The end of the line?

Exactly 30 years ago today I gained access to global communications in my own right for the very first time. Back then I was a PhD student in Cambridge, England, and was renting a cottage in the village of Histon about 5 miles out of town. On moving in, I had applied to British Telecom for a telephone, and two months later the house was connected to the phone line and a telephone was delivered. The model I got was a ‘Trimphone’, which was thought of as quite futuristic back then – it can be seen here. It still had the old circular dial, and a ringing tone that was somewhat more electronic and, to be frank, really rather irritating. But I loved the thing, and decided to celebrate my new acquisition (delivered with such incredible speed, I thought) by calling my parents in Mullingar. To do so, I had to ring the operator, as you could only ring Dublin numbers directly from the UK back then. The operator misunderstood me when I said ‘Mullingar’ and connected me with a very nice old lady somewhere in Australia, with whom I chatted for a minute or so (well, it was my first call), an extravagance that cost me over £10.

As I said, I thought that British Telecom had worked wonders by connecting me to the network within two months. If I had applied for a new telephone connection back in Ireland at that time it would have taken several months longer. But as I admired my new gadget in Histon, I thought it was nothing short of a miracle that a place as small as Histon and a cottage as insignificant as mine could be wired up to the entire world, allowing me to hear all about a retired Australian nurse on its first use. Not that much earlier, in the 1960s, we had a phone in Mullingar that you could not dial at all: you had to turn a handle which alerted the local operator, who would then connect you and, I think, who would stay on to enjoy your call when she had done so, occasionally interrupting the conversation when something occurred to her.

The fixed landline telephone took over 100 years to be adopted by a significant majority of the population in developed countries. Only about 6 years after I first enjoyed the Trimphone, and when I was now working in Dublin, I remember seeing the first mobile phone being carried by someone looking self-important on Grafton Street. This was not a mobile phone as our friends from Nokia, Motorola or Apple give it to you now; this was a chunky instrument that would have created an unpleasant bulge in your briefcase, and which you would need to hold with both hands when doing anything with it. Six years after I first saw one I had my own, a fraction of the size of the brick-like original; but that in turn was huge compared with the small instruments that every Tom, Dick and Harriet now possess. The adoption of the mobile cellphone, not by a majority of the population but by absolutely everyone from the age of 3, several times over in some cases, has been breathtakingly fast, probably less than 12 years. And the new smartphones (of which Apple’s iPhone is a leading example) are likely to be in everyone’s pocked in about the next 35 days.

In the meantime, I have left no legacy in Histon. The cottage into which I introduced the marvellous technology of the Trimphone no longer has a landline, and all over this part of the world people are disconnecting private wired up telephones and replacing them with mobiles. I suspect that the un-adoption of the traditional phone will proceed much more speedily than its adoption did.

It is generally assumed that offices will continue to have landlines. Maybe they will, maybe not. In this university we are just looking into it.

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4 Comments on “The end of the line?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Are you speaking about the ‘phone or the line. Anyway, I live in Dialupland and there is nothing like thinking about our telco to bring my blood pressure to pressurecooker levels. I cannot believe you could think of going entirely wireless, leastwise not without having your own up and down satelite link with transmission capacity.

  2. John H Says:

    I see that Eircom is up for sale again. Will the new owners invest in infrastructure, or continue the legacy of previous owners and bleed it dry?

    The former, I hope.

  3. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I love the idea that we, together, without a government plan, conspired through our payment of mobile subscriptions and phone purchases to create this huge, hugely expensive, infrastructure just so we can talk more, just because we feel lonely on the bus.

  4. Paul Doran Says:


    Is it possible Professor in your capacity to try to bring the CTYI courses into the various towns around Dublin in particular I refer to Clondalkin where I live. I firmly beleive there are hundreds of children looking for the kind of courses that CTYI offer but at a fairly reduced rate.There are so many talented children out there I would love to hear your comments on this
    Paul Doran

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