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Using a Manual Telephone Exchange

Updated: Jul 11

Our first telephone was connected to a manual exchange in Australia

Our telephone was a wooden box attached to the wall of the breakfast room. It was placed at the right height for an adult to stand to speak into the small metal funnel mouthpiece, attached to the box. The bakelite earpiece was attached to a cord, and hung on a clamp on the side of the box when not in use. If I was allowed to use the phone, I had to stand on a chair to reach the mouthpiece.

To make a call, we turned a handle on the side of the box. This sent a small electrical charge through the wires connecting us to the exchange, and caused a small flap to fall on the exchange box, and a buzzer to sound, in a neighbour’s kitchen. She was paid a small fee to operate the manual telephone exchange. When the buzzer sounded, she plugged the wire of her earpiece into the hole opened by the falling flap. Then she could speak to us. When we had an incoming call, she would plug her cord into our hole and turn her handle, which made our phone ring.

If we wanted to make a call to someone else, we would have to find their telephone number in a book published by the Post Master General’s Department …the forerunner of Telstra. Sometimes the number was hard to find, we had to know roughly where the person lived, as each little district had its own manual exchange, with its own individual name. You had to know the person’s name, exchange name and phone number as well. Usually, we kept our own list of people we often called.

Once we had all the details of the person we wanted to call, we turned the handle to contact the exchange. When our neighbour answered, we would give her the exchange name and number we wanted. Sometimes then we hung up and waited while she made the contact. This might involve her first contacting the Chinchilla exchange, who would contact the third exchange, who contacted the person we wanted. Then she would call us back, and a voice would tell us to ‘go ahead please’. Then we could chat to the person we wanted.

But if this was a ‘long distance’ call, which was charged in 3-minute intervals, then the person managing the larger exchange in Chinchilla would interrupt our conversation saying ‘3 minutes, are you extending?’ If you said ‘no’ then you finished your conversation quickly and hung up. If you said ‘yes’, then you heard her again later… ‘6 minutes, are you extending?’ and once again you had to decide.

We had to pay to have our phone connected to the exchange, as well as for individual calls. Some people shared a ‘party-line’ telephone. Those who shared a party-line could call each other without using the exchange. If the exchange wanted to ring one of the owners of the party-line, she would plug into the number they shared, then turn her handle in a pre-arranged pattern, eg. long-short-long, or perhaps short-long-short, a different pattern for each member. People who shared a party-line paid a lower fee as they lost privacy, anyone who shared the line could listen to the other members’ conversations.

The person who ran the manual telephone exchange could also listen to any conversation. She had to sign an agreement to keep confidential anything she overheard. But as I grew older, and visited the home which housed the exchange, she often asked me to operate the exchange, and no-one ever complained. It was generally accepted that several people in the district should know how to use the exchange, in case of emergencies.

If the operator was away from home for a few days, the house was left unlocked. A different helper would visit for a few hours each morning, so we all knew to make our calls then. At these times, incoming emergency calls would go straight to the helper, who drove to the exchange to pass on the message. Outgoing emergency calls you made yourself …letting yourself into the house, making the call, and leaving a note to explain what you had done. I once called an ambulance for Dad that way.

Our telephone contact with the outside world could only operate when we all trusted each other. I can’t imagine that folk trust each other enough to link to a manual telephone exchange today.

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