7. Telephones

When I was a child the only people with their own telephone were doctors, solicitors and the like; the rest used public call boxes, the red ones*. Gradually phones became more common. The heavy, black ones, with the bell that mobile phones now impersonate, were the only ones on offer. Usually they had a rotating dial, but when I first moved to rural Devon in 1972, the operator at the small exchange was contacted directly on lifting the handset, and the (three digit) number requested. At the same time the ‘party line’ existed; the same incoming telephone line was shared by neighbours as it was cheaper, but had the disadvantage that both parties could not use the phone at the same time. With improvements in electronics and plastics, phones got smaller and cheaper. One particular type was the ‘trimphone’ which was a must-have from Post Office Telephones (the nationalised company which became British Telecom [BT] when it was privatised). The trimphone had a squared unit with a tiny, light handset with a peculiar warbling ringtone, which the mischievous tried to imitate. As I pen this in 2014 most home phones are cordless and in every room, but many homes no longer have a fixed phone line

The breakthrough came when phones became ‘mobile’. Initially this involved carrying a large box with a large battery, but as time moved on, they moved through being the size of a brick to as small as the human hand can cope with. Some adults still shun the ‘mobile’ but even the smallest child now demands a ‘smartphone’ which has internet, email, music playing facilities and apps beyond number.

*Phone calls made from the old red boxes had no time limit. For 2d (1p) you could talk all night, if someone ‘out of patience’ didn’t bang on the glass door to tell you to ‘hurry-up’. The coins were inserted in a slot and the number dialled. On hearing the voice at the other end, a button marked ‘A’ was pressed and you could start talking. If there was no answer the Button-B was pressed and your coins were returned. The system changed to fixed-time calls, but if you were skilled, you could tap out the phone number on the ‘rest’ buttons and get through for free, so I’m told’.


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