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The telephone becomes universal

Trench tableau including a field telephone

Field telephone (1877) : calling from the front line

The first recorded use of the telephone in war was in 1877. British officers in the Indian Army used phones experimentally for passing messages during operations on the North West Frontier.

They were used again in the siege of Sherpur during the Second Afghan War in 1879. In fact more phones were used there than existed in the City of London at the time.

During the Boer War, the British defences of Kimberley and Mafeking were directed by telephone. But it was in the trenches of Flanders during the First World War that the field telephone really came into its own, by allowing front line troops to call for artillery fire support, for example.

But the phone cables of the time - a single wire with an earth return - were a security hazard, as 'pickups' embedded in the earth allowed the enemy to listen in to phone conversations. This prompted a mass conversion of phone cables to double-wire circuits, which remain the standard today.

Master/servant on phone

Upstairs, downstairs : have a telephone by all means - but don't use it yourself

In the 20th century, the telephone soon found its rightful place in most homes - on a stand or table in the hall. This was the best compromise between being convenient for everyone but also sufficiently out of the way for an instrument that still required quite a lot of shouting right up to the 1930s.

In well-to-do homes, the master or mistress of the house would scarcely ever come to the telephone themselves.

Lady Troubridge in her 1926 Book of Etiquette defined part of a servant's duties as:

'...answering the telephone. If asked who is speaking, a servant should reply 'Mrs Dash's butler or maid' as the case may be. He should speak clearly and courteously and, if it is necessary to take a message, say: 'If you will kindly hold the line, I will inform Mrs Dash.'

She suggested that the householder should provide note books and pencils on the hall table and arrange that all written messages be placed there.

Matrix switchboard - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Amberley Museum

Matrix switchboard (1890s) : making a connection is a push-over

Switchboards have come in many forms, sizes and styles. This is a cordless model from Denmark that might have been installed on a private network. It used the 'matrix' system, which worked by pushing a switch to make a predetermined connection between two telephone lines, rather than by manually moving a plug and cable from one point to another to make the connection, as the cord system did.

The switchboard handled up to six lines. The operator could talk to any of them by pushing one of the six buttons on the top row, but if one line wanted to speak to another the operator would join them together by pushing the relevant button on the lower rows.

Toy Telephone (1970s) : the clatter of tiny feet

Place the mouse over the QuickTime image. Left-click and drag either left or right to rotate the animation.

This little toy telephone is an example of how the phone has become a universally recognisable part of everyday culture.

The lightweight, 7cm tall, plastic toy was made as a novelty gift; the sort of present that would end up inside your stocking, be played with for a few minutes and probably forgotten.

The key on the side winds up a clockwork mechanism that powers the little legs. Simply let go and it scoots along the floor, or the top of a table, at a surprisingly nippy speed, until it slows down as the spring runs down before finally lumbering to a halt.

The fact that such a toy could be mass produced and sold around the country (even if the keypad design wasn't quite correct) demonstrates how used to the phone everyone had become. The once-serious telephone has been trivialised into a children's toy.

Sports journalist (phoning in results) : William Pitfield

William Pitfield was born in 1921. His first experience with the phone was in the army during the Second World War using field telephones laid by the Signal regiment.

Having been demobbed, he became a journalist for a local newspaper in Dorchester during the 1950s, before working for some of the major London papers. During this period he began to use the phone in earnest.

Here he talks about how essential the phone became for filing copy through to the newspapers, and how he employed a runner to phone in football results at various times as a match progressed.

audio clip


Telephone - as far as the journalists side of it's concerned - a telephone was very much used of course and I used to telephone a lot of the news stories direct to London and the regional newspapers by telephone four maybe five, sometimes different papers, practically every day and this would take up to an hour or more of my time every day. And at the other end there would be a person called a copy taker who would take it down verbatim your story. Papers like Fleet Street had a large number of lines and large number of copy takers; there was never any delay because it was they couldn't afford delay because if you were phoning a story say about four o'clock in the afternoon that would be probably in the paper by about twelve o'clock at night, so there was a very strict time limit on it. Of course there were no sophisticated communications, so what I had to do was to employ a runner. In those days, in a football match for example you sent two or three pieces as the match was progressing. You would write it out as the match was going on, on a piece of paper, and then the runner would take it back to a telephone.

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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