PHONES

Now virtually everyone has phone. I mean not only in this country but across the world. I was reading a harrowing account of a penniless Phillipina maid being held a virtual prisoner in a Middle Eastern country. Her employers paid her a pittance and allowed her no freedom. She was able to escape by phoning a radio host in Manila in her home country. She may have been in dire circumstances, but at least she had her mobile phone with her. Even most African villagers, with little in the way of 21st century facilities, will have access to a mobile phone.

Costessey Telephone Exchange, early years of the 20th century.

Costessey Telephone Exchange, early 20th century.

It is well within my lifetime that this communications revolution has taken place. Indeed the term revolution is hardly strong enough to describe what has happened. I can remember when a telephone was a rare possession. Most people had to find a red telephone kiosk to make a call. First you had to wait while the operator asked you what number you required. Then, when you were put through, you had to insert your coin and press button B. I have forgotten the precise circumstances in which you had to press button A.

My Uncle Laurie (really my step grandfather) worked at the Aquarium Theatre in Great Yarmouth at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and one of his duties was to answer the telephone. The telephone was very new in those days; the first telephone exchange had been developed by a Hungarian engineer working in America less than twenty years before. There were many more phones by 1950, but nearly all calls still had to go through the operator, not just the ones from telephone kiosks. Even when I was student at university in 1969 I still had to announce my parents’ exchange when I wanted to phone home.

Landlines improved enormously as time passed. Every home in the developed world had a phone before the century was out, and you could pick it up and dial a sequence of numbers to be connected to another landline virtually anywhere in the world. Telephone exchanges still exist, but they are now automated; there are no operators. You have not had to dial zero to be put through to real person for many years. Few people even remember dialing zero. But the real step change came with the development of the mobile phone, and that is a really recent phenomenon.

We have almost forgotten that these devices were originally for use in cars. The name of the firm Carphone Warehouse is the only thing that may remind us of the past. The current needed to power a mobile could only be supplied by a car battery. In the early 1970s (not long after the time when I was still phoning the operator) the American TV crime series featuring Frank Cannon first introduced me to the carphone. Bearing in mind how we are now discouraged from driving while phoning it is strange to think this is how it all began. There was certainly no “hands free” in those early days. It was originally just like an ordinary phone, with a base unit and a handset. The first mobile phones (cell phones in American usage) that you could use beyond your car were enormous things the size and weight of a house-brick. They were also very costly.

They were rapidly reduced in size and cost. The amount of electrical current that a mobile needed came down and the amount that could be stored in a small battery has increased. The battery is no longer the main weight of a phone, which became a thin and small accessory that weighed not more than a matchbox. With the smartphone the size has increased once more, but only because they now have to contain a screen large enough to be visible.

Your smartphone is so much more than a mere telephone; you can text or email anyone else with a smartphone.  You can use it to play music, take photos, even videos; there are any number of apps that will run your life for you if you wish. It will even rescue you from an abusive employment in the Arab Emirates.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE STORY OF THE RECENT PAST

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