Skip to main content

Developing the telephone

The Telephone Company's first London exchange, in Coleman Street EC - a BT Archives picture (P6964)

The first phone services (1879) : a very exclusive club

The Telephone Company was set up in 1878 to develop the telephone in Britain. The following year the company set up the first exchange, connecting just eight subscribers. By the end of the year there were three exchanges and 200 subscribers.

For £20 a year (at a time when the average annual income was £75) the first subscribers received two Bell telephones - one to serve as a transmitter and one as a receiver - although you could use the same instrument to speak and listen if you wanted. A battery was supplied to power the phones and a separate bell to indicate an incoming call.

It was very rare to talk to people direct on the first phones. Boys were employed at the exchanges to take messages and then read them over to the person being called.

The first switched telephone network arrived in Britain when The Telephone Company Ltd opened its first public telephone exchange at its offices in Coleman Street, London. The service was in effect an exclusive club, to which members paid a subscription - hence the origin of the term 'subscriber'. The exchange served just eight subscribers with a two-panel 'Williams' switchboard.

By the end of the year, a further two exchanges had been opened at Leadenhall Street in the City, and at Westminster. By then, the number of subscribers totalled around 200. The same year, the company also opened telephone exchanges in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Bristol.

Portrait of Thomas Edison as a young man

Edison's telephone patents (1879) : a rival to Bell

The pre-eminent American inventor of the 1870s was Thomas Alva Edison, who had already worked on telephone technology - particularly on the rival type of transmitter that was giving Bell so many commercial problems.

By 1879 Edison had produced a telephone receiver known as the 'chalk receiver', 'motograph receiver' or 'electromotograph'.

During the summer of that year, The Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd was registered with a capital of £200,000 to work with the Edison telephone patents. Within a month the company's first exchange opened officially, at Queen Victoria Street, London, with ten subscribers who used carbon transmitters and chalk receivers. By the end of the following February, when the company had another two exchanges in operation, it served 172 subscribers.

United Telephone Company subscribers handbook, 1880

Bell vanquishes Edison in the UK (1880) : Bell wins British battle too

Edison's telephonic challenge to Bell in Britain lasted only a little longer than the Western Union effort in the USA. Once again, the power of Bell's original patents was too strong.

After some litigation in the courts, the Telephone Company Ltd and the Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd were amalgamated in May 1880 to form the United Telephone Company with a capital of £500,000. The new company, controlling Bell's and Edison's patents, now had a near monopoly in Britain.

La Porte, Indiana (possible reconstruction)

La Porte, Indiana (1892) : making a phone call was never such hard work!

La Porte, Indiana, went through a quiet revolution in 1892, so quiet that most people didn't notice and those that did didn't like it, because this town was the first place in the world to install an automatic telephone exchange.

The exchange boasted 99 lines, but it required users to tap out the number they wanted on three keys to call other users directly, without speaking to an operator. Many callers didn't like it because they thought that tapping the number should be the telephone companies job!

In 1896 the 'tapper' keys were replaced by a dial similar to the ones that would be used on telephones for the next 80 years.

The system had been pioneered by a local undertaker who was convinced that the operators were pushing his business on to competitors. When his system made its debut, Almon Strowger bragged that his exchanges were "girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, and wait-less."

See also "An electronic future"

Telephone exchange goes automatic, 20 July 1935

Strowger Automatic Exchange (& Automatic Electric Co.) (1891) : automating the phone

The Strowger Automatic Telephone Company was set up to exploit the automatic exchange system invented by its founder Almon B. Strowger. It was formed on Oct 30, 1891, by Strowger and his associates M. A. Meyer and Joseph Harris, who raised money for the venture. A year later they installed the first automatic exchange at La Porte, Indiana, USA.

The company developed by holding demonstrations of the system across the USA and in Europe, using its subsidiary the Automatic Telephone Exchange Company, later renamed the Automatic Electric Company. Expansion was slow because the telephone companies were not keen to automate their services. However, by 1901 the company had installed the system into a range of U.S., Canadian and Cuban cities as well as in Australia.

Eventually the system became the standard exchange across many parts of the world, including England. The Strowger patents were licensed to the Bell Corporation in 1919 for $2.5 million, although Automatic Electric continued production for non-Bell customers.

Although the UK stanardised on Strowger-type automatic exchanges, others were tested and used. This picture shows a trial Lorimer exchange, at Hereford.

Electromechanical switching (1891) : cutting out the human factor

Although the first patent for an automatic telephone switch was granted already in 1879, the first successful electomechanical telephone switch was invented in 1891 by a Kansas City (USA) undertaker called Almon B. Strowger.

Strowger was fed up with the local telephone operators diverting his calls from would be customers to a rival undertaker, and determined to engineer the operator out of the loop.

He devised a system that used contact arms rotating on shafts to make contact with any one of ten contacts in an arc. This was the 'switching' part of the system. Driving the arms and selectors were 'control' instructions received from the calling telephone, in the form of electrical impulses generated by the dial.

The Strowger system worked 'step by step' - each digit dialled set up part of the connection, moving the call through another switching stage to a further group of exchanges or telephones.

The basic ideas of Strowger were much improved by the work and inventions of others. The 'Keith Line Switch' was a small addition which significantly improved the practicality and economics of step-by-step switching.

The first Strowger exchange (1912) : Direct dialling at last

In 1912 the old National Telephone Company System was transferred to the Post Office. In May of that year Britain's first automatic exchange opened at Epsom in Surrey. The new exchange was based on the switching machinery developed by Almon Strowger in America.

This first British Strowger exchange had a capacity of only 500 lines but it did make it possible for connected subscribers to make their own calls, using the rotary telephone dial. By the early 1920s, the Strowger system had proved effective in Britain and several more large exchanges had been opened.

Director demonstration panel - a Connected Earth artefact now in Milton Keynes Museum

Director demonstration set (1930s) : a clear demonstration of progress

As telephone technology became more sophisticated, understanding how the system worked became increasingly baffling for the 'man-on-the-street'. In fact there was still resistance from some people to accept the telephone into their home, because of the gradual mechanisation of life it represented.

Trying to break down some of the confusion, The Post Office developed 'show piece' versions of the technology, which they displayed at trade fairs and exhibitions.

This demonstration set shows the 'director' technology that was being installed in London during the 1920s and 1930s. The 'Director' was the device which made it possible to automate the capital's already large and complex network.

Post Office staff would demonstrate how the machinery used basic pre-computer programming to accept a telephone number that had been dialled and redirected it to the correct destination.

6-line switchboard (1880s) : connection plugs

Place the mouse over the QuickTime image. Left-click and drag either left or right to rotate the animation.
6-line switchboard (1880s) : connection plugs

As well as the public telephone system, there were a great number of private networks dotted around Britain. These could be in offices, businesses or large houses and sometimes had no connection to the outside world.

Relay 'gift set' (1927) : a golden gift to remember

Place the mouse over the QuickTime image. Left-click and drag either left or right to rotate the animation.
Relay 'gift set' (1927) : a golden gift to remember

Alongside the inventiveness of the new technology being installed in Britain's telephone systems, there was a certain imaginative novelty in the types of gifts made to commemorate grand occasions. This relay gift set was no exception.

The glass presentation box contains a set of ten relays exactly like the ones used in London's first automatic exchange, only these were partly covered in a fine layer of golden gilt.

Relays themselves were simple electrically-operated switches. They were used in a variety of places and sat at the heart of most automatic exchange equipment. The gift set was presented to the Post Office in 1927 to celebrate the automation of the Holborn exchange, in London.

Telephone No. 16 (1890s) : style and content

Place the mouse over the QuickTime image. Left-click and drag either left or right to rotate the animation.
Telephone No. 16 (1890s) : style and content

This magneto phone was a triumph of design over function. The magneto-type telephones needed magnets to generate the necessary electricity to make a call. Usually these were horseshoe shaped, as in the early Bell models. However, rather than have the magnets as add-on components, the Swedish company Ericsson integrated them into the whole shape of the phone, so the legs on this phone double up as the magnets.

Ericsson also managed to successfully combine the transmitter and receiver together into a functional handset, when most phones, such as the candlestick, still provided separate ear and mouthpieces.

When the handle on the side was cranked it signalled the operator at the exchange that you wanted to make a call, who could then connect you. The magneto system was in place until the 1920s however its use dwindled from the mainstream into private networks.

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...