Go back to article: Troublesome telephony: how users and non-users shaped the development of early British exchange telephony


When exchange telephony was first marketed to the British public by the early telephone companies in the late nineteenth century it was as an intuitive technology requiring no specialist knowledge or training. This has gone unquestioned in subsequent telephone historiography but, as this article demonstrates, telephone instruments and systems were not always unproblematic or easy to use. Whilst other scholars have discussed important factors in the development and uptake of telephony, such as business economics and intellectual property, this article focuses on usage, and argues that difficulties in using telephone instruments and systems also influenced key changes in the operations of early British exchange systems. To understand these responses and developments it is necessary to look at the opinions and complaints of both users and non-users of telephone exchange systems. In investigating non-users as well as users, this article is influenced by the work of Sally Wyatt in Oudshoorn and Pinch's (2003) edited volume regarding users and non-users of technologies. Recovering the reactions of such people is possible through extensive use of letters received by the telephone companies or published in the periodical press, and opinions voiced at select committee meetings investigating the state of the country's telephone system. In recovering the difficulties early users and non-users faced when confronted with exchange telephone systems this article emphasises the importance of problematising the historical uptake of new technologies, and highlights how, in the case of early British telephony in particular, these problems can reveal specific facts both about historical telephone use-experience and about how exchange telephony spread around the country.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150308/001