Thursday, 5 April 2012

Ringing the Changes

             Well, after mentioning telephones yesterday, what should arrive today but my new telephone for the study? I bought it online, and it cost £14.30, including shipping from China. I haven't connected it up yet, as I need an extension cable, but I think it looks terrifically Steampunk. 

I remember when we first got a telephone at home, at some time during the sixties. It was a party line, which means that we shared the line with somebody else, and if they were using the telephone we couldn’t use ours and vice versa. You picked up the receiver, listened for someone speaking, and if no one was, you pressed a button on the top and got a dial tone. If someone was talking, it was considered very bad form to listen to the other person’s conversation – you just apologised for interrupting, put the receiver down, and tried again later.

If you were out and about and wanted to make a telephone call, you had to find a telephone box. It was quite common for people without a telephone at home to arrange to ring someone at their local telephone box at a certain time, which often resulted in a lot of hanging around waiting for the box to become free. The ‘traditional’ red telephone box was introduced in 1935. It was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, an architect, (perhaps his most famous work is Liverpool Anglican Cathedral), and based partly on the mausoleum of Sir Hans Sloane. The box is officially known as the K6, (Kiosk No. 6), and over 70,000 were installed across Britain between 1935 and 1968. There are still about 14,000 kiosks in use, and approximately 2,500 have been granted Grade II listed status. They have also been exported all over the world, particularly to UK colonies. Other ‘red’ British icons are, of course, the pillar-box and the Routemaster double-decker bus.
Kingston-upon-Hull, (more commonly known simply as Hull), was outside the Post Office monopoly and the telephone service there was under the control of the city council. K6s in Hull did not have the usual crown emblem and were painted cream instead. When the service was privatised, Kingston Communications started to remove the kiosks, which caused an outcry from Hullensians, who argued that their heritage was being destroyed, and about 125 K6s were saved in the area.

When using the telephone in a kiosk, you put in the money before dialing the number. If the person you had rung answered, you pressed button 'A' on the coin-box and were connected - if there was no answer, you pressed button 'B' and got your money back. During the time of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile crisis, in the early sixties, the Ministry of Defence was concerned that, if World War III started, they might not be able to contact the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, if he was out and about in his car. They considered fitting a radio to the car, but MacMillan was against all the fuss, so it was decided instead to fit a device as used at the time by the Automobile Association breakdown service. A signal would be sent to the car and the driver would find the nearest telephone kiosk. Brian Saunders, the Private Secretary of the Ministry of Works, who was responsible for the government carpool, also proposed that the drivers be issued with four pennies, so that the Prime Minister would have the right change to ring the Cabinet War-room. The reply from Tim Bligh, principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, deserves to be quoted in full : -

'The first sentence of your last paragraph is correct, but a shortage of pennies should not present quite the difficulties which you envisage. Whilst it may be desirable when motoring to carry a few pennies in one's pocket, occasions do arise when by some misfortune or miscalculation they have been expended and one is 'penniless'. In such cases however it is a simple matter to have the cost of any telephone call transferred by dialling 100 and requesting reversal of the charge, and this doesn't take any appreciable extra time. This system works in both normal and STD (subscriber trunk dialling) telephone kiosks and our drivers are aware of it.'
Bligh then went on to add that Whitehall was considering joining the AA, as this would also give them access to the network of boxes used by the AA and RAC! Splendid, eh? The world is on the brink of nuclear war, and the British government is quibbling about issuing drivers with fourpence. 

There are presently about 4 billion mobile phones in use across the world, but over 50% of the global population have neither made nor received a call using a land-line.

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