Victorian London - Communications - Telephone - description


You can turn on the telephone just when you please, 
    As you turn on the gas at the main,
You can talk over continents, islands, and seas, 
    If there's aught that you wish to explain; 
You utter whatever you choose at one end, 
    And tis heard as a whisper - miles off by your friend.

You can stay in the City and learn from your home, 
    Of whatever may chance to befall:
If your wife from her duties should happen to roam, 
    And you'll know when the water-rates call.
You'll hear when the butcher delivers his book, 
    And you'll know when the policeman makes love to the cook.

You can fly to the lawyer when right makes you bold
    To get wrong, from the law, through the wire:
And your doctor prescribes for a fever or cold, 
    While you neither stir out from the fire.
And your medical man won't know what you've been at, 
    When the pills and the mixture prove death to the cat.

You can list to a concert and never go out, 
    But can hear every song that is sung;
You can easily know what a play is about, 
    From the time when the curtain's uprung. 
You can hear the debates in the House if you like, 
    But that twaddle might make many Telephones strike.

Here's the Telephone taking the words that we say, 
    And the Telegraph's marvellous flight;
There's the light that's electric turns darkness to day, 
    And the Photophone sounds through the night. 
While the Phonograph keeps for historical page 
    All the tale of the wonders of EDISON'S age.

Punch, April 16, 1881


By an instrument invented a few years ago, such as the man in the picture is using, and named the 'telephone,' a person may speak or sing at one end and be heard at the other, though the intervening distance be long.

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)




[-Vol. 3-]


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tel2.gif (24621 bytes)VOICES! Voices! The voices of a mighty multitude, year in and year out, holyday and holiday, noon and night, flow over our heads, around us, and under our feet in a ceaseless, silent chorus. No whisper of them ever reaches the myriad passers-by, for, hermetically sealed in their subterranean tubes of lead or high over the roof-tops in weather-resisting cables of the stoutest insulating mediums, they pass on the electric waves to those for whom they are intended.
    They may convey the City magnate's mandate that will "slump" some particular shares to the tune of several thousands of pounds, a not-to-be-refused invitation to a dinner-and-theatre party, a domestic order to the family tradesman, or an appointment with "My Lady's" modiste. In the still hours of the night the voices are fewer, but their messages frequently speak of life or death - the hurried call for the physician, the dread signal of "Fire," or the burglar-aroused cry for "Police." So, throughout the hundreds of miles of the metropolitan area, are these voices ever speaking; for Telephone London is never at rest.
    The National Telephone Company recruit their operators from the ranks of bright, well-educated, intelligent girls, who are, in many cases, the daughters of professional men, doctors, barristers, clergymen, and others. [-116-] tel3.gif (46191 bytes)After the preliminary examination the would-be operator goes into the telephone "school," which is fitted up as a dummy exchange, and is in charge of an experienced lady- instructor. Each pupil is furnished with a short list of terse, clear rules, and, sitting before the dummy plugs and switchboard, under the guidance of the instructor she is taught how to put these into practical use. The girls in turn act as subscribers, ringing up one another, and asking to be put on to certain numbers. An error made is pointed out, and continually questions are asked to test progress, until a pupil becomes sufficiently capable to be moved into the real exchange alongside an expert operator. A few weeks later and she becomes a fully fledged operator, whom practice and experience alone can improve. Her hours of duty are about nine daily, including the time allowed for midday dinner and afternoon tea. Few female operators work after 8 p.m., and their latest hour of duty is 10 p.m., when male operators take their places until the following morning has well begun.
    With pardonable feminine vanity the majority of the young ladies wear gloves while operating, to better maintain the contour and complexion of their busily worked fingers, and often conceals her ordinary walking habit under a loose kind of graduate's gown in dark material. This latter was a kindly idea of the N.T.C.'s administration to shield a sensitive and modestly-garbed operator from being distracted by an extra smart frock on either side of her.
    In the City calls practically stop at 7 p.m., but in the West-End half the day's work may be done between 10 p.m. and 12.30 am. The Holborn district wakes up first, owing chiefly to the Smithfield Meat Market, and the busy life of the other exchanges follows shortly afterwards. On the arrival of the dinner hour the operators are relieved by reserves, and take their seats at the attractively arranged tables in the dining-room. At every large exchange there is a spacious, cheerful room set apart for this purpose, a - kitchen, cooks, crockery, plate, furniture, etc., being provided free by the company. Here the operators dine or take afternoon tea. They provide their own food in so far as paying for what they consume, or an operator may bring in her own chop and have it grilled. The operators decide what next day's joint shall be, and this is served up with two vegetables, bread, butter, tea, etc at a price that would bankrupt the 'cutest and largest London caterer. Before this very sensible innovation, through rain, slush or snow the staff had to rush into the streets hurry through a cup of tea, a scone or bun in a crowded tea-room, and then return to faint later at the switchboard for lack of proper nourishment. Marriage terminates an operator's connection with the company, but, if specially experienced, she is registered on the reserve as a stand-by when epidemics come along.
    High up on the loftiest roof-tops, their myriad wires showing in a thread-like lattice- work against the heavens, are the huge square frames and many-armed standards which bear the telephone lines and cables west, south, north, east. To gaze up at one from the pavement is for the layman to be bewildered by chaos confused, yet to the linesmen each single wire is as distinct and separate as the Strand is from Holborn.
    To work on these roof standards is dangerous, but the engineers, fault-finders, linesmen, etc., are specially selected. A fire may destroy a heavily wired standard and cut off a [-117-] whole district, so day or night these men must be at call to effect immediate repairs. The standard on the Lime Street exchange bears over 12,000 wires, and is one of the biggest in the world, the roof having had to be specially constructed to carry it.

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    Besides the graceful-looking kiosks in some of the main streets, there are scattered over the Metropolis many hundreds of "call offices" in tradesmen's establishments for the convenience of the passer-by. In any of these for twopence the telephone may be commanded with the whole service of a mighty organisation.
    The silent call-room of the Stock Exchange is an impressive sight when in full swing. A score of glass-doored boxes fill the wall-spaces. At the main entrance is the switch-clerk, an electric indicator before him showing boxes engaged and empty. One of the "hatless" brigade - a stockbroker or speculator's clerk - enters, giving the number he wants. "Six-two-three? -4" replies the switch-clerk ; and the customer enters Box 4 to find his number waiting on the line for him. When he has finished, the lad calls, "Clear 4," and Box 4 is once more disengaged. If a man in the "House" be telephoned for a commissionaire through a brass trumpet shouts down a speaking-tube, and an electric light flashes in the Change, and lets "Mr. Dobearem" know he is wanted.
    To the pension fund each employ? contributes 2? per cent, of his or her pay, the company adding an equal amount and guarantees 4 per cent. on the investments. After ten years' subscription members becoming incapacitated for work are allowed a pension which otherwise becomes due at sixty-five, and a reduced rate for life assurance has been obtained at a leading office.
A composite association, presided over by the chief officials, ensures healthy sport and recreation for the whole staff. It includes clubs for cricket, football, tennis, cycling, photography, rambling, dancing, singing, etc. Launch trips on the Thames, lectures and lantern displays in the winter at the Association's rooms, St. George's Hall, further promote social intercourse, and the subscription is but nominal, the working expenses being provided by the presiding office-bearers.
    The newer telephone organisation of the Postal Department has wisely reaped all the benefits of the experiments and experience of the pioneer company. No gown hides the [-118-]

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[-119-] operator's taste in dress, but each must be in height 5 ft. 2 in. or over, and extra lightweights are rejected. She is examined by a lady physician, her eyesight tested, her teeth put in order - to avoid absence through toothache - and, if considered necessary, revaccination follows. After four to six weeks in the "school" on full wages she begins duty at 11s. weekly the first year, rising gradually to ?1 a week at the end of nine years. The limit of her salary-earning capacity is about ?200 per annum, and if invalided two-thirds pay is awarded her. Her dining-room, decorated with the flowers she and her comrades have brought from their own gardens, looks like a first-class restaurant and her sumptuous dinner costs her fivepence!
    The Postal Telephone service has none but underground lines and cables, and deep down in the basement of the Central Exchange flow fat, sinuous snakes of lead in wavy volumes. Each is a hermetically sealed channel kept continuously filled with dry air by a driving pump apparatus to prevent the intrusion of moisture - the enemy of a good telephone circuit. Through metal frames, meters, bridges, fuse boxes, etc., the subscriber's line reaches the operating switchboard. As he rings, a tiny pencil- sized disc lights up with electricity. The operator, wearing a light aluminium receiver and having before her lips a breastplate transmitter of the same material, sees the glow, plugs into the number, receives the order, and makes the required connection. For connecting purposes, each girl has every subscriber's number before her, but, to evenly distribute the work, the calls are apportioned among the staff. To register the penny calls, tiny meters, not unlike gas indexes, stand by hundreds in frames, and the operators' work is similarly checked. Any attempt of the electric currents to shirk their work and creep off the line into the bosom of Mother Earth is thwarted by numberless glow lights in brass frames. When one of these shines it is known that the current is playing truant, and the electricians and faultfinders soon bring it back to stern duty. All the current for working the lines is generated by powerful dynamos, which charge the accumulators. The latter have a large room to themselves and resemble zinc baths filled with a colourless, acid-smelling solution, in which are immersed strange grids of metal. Throughout the building buckets of fine, brown sand stand in readiness for an outbreak of fire. Water or chemicals for the purpose would be worse than useless, but handfuls of sand thrown with force at a blazing fuse or frame extinguish the flames and leave the instruments and wires comparatively uninjured.
    The most picturesque and entertaining adjunct of Telephone London is the electrophone. There is not a leading theatre, concert-room, or music-hall but has the electrophone transmitters - in shape like cigar-boxes - installed before the footlights, out of sight of the audience. They are at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; and in many of the principal places of worship a wooden dummy Bible in the pulpit bears the preacher's words, by means of the N.T.C. telephone lines, to thousands of invalid or crippled listeners in bed or chair in their homes or hospitals. It was thus that Queen Victoria, seated at Windsor Castle, heard 2,000 school children in Her Majesty's Theatre, in the Haymarket, cheer her and sing "God Save the Queen" on her last birthday. King Edward was likewise relieved from ennui at Buckingham Palace during his illness, for the brightest music, mirth, and song of London were ever on tap at his side. Queen Alexandra is also a devotee of the electrophone, more especially throughout the opera season. On the other hand, the cruel lot of certain hospital patients, of the blind, and even the deaf - for the micro-phonic capacity of the electrophone enables all but the stone-deaf to hear - is thus greatly brightened by science. The sadness of the bedridden, the incurable, or the sufferer from contagious disease is enlivened by sacred or secular song and story, and, as a much-to-be-welcomed addition to the alleviations of London's strenuous life, the benefits of the electrophone are innumerable. It may be added that in the imposingly decorated salon in Gerrard Street from time to time fashionable parties assemble and "taste" the whole of London's entertainments in one evening.
    Thus, over mammoth aerial and subterranean wire-webs does London, annihilating distance, work and play by the aid of Science.

George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902