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Telephone-impact on everyday life

The Gower-Bell telephone, which used two hearing tubes and a fixed transmitter - a Connected Earth artefact now in the Royal Mail Heritage Collection

Learning to use the telephone : it's a hazardous occupation

Early telephones were not very user-friendly. You had to hold the receiver up to your ear whilst talking into the mouthpiece which was fixed onto the wall, making it hard for anyone who was not of average height.

Calling the operator was done by turning a crank handle or by pressing a button, which operated a visual indicator at the local exchange.

With the advent of the candlestick telephone the caller had to hold the telephone and mouthpiece with one hand and the earpiece with the other, leaving no hands free to write a message or do anything else.

Getting connected became easier with the advent of the rotary dial - although even this had its problems. In the early days, one man claimed that his telephone was faulty because he was having trouble dialling a number. It turned out he had been sticking fingers in all four digits at once, instead of dialling them in sequence.

Publicity leaflet (PH201), 1930s - in the BT Archives collection

Changing perceptions : defining the look

When the vast bulk of the British telephone system fell under the control of the Post Office in 1912, the telephones supplied to users became standardised, with a range of designs produced by various manufacturers to uniform patterns.

By the 1930s attitudes to the telephone were changing. The telephone was moving off the hall table into the sitting room and bedroom - now becoming seen as part of everyday life and home décor.

The introduction of new materials such as Bakelite and other plastics made new shapes possible. The result was the classic 162 and the 300-types that defined the shape of telephones for 30 years or more.

From the late 1950 new colours were introduced with the 700 series, which in turn fashioned the look of telephones into the 1980s.

Telephone No. 2 (early pattern) - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Museum of London

Telephone No. 2 - candlestick telephone : slim but heavy

All telephones need a supply of electricity to work and originally this was supplied by cumbersome wet batteries, which needed regular maintenance.

New types of exchange enabled telephones connected to them to be powered from a central battery, eliminating the need for a 'local' baterry at each telephone and also the wooden box that housed it. Table telephones became smaller and more practical.

There was a problem though. The microphones of the time would operate on these new exchanges in a vertical or near-vertical position. So handsets were out, and the neat candlestick was in. Its very heavy base made it almost impossible to hold it out of position.

This particular telephone is one of the reference patterns for the 'No. 2' model, which was followed by the manufacturers in their production for the GPO. Interestingly, the GPO gave all wall telephone models odd numbers and table telephones even - hence this is the No. 2 as it was the GPO's first standard table tablephone.

Candlestick telephone on extending wall-bracket - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Amberley Museum

Wall mounted candlestick phone (1920s) : keeping the phone in easy reach

Table telephones were convenient for talking to someone at work, but they had a habit of dominating the desk and covering up paperwork. This scissor-mounted device allowed people to use the telephone at their desk then push it away when they had finished, leaving the space for something more important. The devices were known as 'Walligraphs' - so called because they were made by a company called Wallis.

The Post Office was wary of attachments that might interfere with the working of its telephones, although in this case the liklihood of problems was minimal.

Avoid infection - Tear off 1 sheet before speaking

Safety fears (health and hygiene) : keeping conversations clean

Most new technologies normally arouse some sort of technophobia - fear of the unfamiliar. The telephone was no different.

Initially there were safety concerns - sometimes quite valid - about the safety of the elaborate complexes of overhead lines that the telephone companies were erecting.

Later there were fears about the possibility of contracting tuberculosis or some other contagious disease from the telephone mouthpiece.

One company offered sterilisable glass replacement mouthpieces to screw into any telephone you were using.

Others offered medicated tissue covers, telephone disinfecting services and even a device that ringed the mouthpiece with ozone-producing electrical sparks. This last needed to be handled with particular care.

Telephone No. 162 Walnut - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Amberley Museum

Telephone No. 162 walnut (c1933) : walnut is the new black!

At the end of the 1920s design was revolutionised by the manufacturing potetnial offered by Bakelite and other new plastics. Suddenly design wasn't restricted by having to use wood or metal; you could have almost any shape or colour you wanted.

The new materials were ideal for telephone cases and most manufacturers were quick to develop new models. The Post Office adopted a model based on the Siemens 'Neophone', which it offered as a premium alternative to its existing very limited range. Here is a quote from a sales brochure of the time:

'Hand microphones are supplied not only in the ordinary Black, but also in Old Gold, Oxidised Silver, Ivory, Jade Green and Walnut to fit into special schemes and decoration. Special colours can be supplied by arrangement. They give a touch of dignity and distinction to the room.'

Gold, silver and walnut were not popular, and were soon replaced by red. The Post Office was slowly embracing new sales and marketing techniques.

White 700 series telephone

Telephone No. 706 (1960s): a colourful future!

Designed for the 60s, yet introduced in 1959, the 706 (the first of the 700-type telephones) had an eye on the vibrant colours of the 'swinging 60s'. Still available in black but, for those with a liking of a colourful world: red, blue, yellow, two-tone grey, two-tone green or ivory could be yours.

Modern plastics and injection molding techniques led to a new sleek, ergonomic and lightweight design. Early models had the digits around the outside of the dial, but this proved unpopular and led to them being placed back within in the holes of the dial.

This was the first telephone produced by the Post Office to include early electronic components, which were introduced to improve transmission quality regardless of the distance from the telephone exchange.

Hawk' cordless telephone

Hawk cordless phone (1980s) : taking a call wherever you like

In the 1960s and 1970s the introduction of extra-long cords on handsets pointed the way that callers wanted to go, with the ability to move around whilst talking on the telephone.

In the early 1980s their wishes were granted with the introduction of the Hawk cordless telephone from British Telecom. The telephones, priced at around £90-£100, were effective and functional but 'buzzed' loudly if you moved too close to an electrical source such as a fluorescent light.

The Hawk wasn't the only model available. In a liberalised market British Telecom now faced competition from rival telephone manufacturers whose products were on sale at electrical shops and even petrol stations.

Telecommunications tones : ring a bell?

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Telecommunications tones : ring a bell?
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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