1993 >> April >> Foreign Insulators  

Foreign Insulators
by Marilyn Albers

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", April 1993, page 27


Bill Sutliff (Monroeville. PA) wrote to me in early January of this year and asked if I had any information on a porcelain sign he had acquired. He bought it from a collector in South Carolina. who said he'd found it in Ireland during the 1960's. Bill loaned me the sign so that I might take the photo shown below. The letters N.T.C. are in cobalt against a white background. and the sign measures approximately 14" x 8", its weathered condition having robbed it of 1/8" in both directions. In the bottom right corner, the sign maker is identified as Hancock & Corfield Ltd. of London.

I sent Bill some information that had been given to me by David Hibbert, one of the managers at British Telecom in London. This material was taken from a report put together by Gwen Jones Lewitt of BT archives and published in 1989 by British Telecom to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Telephone Company's establishment in England -- an important anniversary in the world of telecommunications. I would like to share it with our readers:

"Exactly 100 years ago the American Almon B. Strowger patented his automatic telephone system. He was a Kansas City undertaker, and allegedly experimented with automatic Telephony on discovering that his local telephone operator was connecting customers' calls to a rival business.

After Strowger applied for UK patents in 1891, there were several demonstrations in Britain of his and other automatic systems. But it was Strowger equipment that was installed in the UK's first automatic exchange in Epsom in 1912. 

His system was a great improvement on the existing manual equipment in that it replaced the exchange's magneto generator and the local batteries at subscribers premises with a common battery at the exchange. It also meant a reduction in the work involved in making a call, both for subscriber and operator.

By 1922, the Strowger system had been adopted as the standard Post Office automatic exchange, and it survived, suitably improved and refined from time to time, until superseded by the first electronic systems.

It was also a century ago, in 1889, that three of the larger independent UK telephone companies amalgamated to form the National Telephone Company. It sold its trunk telephone lines to the Post Office in 1896, but still existed as a private company running its own exchanges and local plant until bought by the Post Office in 1912.

Sixty years ago, the Post Office introduced a new type if telephone (Tele 162), which incorporated its first successful design for a handset with combined receiver and transmitter. This telephone was a great advance on its predecessor in transmission efficiency. The Tele 162 was also among the first to be manufactured from bakelite and to be available in a choice of colours. The manufacture of telephones, as one if the earliest large-scale uses of this material, was an important early stage in the progress of the plastics industry in the UK.

In the same year, 1929, the BBC began experimental television broadcasts for the first time, under license from the Post Office, using the equipment of the Baird Television Company. John Logie Baird's experiments had begun in 1923, but the BBC executives were skeptical if them for many years.

After seeing two demonstrations of the equipment, the Post Office declared that the trial had been sufficiently successful to justify regular experimental BBC transmissions.

The Postmaster-General hailed Baird's work as a 'noteworthy scientific achievement' and, grudgingly, in June 1929, the BBC agreed to short broadcasts being made.

The first transmissions began on 30 September of that year. When asked how many viewers there had been for the first programme, Baird estimated the total at 29.

Subsequently, Baird's work was superseded by the development if the cathode-ray tube, and it was EMI 's equipment which was used for the first transmission of the BBC's regular broadcasts in November 1936. 

Thirty years ago saw the first pay-on-answer coinbox introduced in UK telephone kiosks. The old Button A and B prepayment coinboxes which had been in use since 1925 could not be modified for use with Subscriber Trunk Dialing, introduced in 1958. 

Datel services came in a quarter-century ago in 1964 to meet the demand for facilities to enable digital data for computers to be transmitted over telegraph and telephone lines. The service started with Datel 100, which provided data transmission facilities on telegraph circuits up to a maximum speed of 110 bits per second.

And just 10 years ago British Telecom opened its second satellite earth station at Madley, Herefordshire. The first terminal built there took over the Indian Ocean service from Goonhilly 1, the original Telstar/Ear{y Bird terminal. 

From a Kansas City undertaker inventing an automatic telephone to stop rivals poaching his customers to a satellite earth station keeping us in touch with the rest if the world -- all anniversaries which have been celebrated this year. Only through the wildest leaps of the imagination can we begin to guess at what anniversaries will be celebrated in the next hundred years".

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