I bought new telephone handsets the other day. Yes, I still have a landline, and I have more than one handset so I that don’t have to run at break-neck speed to get from one side of the house to another. That makes it sound as though I live in a mansion, and, of course, I don’t, it’s just that the kitties are not respectful of my jogging needs.

Back to my new handsets. I’ll be honest; I tend to go for pretty much the least expensive when buying these things. I need an answer phone and something that stores my most frequently used telephone numbers. Heaven forefend that I should actually have to start learning the numbers that I dial frequently again, that all went by the wayside when I started to use mobile ‘phones.

So I bought handsets that were reduced in price. They were advertised as call blockers, but I took absolutely no notice of that. Nope, I just needed new handsets. They looked ok, they did what I needed them to go, and so that was it.

When they arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only do they synchronise so that I only have to save the number one handset and it saves to all of them (my old ones, which weren’t that old, didn’t do that, which meant I either only dialled from the base handset where I’d stored the numbers or needed my mobile to hand), they actually do block unwanted calls! In the first few days, they have stopped me from having to take a number of dodgy old marketing calls. Every vulnerable person should have one of these.

It’s only when I’m home during the day that I realise how many nuisance calls I get, even though I’m ex-directory, am registered with the Telephone Preference Service, and almost never give out my home ‘phone number. And this little gizmo tells me how may calls it’s prevented. It’s amazing.

Of course, this all set me off on a train of thought; I’ve been doing quite a lot of that lately. I can remember when I got my first mobile ‘phone, back in 1998. I was a bit of a late starter in the mobile revolution, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of carrying around one of those house bricks. Do you remember those early mobiles? Even my first one was big and clunky compared to the Smart phones we have nowadays. It didn’t even show who was calling me, even if their number was stored in my ‘phone book. Or contacts list as we now call it.

I’ve gone through the card with mobile ‘phones since then. My first was a Motorola, and I stuck with them for a few years, then I changed my allegiance to Nokia and then back to Motorola. Then I got into Blackberries (Blackberry’s?). Oh how I loved my BB. It is true that they were a little limited in functionality compared to Smart phones but I liked being able to see e-mail messages when I didn’t have a signal, because they were stored on the ‘phone not the server. It was a sad day when I said goodbye to my last BB, but as my other ‘phone was a Samsung (one for work, one for personal), all was not lost and I got another of those.

All these changes, amazing that it was only about 20 years ago that mobile ‘phones were first introduced and the humble landline about 115 years ago. I marvel at all theses changes, in such a relatively short space of time.

I don’t know whether children today do this, but I remember making a “telephone” out of two empty baked bean cans tied together with string. You had to ensure that the string was tight or it wouldn’t work, but you could actually hear each other. What I didn’t know then (and I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t either) is that this was known as the Lover’s Telephone. They work purely on mechanical vibrations. It seems crazy to think this now, but until the patent on Alexander Graham Bell’s electrical telephone ran out, mechanical telephones were more popular – there was no patent because they had been around since at least the 1600s although there range was very limited. No doubt this is the reason why there were so many local telephone companies in the US who didn’t charge for those calls – the operating costs would have been negligible.

Bell invented the telephone as a result of trying to make improvements to the telegraph, which had been operating successfully since 1839 on the Great Western Railway, from Paddington to West Drayton., a total of 13 miles. The principle of the two devices was the same, both were based on electrical signals but the telegraph was based on Morse code (dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash) making it a slower, one-way-at-a -time form of communication.

A number of people vied for the honour of inventing the telephone, and we will probably never know for sure, but I suppose it was a bit like an early VHS vs Betamax war (that’s dating me too, I suppose). The bottom line was, in the US, the fight came down to two people and Alexander Graham Bell beat Elisha Gray and so globally we now attribute its invention to him.

Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell

It appears that Bell had something of a musical bent (or maybe it was because his father and grandfather had been what we would now call speak therapists and voice coaches) which somehow enabled him to devise a system of transmitting several messages at the same time – the harmonic telegraph. It wasn’t until March 1876 that the first speech was transmitted over the telephone, and then only to Bell’s colleague, Thomas Watson, in the next room, but great oaks from little acorns grow.

Once the electrical telephone took hold, it was bound to grow in use and I suppose it’s a natural assumption that in a post-industrial revolution world, someone was going to come up with a telephone exchange and switchboard. I remember my friend Kate, and her mum, both working in the old style exchanges where they used the key and lamp system. Basically, a light showed you which line had the call and the telephonists connected it to the correct person by putting a jack in the right socket. The boards with the sockets on were big and both Kate and her mum have problems with their shoulders as a result – what we’d now call Work Related Upper Limb Disorder.

Of course, it’s all moved on since then, and it’s possible to have a switchboard in a different country from the one where the company is based. A far cry from the two baked bean cans and a piece of string…

© Susan Shirley 2015


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