When I was small I have memories of my grandma and my parents owning one of these phones, not that they had much choice of course since it wasn’t until the early 80s that other companies were allowed to make phones in the UK; before that it was the good old GPO’s job to rent one out to you. I took mine to bits to fix the dial, it kept sticking, and while taking it apart I took some photos which are attached to links throughout this post. Read on, this is more than a bunch of photos…
The one my grandma had lived under her stairs on a shelf – a special telephone shelf that was just out my reach. The one my parents had lived in the porch out the way – but not so out the way that conversations couldn’t be listened to. Using the phone was a special and expensive thing, it cost real money to make a call back then – 5p a minute for local calls if you were calling after 6pm. I had to sit in the cold trying to convince my friend to bike the half mile up to my house.
Naturally, as time went on phones became cheaper, the GPO renamed themselves to ‘British Telecom’ (although there are still manhole covers in the streets with ‘GPO’ stamped into them) before being cut up into bits, de-monopolised and communications became cheap, easy and a race to the bottom for pricing and customer loyalty. You’d think in 2010 a phone made in 1980 wouldn’t have a chance of working, they’re wholly mechanical, not a single integrated circuit or even a single transistor is inside that phone above. It has cogs and springs and levers and some resistors. And a giant pair of bells that make a noise – if you are angry and end a call with a traditional slamming of the receiver it makes a satisfying “dinnnggggg”. The telesales idiot who interrupted you won’t notice, but the phone is solid and could withstand being thrown across the room. There’s a wonderful physical feel to dialling a number (yes kids, that’s why it’s called “dialling” – there’s a whacking great dial on the phone) because it takes time for the dial to move. There’s a reason it takes the dial time to move, it’s to pulse out the numbers down the line – it’s not just old, slow technology being irritating. The whole thing is designed with a purpose, there are no flashing neon lights or 26 ring tones to choose from.
The thing is, these phones do still work without any modification apart from a resistor so the ringer still works. Think about that for a moment… Unless you live in the outer parts of the Scottish Highlands, you are wired to a digital phone exchange that spends most of its life shovelling ATM, ISDN, ADSL and IP data around the country. Quite a lot of this shoots down fibre optic cabling, rather than being varying AC voltages that fade over distance. My granddad used to shout into his phone when ringing abroad, it was funny to watch but necessary since back then there was a real electrical connection between your phone in England and your friend’s phone in Spain – actual physically connected pieces of metal rather than abstract packets of data.
So with all this digital data whizzing around, these clunky obsolete bits of technology still work. My line has ADSL on it, there is a filter to cut that off so the phones don’t mess it up. My phone is wired to the exchange using just two wires, and down those two wires goes everything… the ADSL, the power to run the phones, the power to ring the physical bell in my phone, the voice signal, the digital ADSL signal and a thing to tell the exchange when I take my phone off the hook. All that sent down two wires meaning I can watch YouTube and the phone system can shovel 90 volts of electricity up the line to ring my phone.
Isn’t that just a bit magic?