Dial B for Britain

A recent BBC documentary on the history of the landline gave us some fascinating glimpses into a forgotten world of connectivity.  Narrated by Victoria Coren Mitchell, Dial B for Britain: the story of the Landline talked to some of those who were on the front line of telephone change, as it moved from the preserve of the wealthy into the homes of the masses.

Some of the stories brought glimpses of a past partially known but often unappreciated.  Like the linesmen who, in a pre health & safety era, relied on leather belts to keep them safe as they carried out essential maintenance at the top of telegraph poles.  Or the social dilemma of whether it was appropriate for maids to answer the phone and potentially become embroiled in conversations with gentlemen callers!

And then there are the switchboard operators.  We may be familiar with pictures of operators sitting in front of giant peg boards but were we aware that these workers were not only chosen for their voices but also that they were so strictly controlled that they had to ask permission before taking any rest break?  And the programme also revealed one smaller exchange run by a husband and wife team which took messages when people were out; the forerunner of today’s virtual assistant or answerphone service!

Moving forward, the red phone box may now be a vanishing remnant of our social history but in its earlier days it represented a change in the expectations of society, opening up communications to the masses.  Even then the personal touch still rang through with one early phone box in Eastbourne being thatched to ensure it was more in keeping with the bowling club pavilion.

Of course nowadays the landline is fighting for its future against the mobile and digital connectivity but it is interesting to look back and see how the early pioneers struggled to bring us something which we now take for granted.  Today we can pick up a phone or click on a computer and be instantly connected with an individual or business anywhere in the world. 

The operator connected peg board has been replaced by virtual switchboards which can be programmed and reprogrammed to seamlessly transfer calls in line with business needs. 

  • We can advertise a China 401 number in China, a Paris local number in France and a national rate number in Spain with all calls being redirected on a follow-the-sun basis to whichever office is open. 
  • We have technologies in place which recognise callers based on their region code or unique phone number and can deal with the call accordingly. 
  • Information lines can save callers time and effort as search for information about opening times or special offers. 
  • Company information lines which are PIN protected are also seen as a vital ingredient in any disaster recovery plan.

Nowadays communications drive our world and telephones sit at the heart of the matrix.  It’s all a far cry from those early days but what the programme illustrates is that the communications revolution didn’t simply open up the airwaves, it also contributed to a social and business revolution from which we are all benefitting to this day. 

Written by Alison