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Fulfilling real needs

Late 1920s trunk charge map for London - in the BT Archives

Getting used to it : more is less and less is more!

The story of the adoption of the telephone serves as a model for other new technologies since then.

People's perception of the usefulness of a product or service rises as its price falls. The cheaper it is, the more you can use it - and the more useful it becomes.

For more than 50 years telephone charges were high, not least because of a complex pricing system based on radial distances; the further you lived from the exchange, the more you paid for your line. This was progressively simplified and by 1935 the basic rental radius was a generous three miles - a distance which covered the vast majority of subscribers.

The tariff for calls was also rather involved, with every exchange having as many as ten radial distance bands for calls up to 100 miles, and further bands for every 40 miles thereafter! The number of bands reduced over the years, down to just eleven in the 1950s, and the introduction of subscriber dialling of trunk calls (STD) saw this number reduce just four - charged not from every single exchange but measured from main exchanges serving whole groups of local units.

Press advertisment promoting telephone use, 1935

Changing family life : living together - a thousand miles apart

The telephone transformed people's lives as it reached further and further into society.

This advertisement from the 1930s may seem odd today, but for many people the telephone suddenly made all the difference in the world.

Telephone box user (for long conversations) : David Stonier

David Stonier is a 71 year old retired chemist who grew up in Stockport, Cheshire, the son of the steel sawyer.

The family didn't have a phone, but there was a call box 200 yards around the corner. However, they seldom made use of it as all of his family lived in neighbouring streets.

He did start to use the phone as a teenager to talk to one or two friends, and he remembers how two old pennies in the phone box went a very long way.

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By the time I was in my mid-teens I was a regular user of the phone box to talk to one of my friends. I guess one of the things that I find very different if I have to use a phone box today is (that) then, you could put two old pence in to make a local call and you could literally talk for hours and we used to do that. The main constraint as far as I was concerned was how big the queue was that was forming outside the phone box.

Telephone user, 1960s : Mr E Donald

Eddie Donald, born in 1943, grew up in Fife, Scotland. His family had a phone at home to support his father's work as an engineering contractor.

He was always fascinated by how it worked, but soon learned the science behind it, after which it was just accepted as an everyday item.

Today he marvels at the advance of the technology over the last century and how this has brought a vast change in international telecommunications.

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I recall the story of the very first telephone box; it was in the village where my father grew up. When one farmer's wife was in need of the doctor, I think through delivery of a child they sent the farmer down to phone for the doctor and when he came back the doctor didn't appear and they asked if he had phoned and he'd gone in the phone box and he'd shouted for the doctor, he had no idea. Eighty years later children of seven are calling each other and text messaging each other on their mobiles. When I first started travelling internationally, we go back to 1964, to make a telephone call home you would go to the local telephone exchange and wait your turn and sometimes wait for many hours until you got a line through. When I landed in Baku airport just back a few years ago, whilst I was waiting for my luggage to come through I brought out my mobile and dialled my wife and spoke to her as if she were, you know, in the next room.

Telephone renter, 1976 : Miss Ann Smith

Ann Smith was born in 1958 and grew up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, the daughter of a coal miner. Because the village where she lived was so close-knit, the family never had a phone until she went away to Newcastle University to study Jewish literature and New Testament studies, aged 18.

She remembers that having a phone was still a novelty even in 1976 and that the neighbours would come round to use and admire it, but it had a curious effect on her dad's manners.

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I went to the local grammar school in Wassop on Derne and then from there to Newcastle University. Now when I first started at Newcastle I would say in a letter to my mother be at Aunty Alice's on a certain night and I'll ring her and speak to you and it were then me dad who said well instead of going down to Alice's why don't we have one so it was a big novelty, and then you get people coming to our house to use the phone. I can remember when I was sat in the living room and if somebody rang that phone and if me dad were sat on the settee and he perhaps reading his paper and if he were sort of lolling on one side he'd straighten himself up and he'd put his hair down and say phone and he would never answer it but he'd send either me or me mother to go and answer it but he would straighten his hair as though they could see 'im.

Fax user : Alf Sawkins

Alf Sawkins is a 56 year-old engineer who grew up in the centre of Birmingham. He married at the age of 23 and moved to the outskirts of the city, which is when he had his first telephone at home.

Telecommunications has altered his life and his work in a variety of ways since that first phone was installed.

He recalls how the arrival of fax introduced in business dramatically changed the way things were done.

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I've always worked in engineering and I really vividly remember the telefax system, because prior to this innovation if you we were doing a lot of business with the companies that were dealing with America, drawings had to be put in the post and sent off and whatever. And then one day this guy in a fairly prestigious company on the south coast sent off a picture to America and a few minutes later we had a modification that we'd asked for confirmed on a picture from America. You know, when you consider that that took out weeks of waiting for the post, backwards and forwards, that was quite something.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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