The Autovon Phone System

The house I lived in for the first 14 years of my life initially had an unfinished basement. Shortly after my sister was born, my parents decided to turn the basement into a rec room. When it was complete it had carpet with checkerboards and hopscotch grids dyed right in, a pool table, one of those old “console” stereo systems, and a groovy set of white leather “barrel” chairs. But the piece de resistance of the rec room was the touch tone telephone. Although touch tone phones were fairly common in corporate settings, it was truly novel to have one back in your home back in 1976. Friends and family came over to see the new rec room yet spent most of their time playing around with the phone. Kids from the neighborhood came over just to monkey around with the newfangled phone and its 12 buttons.

Although home phones have changed greatly in the past thirty years, most touch tone phones still come with the same 12 buttons that the phone in 1976 had. But some folks with military experience might remember a time when some touch tone phones had 16 buttons. Those phones were part of the military’s nuclear weapon-proof Autovon network:

Autovon stood for “automatic voice network” and was deployed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Panama, Asia and the Middle East. Although there have long been rumors about Autovon cables being buried in concrete shafts deep underground, in fact much of the system was buried in simple dirt 30 feet or so below the street surface. The system used a variety of means to achieve its “nuclear weapon proof” status, such as building in redundancies via satellite and microwave. But perhaps the most interesting feature of the system was the calling priority feature, and that’s where the 4 extra buttons come in.

To make a basic phone call, the user would simply pick up the phone and dial the number. But if the user had some vital information that absolutely, positively had to get through, he could press one of the red buttons before dialing to assign a priority to the call. The priorities (in ascending order) were P (Priority), I (Immediate), F (Flash) and FO (Flash Override). So, for example, when a “Priority” phone call reached an exchange, a “regular” phone call would be dropped (if necessary) to allow the priority call to go through. Multiple levels of call priority were needed because of the expected deluge of calls to telephone exchanges in Washington DC and other important areas in the event of a nuclear attack. So a major on a “Priority” call with some important but not critical information could get bumped by a general with crucial information on an “Immediate” call. The most interesting option of all is (of course) “Flash Override” – a priority that was strictly limited in its use to the President and members of the National Command Authority. As you might guess, Flash Override trumped any and all traffic on the network; Flash Override was designed to allow the President to get his call through no matter what.

Although the system has long since been replaced, it’s still fascinating to read about it (check out the Wikipedia article or this site dedicated to the Autovon system for more details). It almost makes me wish I had my own Autovon system – wouldn’t that have come in handy for calling TicketMaster when Madonna tickets went on sale?

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