every day. You don’t have to sit and watch the Internet load, and you can take it with you out of the house. Usually when new ideas come out, they are higher priced. Back in the early eighties, I remember thinking it would be great to get my boss a car phone as a gift. After checking into it, I believe the cost was around $3,000, and it was practically useless, so that idea went down the drain. When the first video cameras came out, I paid $1,300 for one and just about broke my back using it…you had a giant camera and carried the tape to record everything on in a bag over your shoulder. Now all of that is at your fingertips on your smartphone. But for everything the phone does now, just talking on it is still my favorite use. Especially now that I don’t have to worry about the operator eavesdropping anymore!