Skip to main content

Using phone services

Publicity for the National telephone Company, in the form of a postcard to be sent to friends and contacts by new susbscribers

The spread of telephone use : from the office to the home

Most of the first telephones were installed in the major cities, generally in offices and shops. However, professionals such as doctors and lawyers increasingly had telephones in their homes (Sigmund Freud had a telephone in his flat in Vienna as early as 1895). They used these home telephones primarily for keeping in touch with their businesses and professional contacts. But as the telephone population increased, people also made calls for social and domestic purposes.

The introduction of charging for each call made instead of a flat rate susbscription in 1900 had exactly the same effect as it had enjoyed in the USA in the mid 1890s - demand and the number of calls soared.

But the new instrument did not find a universal welcome. 'Peter Pan' author J.M. Barrie had a telephone installed at his flat in Gloucester Road Kensington in 1898 - but got rid of it within two years because he hated it.

Telephone subscriber signing contract, 1935

Joining the club : subscribers only please

The basis of selling telephone service has remained the same since the very beginning. The telephone company sells itself as a service - as a sort of club you can join as a member (or 'subscriber'). Paying a flat fee allows you to use the services and benefits of the 'club' - and you pay for all or some of your calls on top.

In the early days of the 1870s and 1880s, subscribers were allowed unlimited calls in their local area. Once trunk lines made long-distance calls possible the method of charging altered.

There was an obvious way of 'cheating' the system - for a subscriber to allow someone else the use of his or her telephone.

Telephone company rules were framed to forbid this. The 1893 telephone directory declares: 'the directors of the National Telephone Company regret to find that some of their subscribers allow other persons and firms who are not subscribers habitually to use their telephone'.

Persistent offenders were threatened with being ejected from the 'club' - some actually were.

Trunk call charge map, for calls from London, 1920s

Calling the operator (1932) : 'Which service do you require?'

In the beginning was the operator - and in the last resort there is still the operator.

You used the crank handle or a button on the telephone to 'ring up' the exchange and when the call was over, you 'rang off'. These expressions come from having to signal the start and finish a call in an age when human operators mad e all the connections.

Developments in exchange and network design started to make direct dialled calls possible and these became more sophisticated over time. Even so, long distance calls remained in the hands of operators for many years more and had to be booked hours in adavnce.

This changed in 1932, when operators began to connect trunk calls immediately in a development known as Demand Trunk Working.

Operators working switchboards in the 1920s

Local operators as 'intelligent network' : 'you won't find him there today ...'

There's more than one way to put intelligence on a network. Today's solution is machine intelligence - computers that remember your last dialled number, who last called you, or the number where your calls should be forwarded.

In the old days there was intelligence of a different kind - the local operator or village postmistress minding a small network. That could make the relationship with the telephone network a very intimate one.

So you might dial your local operator and ask to speak to someone by their first name. The operator would do the rest - knowing who you meant, where they lived or worked - and also if they were likely to be somewhere else at that particular time.

As voice recognition and 'fuzzy logic' technologies develop, we might be able to re-create some of this real intelligence the telephone network one day.

Telephone Operators in 1930s

Changing role of the telephone operator (1930s) : 'number, please ...?'

By the late 1920s, the UK exchange system was becoming more automated, based on Strowger switching.

This meant a change in the role of telephone operators. Before this, they had handled the mechanics of every call, finding out which number the caller wanted, then actually making the connection by placing jack plugs into sockets on the board.

But with automation, the operator became a person of last resort on local calls - and more of a 'long distance' specialist and problem solver.

As the system expanded, so more operators were needed for directory enquiries, for person-to-person and reverse charge calls, and giving assistance in difficulties.

Training for telephone operators stressed the need to be well spoken and to use certain approved phrases. The GPO telephone operator would never say that a number was busy - but that the line was engaged.

Modern operator

Changing role of the telephone operator (today) : thinking faster

Even up to the 1980s, some British telephone operators still handled plug and cord exchanges - the system they would use to connect calls when the automatic systems failed. Cordless exchanges had been progressively introduced since the mid-1950s, but the advent of digital electronic switching in the 1970s meant this last physical link with the past was removed.

These days, telephone operators and directory enquiries staff work with nothing more specialised than a headset, a keyboard and a computer screen.

As early as the late 1950s, the Post Office recognised that the operator's role was changing - that she would soon become a person of last resort - only to be called at times of difficulty or uncertainty.

The 'Friendly Telephone' policy of 1959 was an attempt to recognise the new reality, by educating operators to regard telephone subscribers as customers. There would be less emphasis on 'correct' set words and phrases, more on meeting actual caller needs by being helpful and efficient.

Telephone operator (STD changes) : Annette Cooper

Annette Cooper is a 55 year old GPO supervisor. She grew up in Didcot near Oxford, but moved to Dorset as a girl.

Although she had used public call boxes, her first regular contact with the phone was working as a telephone operator for the GPO in the 1960s.

When STD direct dialling was introduced she noticed a change in the calls they received and a change in her working environment.

audio clip


Before STD subscribers had to come to us for everything. When it changed to STD I suddenly realised that people were only coming to us when they had problems, when they needed a number (or) when they couldn't get through, so it changed completely. It wasn't such a nice working environment.

How does a switchboard work? : have a go yourself

How does a switchboard work? : have a go yourself
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.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...