Posted tagged ‘telephone’

Operator, please

September 15, 2011

In the late 1960s I kept a little diary for about two years, in which I recorded not so much what I did day by day, but what curious or unexpected things happened. I just found this diary, and was most amused by some of the entries. The entry for this date in September 1966 describes a day in the house of a schoolfriend I was visiting. I wanted to make a phone call to my parents, and in those days, at least in parts of Ireland, this required calling the operator and asking her (invariably) to place the call. All that went well, and my mother answered the phone.  I spoke German with my mother, and about 30 seconds into the conversation we were interrupted by the operator, still on the line, with ‘Speak English, please.’

It would be difficult for the younger generation today to understand how complicated phone calls could be back then. An almost impossible task was to use a pay phone, which required having the exact money to hand needed for a three-minute call as advised by the operator, and proficiency in working out when to push Button A, or if it had not worked, Button B. But the presence of the operator on your calls had particular charms. Some of these operators throughout the country were important social figures, dispensing advice and commentary during other people’s phone calls and being, as a result, extraordinarily well informed. I miss that. Change and innovation is not always good.

The end of the line?

September 15, 2009

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.