With the predominance of mobile phones and portable telecommunication devices powered by numerous mobile networks in our lives today, it becomes increasingly hard to think back to, or in some cases, even imagine the time when any telephone conversation had was performed in a stationary location on a somewhat clunky contraption, which was firmly plugged into the wall.
The history of the telephone and its connected landline began in New Zealand in around 1877 when the news of telephony – the electrical transmission of sound – first reached our shores. In 1878 the Government set up wires between Dunedin and Milton to test the new invention, and thus the New Zealand telephone network began. In the very early days the Government demanded at least 30 subscribers for a telephone exchange to be viable, and by 1881, the first exchanges were introduced.
The new telephone system had wide appeal as a social tool, more so than the preceding telegraph operation, as it provided immediate voice contact and had no code to decipher. Overhead cables began appearing across the nation connecting businesses and communities and the first telephone exchange system finally arrived in Whanganui in 1886. Exchange operators were employed to sit and connect calls by inserting plugs into various sockets to connect calls.
At the time, telecommunications proved an important part of a newly emerging social fabric. By the early 1900s the technology had advanced rapidly and the arrival of an automatic exchange increased the capacity of calls that could be made at one time. By 1919 New Zealanders had access to their first coin operated public telephones.
Most original phones were wall-mounted and furnished with timber and brass. By 1915 the upright pedestal or candlestick telephone was introduced. By the 1930s the square black Bakelite was a standard phone in most households
Also by the 1930s, all main centres in New Zealand were part of the national telephone network. Callers could contact the operator and pay a toll to connect between cities, and just about every home had subscribed to the network. By 1931 an international tolls service was extended for calls to Britain.
Interestingly, in 1939, New Zealand had more phones per head of population than any country except the USA, so the telephone was more or less a standard in every household, along with the specifically designated telephone table and chair.
Despite growing rapidly in size, the telecommunications system remained more-or-less the same until the mid-1970s when the national network underwent a substantial upgrade to the STD (subscriber trunk or toll dialling) system. This meant a shift from the old party line, operator-based model to a more autonomous system.
The telephone models available still remained limited, but over time and by the late 1980s, the design and style of the humble telephone became more varied and increasingly more “modern” with push buttons instead of the circular rotary dial mechanisms. Likewise, telephones became design statements for any avid interior decorator, as the selection widened and they could be matched with décor.
Of course the arrival of mobile or portable phones in the mid-1980s was the early beginning of a massive wave of mobile device usage that we are all accustomed to today. Spare a minute to remember it wasn’t all that long ago when it was impossible to wander around the house while talking to someone on the telephone.
Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.