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First encounters

One of the Rothschild telephones - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Museum of London

Luxury telephones for the upper classes : is it a phone - or is it art?

Before the First World War, many people of the 'upper class' would never dream of using the telephone themselves. Instead servants would take messages and telephone the replies.

The same pattern was seen in Germany, Belgium and Italy - but not in the USA.

The telephone was often hidden from view in wealthy European households, being placed 'below stairs', concealed under covers, or disguised to look like something else. One American soldier serving in France during the First World War remarked that 'any peculiar thing hanging on the wall' in a French house might be a telephone.

Within ten years of the telephone's invention there was a market for making 'upmarket' instruments for wealthy users.

Occasionally it went further. The Rothschild family had its own private network, equipped with specially commissioned switchboards and telephones, some of which featured gold plating and ivory inlays.

Table Metaphone - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Museum of London

Table Metaphone (1880s) : talking down to the servants

In the 1880s large modern houses had abandoned the old-fashioned string-pull bells in favour of new electric ones to summon servants.

The Metaphone was the next level up in sophistication. It allowed the householder to talk directly with the servants saving them the need of running upstairs for their orders.

The telephone was designed to use the same wiring system as the electric bell, so there would be no untidy additional wiring. Some versions of the telephone were designed to be the same size and shape as the bell-push, which meant they could be fitted directly into the space that the bell-push occupied previously.

This model was designed to stand on a table, ideal for new installations, and even better for people who didn't like speaking to the wall.

Electrophone publicity

Entertainment by telephone (1892) : from the theatre - direct to you!

The French were first to see the entertainment possibilities of the telephone. The Theatrephone transmitted musical shows from the Paris theatres to hotels, clubs and other public places.

In 1892, a demonstration was set up in Crystal Palace, connecting a concert room with London's Lyric Theatre, staging the comic opera 'The Mountebanks'.

The experiment was such a success that it paid for the founding of the Electrophone Company, transmitting entertainments to private homes. Subscribers were supplied with special headsets to listen in - a primitive version of the personal stereos of today.

In 1913, to celebrate Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, Electrophone and Theatrephone exchanged attractions from London and Paris.

The Electrophone went into decline with the arrival of wireless in the 1920s.

Electrophone 'Bible' Transmitter - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Museum of London

Bible transmitter : hearing the Good Word at home

Until radio broadcasting began, there was no widespread means of hearing a theatre play, a music hall song or a church service except by being there in person. However, the Electrophone Company opened the curtain on a new service that gave telephone owners a chance to listen to their favourite entertainment down the telephone line, without having to leave the comfort of their own homes. They could simply ask the operator to be connected to a theatre or church of their choice from a list of scheduled events.

Some churches were not happy about having unsightly microphones on display in church so this bible microphone was created, which could be installed near the altar without raising the slightest suspicion in the congregation.

The arrival of radio saw the end of the Electrophone in 1926.

Please Miss, give me heaven'  - postcard, c1900

Early user experience : er... well... gosh... oh... um... yes... bye!

For anyone who has ever felt tongue-tied or awkward on the telephone, the following quote may provide some comfort:

"I find that even in or during telephone conversations I can say nothing, owing to my total lack of quick-wittedness, and my preoccupation with this disability makes it almost impossible for me to understand anything."

And who was this diffident person? One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, the Czech-born Franz Kafka, writing in 1914.

Man on telephone in hotel Metropole, London, 1907

Early phone etiquette (1922) : but we haven't been introduced ...

By the early 1900s, for the upper classes a telephone call was beginning to take the place of the calling card. Instead of leaving a card and waiting to be invited, people would telephone and ask if they might pay a visit.

Emily Post in her 1922 book 'Etiquette' noted:

'Custom... has taken away all opprobrium from the message by telephone and, with the exception of a very small minority of letter-loving hostesses, all informal invitations are sent and answered by telephone.'

Even so, there was endless uncertainty about the etiquette involved in using the telephone - about the 'proper' way to give one's number, and to whom? Who should make the first call - man or woman? Could one call someone to whom one had not been formally introduced?

Questions like these would preoccupy the etiquette writers and authorities for decades.

Cover of an early telephone directory, 1894

First phone directories : I'm in the book ...

The first directories of individual and business numbers appeared almost immediately in the telephone's career. At first 'directory' meant little more than a single sheet of paper with a dozen or so subscribers listed.

London was where the telephone service grew fastest - and where the earliest proper telephone books appeared, first as pamphlets and later as thick paper-bound books.

Directories have always followed more or less the same format - subscriber listings, classified lists for trades and professions, with some extra pages used for advertising.

The only real difference with today's directories is that the early telephone books had a list of numbers - with the subscribers listed next to them. So if you only had a number you could find out to whom it belonged.

Card supplied by NTC for use by new phone subscribers, c1900

Phone numbers on calling cards : here's my number ... do call me.

In the early days some telephone companies tried to dissuade business subscribers from having their telephone numbers printed on their business cards.

The word 'telephone' would show that they could be contacted. This would place more emphasis on the company's directory as the sole source of telephone numbers.

However, business people were already putting telegraphic addresses on their calling cards.

It soon became natural to add telephone numbers to addresses - both on cards and, increasingly, on letterheads as well.

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...