It’s time to talk about phone calls. Let’s make a call – Right, take that phone out of your pocket – Where’s the Contacts app – Two taps and a couple of seconds and we’re talking.
You didn’t really think it would be that simple, did you! Read on!
In the 50s, telephones were comparatively rare, relatively expensive and seen as a luxury for emergency use only. They were not considered a service that every home must have. Let’s start with the telephone set then. [I know, some people would be colloquial and call it the ‘phone, with an apostrophe, but generally it was the telephone then.]
For your telephone set, you have, of course, abandoned any thoughts of choice. (If not, as I keep saying, pay attention! Go back and read the earlier blog posts.) There was only one type of telephone. (It’s equivalent to our handset but too big to be called that. We just called it the telephone.) One reason there was no choice was that it was not yours. The GPO (of which more in another blog,) was a large organisation which, among other things, owned the telephone service. It owned all the Telephone Exchanges, all the wires and all the telephone sets in the United Kingdom. So they decided on the set, connected it for you, wired it in it and didn’t even give you a choice of colour to match your décor. It was black.
[Pedantic purists may point out that a small area around Kingston-upon-Hull had their own separate telephone system, for rather peculiar historic reasons. I have no idea how this happened, but it did not make an impression on my life. We are talking of the Ilford area.]
The telephone was big, black, heavy and fixed. The fact that it was heavy was immaterial because there was no way you could move it. The base was connected by wire to the house, and the handset was connected to the base. [I mean connected – wired in. Forget anything like a USB port in the wall. As far as you were concerned, the pair of twisted wires went from your telephone to the Telephone Exchange, a few miles away. You were not allowed to do anything to the wiring.]
It was so fixed, it was like a piece of furniture. It had its own part of the house. Perhaps in the hall, you had it on its own telephone table and you may have had a telephone seat by it. You had a pencil and notebook by it for messages, and you may have had an address book or a really modern, natty card file device by the side – so that you could look up numbers.
We will come to the mechanics of the machine in a minute. For now, if you have never seen one, picture something made of a heavy plastic, called bakelite, (in the days before the general use of plastic,) sitting on your telephone table.
Making a Call
Let’s assume, for the time being, that you knew who you were calling and had looked up their number. And let’s start with a local number, using the same Exchange. (I will come to Exchanges later.) For us, in the London telephone area (even before we were part of Greater London,) this would have been just four digits. Elsewhere it could have been five.
Our number is shown on the set. We were not Whitehall 1212, that was Scotland Yard, home of the Metropolitan Police – often used in fictional detective stories. (It’s not complex technology. It’s a piece of paper, behind a piece of transparent plastic.) Suppose we were ‘VAL 3456’. Then for a local call we could talk to another ‘VAL ####’ number. [I’m not giving you my real number, but we were Valentine – it covered quite a large area of Ilford.]
I need a little digression here. Generally, towns and cities had their exchange and used a five-digit number, for example: ‘Colchester 12345’, or ‘Southend-on-Sea 56789’. The larger telephone area around London had a two-tier system with many local exchanges, each using just four digits.
Our local Exchange area was called VALentine, for reasons I will come to in a minute. Others nearby were ILFord, SEVen Kings, CREscent, and WANstead. We could call these numbers directly.
[[I have to put in a note about this two-tier system – the Director Telephone System. It’s new to me and I found it on Wikipedia while researching for this. It’s the system I knew – as it was used in London and the area immediately outside. In 1950, this system was just used in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Edinburgh. London had 237 areas, each with an exchange like our Valentine. Outside London and these similar towns, the telephone dials were marked in numbers only.]]
The dial on the picture shows that letters were marked as well as numbers. A, B and C are associated with the number 2; DEF with 3; GHI for 4; round to WXY for 9. We used these when dialling so that ‘VAL’ was actually the same as ‘825.’ It saved people having to remember seven digits! Anyone in the Valentine area would dial just ‘3456’. Those outside used ‘VAL3456’ which was really ‘8253456’.
You would lift the handset, carefully placing the earpiece near to your ear, and listen for a dialling tone. Dialling was not touch-tone. It could take a minute or two. You put your finger in the appropriate digit, rotated carefully round to the metal stop and let the dial rotate backwards, a mechanical process. Then you did the next digit … You could hear things whirring and you heard sounds as it tried to make a connection.
[Linguistic diversion: ‘Dial’ – it’s one of those words that should be obsolete but we can’t think of a better word. When you ‘dial’ a number now you don’t do anything circular, but we still call it dialling. Video ‘footage’ is another one.]
Telephones used low voltage electricity, but relied largely on mechanical process. Every telephone in the Valentine area was physically connected, by its own cable, to the Valentine Telephone Exchange, a large building full of equipment. (When I say large, it would have been several times the size of a substantial semi-detached house.) Using what was then advanced engineering, simple electro-mechanical processes could route the call from the outgoing line to the intended recipient, when the call was local. That was as far as automatic dialling went.
Receiving a Call
So the call was set up to the recipient, where the telephone rang. (There was only one ring-tone! It was the only noise the set could make. It actually rang a bell. When I saw films or television with American telephones rang, they always sounded new and modern. They were, of course, neither – just different. Like most things that developed on both sides of the Atlantic, we chose different ways of doing them. All American telephones used just the same American ‘ring-tone’ as well, just not our one.)
Unfortunately, making a telephone call was not that simple! I will making a few random estimates here. About 30-40% of calls just did not connect. You would wait for a while and get an ‘unobtainable’ or ‘engaged’ noise – or maybe some other whirring noises. So, you put the telephone down, pick it up again, wait for the dialling tone and start again.
When you were connected you had a 20% chance of a slightly different number responding (- say VAL 2354 instead of VAL 2345); or a 30% change of a more random misdial (- say VAL 2857); or a small chance of talking to someone in Canterbury or Aberdeen (or Timbuktu!) So you didn’t go straight into talking personal matters!
On answering, wrong numbers were so much an accepted thing that the first task was to establish who was talking, which would start by agreeing the number receiving the call. The word ‘hello’ was invented for answering telephones, but before or after that you would say your telephone number, “Valentine 5678”. If the person at the other end was expecting to talk to someone else you might then have a discussion about the number intended and the person who should have answered – but if it was wrong, then you would put it down fairly soon and wait. (Waiting was only polite. Sometimes the caller might be put through several times to you before getting it right!)
If you said the right number, you could go on to consider who it was. It was not uncommon for someone who wanted to talk to Joe Bloggs to insist that he lived where you lived. “If that’s Valentine 5678, you must be Joe!” But, of course, you knew you were not Joe. You did eventually get to talk to the person you wanted – most of the time.
I won’t go into what you might talk about but it was unlikely to be chatting. A telephone was a luxury device for important calls. We had lived without them for hundreds of years and society was just starting to use them. Our house did not have a set until we moved in about 1954. We did not expect to use it as often as every day, perhaps once or twice a week.
Until the end of the fifties, you could make local calls, ‘toll calls,’ or ‘trunk calls.’ For us, local calls, within the Valentine area, were very cheap. (They may have been free. I’m not sure.) Toll calls could be made up to about twenty miles and were more expensive – of the order of 5p for three minutes. Beyond this were trunk calls, the sort of thing you might attempt once a year or in a major emergency.
To make a trunk call, you had to go through the operator. Dialling the number ‘0’, also marked as the letter ‘O’ enabled you to talk to an operator. You would give her the number and work would commence. (OK, it was almost certainly a woman. That was life then.)
A trunk call had to be patched by hand by the operator, maybe through several operators along the line. In the early fifties, you even needed to book a trunk call in advance. Later on, it became easier but even at the end of the fifties it was a manual process – lengthy and difficult, subject to errors, and expensive. To be honest, I can’t recollect any occasion on which we made a trunk call from our house. What people of today will find hard to understand is that we did not have the need to contact people over this distance. If a relative moved fifty miles or more away, you did not expect to make contact again for months. Then you might decide to write them a letter.
(As you can imagine the situation with international calls was even more fraught. People might try to contact a distant friend at Christmas, if they could book several weeks in advance and go through a lot of hassle. Just because you booked didn’t mean that you would eventually get through.)
Perhaps now is the time to reflect on some of what we did not have in the world of telephony. Telephones with dials did not have the ability that we have now to continue tapping out numbers – to go through a multi-layer selection process. (Touch-tone dialling now sends audible signals down the line.) We did not have to go consider: ‘Press 1 to ask about your bill; 2 to talk to one of our engineers; 3 …’ I think this is something we did not miss!! But then we also did not have 0800 numbers or call centres of any kind; there were no premium rate numbers; we could not send faxes; there were no radio phone-ins … So it wasn’t all bad then!
Also, there were no modems to connect non-existent computers to a non-existent Internet! And we managed without portable hand-sets. When the telephone rang, you had to get up and walk to where it was to answer it.
Very few people had a telephone at home and there were many more public telephones, used much more often. They provided an essential service for emergency use. Coin boxes worked on money but would always allow a free call to ‘999’.
Without modern technology, making a call relied on simple electro-physical processes. In the call box, you lifted the receiver, waited for the dialling tone, put your coins in at the top, started dialling, and waited for the connection to go through. On connection, you were allowed a few seconds to make sure it was the right person before deciding to press Button A – this took your money and let the call continue. For a failed call, you pressed Button B and your money was refunded. Your 2d (about 1p) would give you three minutes for a local call. [In the early days, anything other than a local call was impractical.]
The set shown here would show its telephone number (like the Whitehall 1212 in the picture above) and it was not unknown for those without a telephone at home to use them for incoming calls. You would have to wait and hope that no one else wanted to use the telephone box.
Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) started a major change in the use of telephones. All exchanges were given numeric values, so that we could call anywhere in Britain simply by using a longer number (up to ten digits) without using the operator. It was phased in gradually, taking effect from the early sixties. This was revolutionary and started the trend towards wider usage as, gradually costs came down. Even then, it was no surprise if 20% of dialled calls failed to connect and 20% connected to a wrong number.
[[It was only with STD that areas outside London and the big cities changed to dials with letters as well as numbers. Initially STD also used letters, and those outside London could dial into our lettered exchanges. By 1965, London had expanded to 350 exchanges and was running out of pronounceable combinations. The system changed to numbers only in 1966, when Valentine (825) became 554.]]
I am finding it hard to locate a good picture of an old Telephone Directory. The picture above gives an impression of their size. Forget the modern BT books, now called ‘The Phone Book,’ or anything related to Yellow Pages. In the fifties, these books were large and covered a large area. We had one for South-West Essex, and about eight covering the whole of the London telephone area. All would have been four or five centimetres thick. (The picture earlier of the inside of a call box has two bookshelf areas below the telephone, just to hold all of these directories.) So we could look up the number of any householder, shop or business in the area around us including London.
We used to get these updated every year. Now they come less often and cover a smaller area. (We had nothing like Yellow Pages so we could not look for a specific type of business. We had to know the name.)
There were times when we could not find a number – maybe a new telephone owner, or someone who had moved or (after STD) someone outside the area. So we had to pick a 118 number to dial and ask … No! It was long before them!
We just dialled ‘DIR’ and asked the operator. It was an easy, quick, free service. The operator would offer to connect us (at no charge.) This free service continued until well into the 21st Century, changed from ‘Dir’ to ’192.’
(We had other free services. The Speaking Clock had been an essential source of accurate time. Later we added UMP – for test Match scores; area weather forecasts; traffic news …)
Since then, gradually, the older technology has been replaced. The work done by a Telephone Exchanges, which used to need a large building (and large numbers of operators), can be done now within a small computer. We have cable, satellites and the Internet. And we have privatisation, with lots of companies! (BT is what’s left of the old GPO telephone service.)
This was going to be a tiny introduction to Post Offices! Maybe next time …