When I were a lad, telephones were big, black bakelite devices – which connected rich people to other rich people, via an operator. For the rest of us, there were street phones.
For the SUPER-rich, they made phones in a couple of other colours – but they were pretty rare. So much so that today, genuine WHITE bakelite period phones in good condition are highly collectible.
But everybody – even the rich – had to play by the rules. You could only use GPO equipment. You could not turn its loud bell OFF. You had to answer with your NUMBER – not just say “hello” – and you had to group the numbers THEIR way. And all calls went through operators, in three minute blocks.
This last was a PAIN if you wanted to call ABROAD. You had to BOOK your call with the operator – who would ring you when she (it was always a “she”) eventually had the call ready. Then, after three minutes, she would interrupt and ask you if you wanted to pay for another three minutes (assuming the extra time was AVAILABLE).
And since a three minute call to a foreign country cost more than that country’s national debt, this meant many calls got terminated just BEFORE the people concerned could say a proper goodbye.
This authoritarian system was run by a government department called the General Post Office.
And, tragically, this system was STILL in place when the Sixties arrived. In movies and on TV, people now used swanky, high-tech telephones – but in reality, YOU still only had that big, black bakelite bugger.
Oh, you could BUY the swanky phones – from a handful of specialist shops – you just could not USE them on the GPO system.
Well – in theory. In practise – if you knew a tame telephone engineer, you could get him (it was always a “him”) to connect one of these models to your system as an extension – but if anything went wrong with your service, you had to get him to quickly DISCONNECT it – before the GPO engineer turned up.
This was because if said engineer discovered it, he would report back to the GPO – who would CUT YOU OFF for your transgression.
It was not until the VERY late Sixties that – with the speed of an arthritic snail – the GPO (now just the PO) began to catch up with the second half of the twentieth century.
It started with the Trimphone.
These were light, slimline phones which “trilled” instead of ringing (which anyone with a parrot soon discovered was a DRAWBACK – since their pets could accurately IMITATE the ring). You could also get them in a variety of colours.
And whilst you still could not turn their bell (or rather, warble) OFF – you could at least turn it DOWN.
Plus, for the first time, there were phones with PUSH-BUTTONS. But since the “tone” system was not yet in place, all that happened was a small chip would store the numbers pushed and convert them into the series of pulses needed to work the GPO’s antique Strowger exchanges.
Eventually however, the pulse system began to be replaced by tones and “direct dialing” replaced those nosey OPERATORS.
In the early Eighties, Thatcher’s right-wing government began selling off all of Britain’s nationalised industries – starting with the utilities – to private companies. This resulted in DISASTER for most of them – but was a shot in the arm for the telephone business. At least – initially.
At this point, the author has to make it clear that all following references to British Telecom are taken from personal experience and are therefore offered as OPINION – not fact.
BT began promisingly, replacing all of the street phones with shiny NEW models. They then brought out a range of new phones – which you could even UNPLUG.
At this point, the rest of the World – sensing that Britain was FINALLY entering the second half of the twentieth century – began exporting modern phones to it. They had FEATURES – like last number redial, hands-free operation, number storage (speed-dial) – and you could finally turn the damn ringers OFF.
Which is where things STALLED – as BT began issuing demands that these phones earn their official APPROVAL before being connected to their system. The “green labels” scheme was begun.
But since many of them were manufactured in the Orient, where companies were not regulated, they ALL ended up having said labels – whether they had “earned” them or not.
The same was true of the new “cordless phones” that began to emerge. These had a base unit, with a mobile handset (with rechargeable batteries that were topped up every time you replaced it into the base unit) which could transmit and receive calls via said base unit from a range of about a hundred yards.
Unfortunately, the frequencies which these devices used were limited in number – which meant your call could often be heard by OTHER cordless phone users – and anybody nearby who was listening to FM radio – plus they would drive radio-controlled toys CRAZY.
And ALL of these phones were now available EVERYWHERE – from Argos to Tesco.
Of course, BT had THEIR shops – where only “approved” phones (mostly THEIRS) were on sale. They had DOZENS of customers.
In fact, as the Eighties gave way to the Nineties, BT began to fall out of favour generally – particularly when “de-regulation” began. At this point, OTHER service providers were allowed to enter Britain – and the British finally discovered they were being RIPPED OFF.
This was because – particularly on POPULAR routes – they charged a FRACTION of the cost that BT still charged for foreign calls.
Indeed, using one of these services, it was cheaper to call AMERICA than it was to call the NEXT TOWN – on a BT line.
However, BT still had their ace-in-the-hole. Only THEY could connect up a line to a dwelling – thus getting connected cost you a FORTUNE.
They justified this extortionate charge by pointing out it was STANDARD. I.e., while they charged you over a hundred pounds just to throw a switch at their exchange, they charged the SAME price if you lived MILES from their network and they had to run a line, on poles – over a MOUNTAIN.
Great, if you were a HERMIT.
Furthermore, even if you used an alternate SP (and with your own phone) BT still got their quarterly LINE RENTAL – which was not cheap.
And they had ANOTHER trick up their sleeve. They introduced the “non-geographical” service.
This was where COMPANIES would be given numbers, which callers would be charged a flat rate to use (local, or national). They gave preferential rates to said companies – who LAPPED it up.
But for the caller, it meant they HAD to use BT to call these companies. The alternate SPs were effectively CUT OUT.
However, more moves were afoot – MOBILE phones.
These had begun in the Eighties. Originally, the phones were the size of a house-brick and you had to sign up to an expensive contract to own one.
Thus people used to talk on them in loud voices, in streets and on trains – just to demonstrate to those around them that they HAD one. Those people were roundly HATED.
Cars began to get them too. Indeed, some people even bought empty plastic boxes that LOOKED like car phones – just to IMPRESS people. They were called “car phonies”.
Unfortunately, the joke wore thin when an owner returned to their car to discover someone had broken into it to NICK their phone – and upon finding it was BOGUS, had left something unmentionable on their SEAT.
Nevertheless, as happens with all of these things, eventually competition drove prices down and pretty soon EVERYBODY had a mobile – from tramps to priests, undertakers to butchers, etc. to etc.
Which, a decade ago, was the point THIS reporter got one – just before he managed to ESCAPE cold, wet, miserable, over-priced Britain.
The last he knows about The Phones In Britain (The Romans In Britain? – never mind) is that many people were DUMPING BT and their overpriced “land-lines” – in favour of just having a MOBILE.
BT were circling the drain.
But this was before the INTERWEB took off. And with it came something we had only DREAMED of in the Sixties – VIDEO-PHONE. However, that damn DELAY – and the fact people have no time to FORMULATE conversations – has rendered it less than popular.
Certainly, the young prefer TEXTING. Their conversations may be unintelligible – but at least they have time to COMPOSE them.
But whether you are young or old – you now have a computer (if not, what are you reading THIS on?) – and thanks to those, the borders between communication, entertainment and information are breaking down.
However, the one thing ALL these media need is a CONNECTION.
The woods are FULL of networks, these days. And with “TV On Demand” poised to finally become a reality, those networks are going to need their broadband to be SERIOUSLY broad.
The technology can barely keep up.
And given BT’s past performance – one doubts it has a rat’s chance in hell of being at the forefront of this Brave New World.
This chronicler awaits comments from those still trapped in the Old Country – which may tell him what has been happening there in his absence. Thus the story may continue in the comments to this piece.
But before you go there, as a reward for having reached THIS FAR in the article (over 1,500 words) here is a link to one of yours truly’s YouTube pieces – which further explores the history of the telephone…