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


I am very glad to see from the letters which have appeared in your paper that there is a dissatisfaction with the present system of working these telephones. As far as I am concerned I find my telephone almost useless, as I occupy more time in communicating through it than I should do if I went to the offices or places of business of nine out of ten of the persons with whom I wish to communicate. I have consequently given notice of my intention to discontinue the use of it when the term for which my subscription is paid ceases.
               Clifford Dunn, Leeds telephone exchange subscriber, December 1881[1]

The simplicity of the instruments and systems of late-nineteenth century British exchange telephony, and the ease with which anyone could use them, was emphasised in most early telephone marketing (Baldwin, 1925; Feuerstein, 1990) and has been a feature, often tacitly assumed, of subsequent histories ever since.[2]  Indeed, when the administrative historian Charles R Perry, writing in 1977 (Perry, 1977), asserted that the growth of British exchange telephony had been delayed in this period, he reached this conclusion largely because he assumed that the telephones of the time were unproblematic instruments, the benefits of which should have been immediately obvious to all.[3]  However, users of late nineteenth-century telephone systems, such as Clifford Dunn, a Leeds solicitor quoted above from his 1888 letter to the Yorkshire Post, often found they were not as intuitive or as useful as expected.

Perry's work, and his assertion of delay, has come to constitute the received view of British telephone history; many scholars have uncritically used Perry's narrative slant to sum up early British telephony as underdeveloped.[4]  Perry's approach has therefore depressed interest in this rich but under-researched field. In an attempt to shed new light on discussions of early British telephony, this article examines problems which people in Britain encountered when they first interacted with exchange telephony from 1879, when the first exchanges were established, until the early 1890s, when the main intercity telephone wires, called trunk lines, were nationalised. Considering these problems, and their solutions, allows for a better understanding of the development of exchange systems in Britain in this period. Such problems also reveal why people might have chosen not to use exchange telephony, or been unable to use it. As the Science Museum marks the opening of the new Information Age gallery, at a time when telecommunication technologies in general, and social media in particular, are playing more and more central roles in our everyday lives, it is interesting to reflect on the ways in which people in the late nineteenth century responded to the possibilities opened up by what was arguably the first network-based telecommunications technology.[5]  (Kingsbury, 1915)

While other historical treatments of telephony have focused on areas such as business and institutional history and patents (Feuerstein, 1990), this paper considers usage as another factor in the development and proliferation of telephony. In exploring the social history of technology, this article has been influenced by Graeme Gooday's work on electricity with regard to Thomas Hughes; in his authoritative book on the spread and development of electric power, Hughes analysed this technology as a system which relied on a network of many different components, all of which had to be working in order for the whole to function efficiently (Hughes, 1983). However, Hughes failed to include the human users as equally important components of the system. As Gooday has pointed out, it is not correct simply to assume that home-owners wanted electricity, as many did not, and thus a tension needed to be resolved whereby either the technology or the attitude of the public needed to be altered in order for electric power to spread (Gooday, 2008).

Like electric power, exchange telephony was a system, a network technology. However, the role of human users as components in telephone exchange networks was even more important in comparison to electric power, as the utility of the network to the individual was directly determined by the other people using it (Milne, 2007).[6]  This meant that the attitudes of users comprised a key aspect for the providers of the technology to consider when they were seeking to optimise the functioning of the system. Likewise, problems affecting one person affected many, and problems that caused people not to use the technology were problems for the system as a whole. An analysis of these problems, and their solutions, will demonstrate the ways in which British exchange telephony developed in response to the requirements of the social components of the system.

The focus on the ability of non-users of technology to shape technological development is influenced by Sally Wyatt. She has argued that non-users of technologies, those who, willingly or not, either stop using a certain technology or never use it in the first place, are important to consider when looking at the development of that technology (Wyatt, 2003). These non-users of technologies can exert just as much influence over the development of the technologies in question as the users. Because the producers and suppliers of technologies want at least some of the non-users to become users, they are willing to alter technologies according to the opinions and attitudes of this potential market. As an examination of the problems with telephony will show, those who did not use telephone exchange systems played a larger role in their development than non-users of other technologies did in the development of those technologies. This was partly for the reasons Wyatt described, and partly for other reasons unique to telephony.

Thus, the problems examined here will be used to do three things: firstly, to counter Perry’s narrative of delay by demonstrating that exchange telephony was not in this period an obviously useful technology which everyone, by default, would have wanted to use.

Secondly, building on Hughes and Gooday, this article will determine the extent to which exchange telephony developed in response to these problems, and, finally, it will consider the impact that non-users had in shaping early telephone exchange development, thus supporting Wyatt's thesis.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150308/002