January 11, 2011

How to untie a telephone tangle

A. H. Hastie(1) wrote in 1898 of the problems that beset the British telephone system.  He admonishes not only subscribers but also government and the General Post Office.

Subscribers themselves are to blame for shoddy service.  When they experience delays in connections, they should report this to the telephone company immediately, in writing.  Hastie considers this a subscriber's "duty" and if he performs his duty, then he can enjoy connections within London within fifty seconds (!)  Otherwise, his requested connection may need up to ten minutes.  Unreported delays remain a secret between operator and subscriber.   In modern parlance, I think we call this 'snitching': put your complaint in writing and then the company will tell the operator - make sure Mr X gets good service, or else.  To give him his due, Hastie does concede that "the telephone girls are only human; their work is most worrying work, and every allowance must be made for them.  He then ruins it be suggesting operators fob off subscribers, saying the called party is engaged, when in reality they are not.

It seems that the upper social ranks felt a little put out about having to answer their own telephones and complaints - satirical and serious - about the interruptions abound.  One such example is detailed in a previous post: a logical solution to this problem would be to get the servants to answer calls.  Anyone who could afford a telephone subscription could certainly afford at least one servant.  So, there are two alternatives here: either subscribers wanted their cake and to eat it (maintain a telephone for business contacts, not be disturbed by calls, not allow anyone else to answer calls); or, reports of putative disturbances are greatly exaggerated - by the press or subscribers, who knows?
A second area where subscribers can improve communications is by having two lines into their premises.  One line connects to an internal house exchange - employees can communicate in-house and make external calls.  A second line ensures that clients can ring up without being told the line is busy.  Hastie suggests this arrangement is adopted by private households - a servant should answer the phone and there should be connections in the remaining rooms.  In 1898, I can well imagine the cost would be prohibitive for all but the extremely well off.  Two lines meant having two separate subscriptions.

What about the government's part?  Hastie advocates a monopoly.  One organisation in total control is the only way to achieve good service.  (At the time, private companies provided local, town service and the Post Office the trunk, i.e. long distance, service).  If a town just wanted a telephone service operating within its boundaries, then every town council could set up its own urban service with its own specifications.  The problem arises when towns want to communicate long distance and then there is the matter of compatibility.  This is as much a technical matter as it is economic.

Hastie accuses the Post Office of operating a deficient trunk system.  Subscribers placing a long distance call had to wait up to twenty minutes.  (Why do they find this length of time unacceptable?  Yes, it's longer than making a local call, but when you consider the alternatives available a decade or so earlier in the pre-telephone age, twenty minutes to wait seems fine to me.)  Hastie suggests two trunk lines: the first, expensive and quick, and the second one, cheap and slow.  He stresses that "the business community require an efficient telephone service at once" - no mention here of domestic subscribers.

Interestingly, Hastie urges the Post Office to nationalise the telephones and provide the whole country with telephones (in emulation of the US, where growth was phenomenal in comparison).  His rationale is that the creation of the necessary infrastructure would provide jobs for twenty-seven different skilled trades and countless labourers.  Hastie is silent on how the Post Office responded.

(1) Founder of the Telephone Subscribers' Protection Association

A. H. Hastie.  "The telephone tangle, and the way to untie it."  Fortnightly Review.  December 1898.

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