A record of over one and a half centuries of architectural history, the RIBA’s Periodicals Collection records the news of past technological developments…

Standard Telephones' portable Starphone, 1969

Image (enlarge): Standard Telephones’ portable Starphone, 1969. This image appeared in ‘Manplan 2′ of the Architectural Review, October 1969.
Photographer: Michael Franklyn Reid
© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Image from RIBApix

The telephone is still evolving with the release of new models and the high-profile demise of older ones. Beginning in the 1960s, the rotary dial was replaced by push-buttons, then superseded by touch screens and, since the 1980s, the telephone has moved from being a fixed device to something we carry with us (and sometimes lose).

It was 50 years ago this month that the first push-button telephones were introduced, which would spell the end of rotary dial models. In the Periodicals Collection there is a near-complete set of Ideal Home, and in this magazine’s November 1963 issue it mentioned statistics which indicated how, in one way, Britain was lagging behind:

  • USA: One telephone for every three people
  • New Zealand and Switzerland: One telephone for every four people
  • Australia, Denmark and Norway: One telephone for every five people
  • Britain: One telephone for every seven people.
Terminal 1, Heathrow Airport, London

Image (enlarge): Terminal 1, Heathrow Airport, London. This image appeared in ‘Manplan 2′ of the Architectural Review, October 1969.
Kiosks designed by Sir Terence Orby Conran
Photographer: Michael Franklyn Reid
© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Image from RIBApix

The article said the General Post Office thought: “that the British are not particularly telephone-minded”. While the GPO was using advertising to change the public’s supposed antipathy to talking to each other remotely, Ideal Home pointed out that there were already 50,000 people on the waiting list to have telephones, some waiting three weeks or more for a device to be installed. But in 1963, if you did manage to get a telephone, Ideal Home said it would allow you access to services such as:

  • time keeping
  • weather and traffic reports
  • cricket scores during a test match
  • recipe service for housewives (Birmingham only)
  • learning more about a telephonist’s job (London only)
Panoramic view of London from the restaurant of the Post Office Tower

Image (enlarge): Panoramic view of London from the restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower (now BT Tower), London, 1966
Architect: Eric Bedford
© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Image from RIBApix

Today the telephone may seem like a rather mundane piece of equipment, but its growing popularity was an example of how Britain was changing in the post-war era and in September that same year, British Prime Minster Harold Wilson made his famous “white heat of technology” speech. This was happening as the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower), a potent symbol of a new technological age and a major part of the country’s communications infrastructure, was under construction. 50 years on, both the telephone and BT Tower are still very visible.

BT Tower

BT Tower, viewed from Conway Street, London.
Photograph by Wilson Yau, 2013

 

References:

Ideal Home, “Telephone Talk”, November 1963, vol.88, no.5, pp.2-8

About Wilson Yau
I work for the British Architectural Library at the RIBA as part of a team to share news, images and information online about the activities of the Library and the fascinating items we have in our architectural collections – it contains over four million items, so there's plenty to see! If you’re curious about what we do at the Library and with the collections, or want to discover the latest about our education programmes, public events and exhibitions at the RIBA, please visit www.architecture.com

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