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History of Telephone Exchanges in Australia
In 1880, the first telephone exchanges opened in Australia.
The nineteenth century was in many ways the era of the amateur inventor. The body of knowledge that was science and technology in the latter part of the last century was not so extensive and specialised as it is today, and many part-time experimenters made significant contributions. A teacher of the deaf (Alexander Graham Bell), an undertaker (Almon Strowger) and a clergyman (The Reverend Henry Hunnings) all contributed in very important ways to the development of telephony. Alexander Graham Bell published details of his telephone in the "Scientific American" on 6 October 1877, and enthusiasts in many countries made their own versions of the instrument from the description in this article. This was the case in Australia.
"This system will bring the entire community of business and professional men together. Subscribers can sit in their offices and transact business, buy and sell goods, give and receive orders etc. in every quarter of the city"
the GPO in George Street to give Sydney businessmen a chance to try out the telephone for themselves. In order to set up this trial line, the directors of the Royal Exchange needed the co-operation of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, E. C. Cracknell, since the telegraph poles would be needed to run the telephone line.
While Cracknell had been one of the first to experiment with telephones in New South Wales, according to reports he was not entirely co-operative with these early attempts to establish a commercial telephone system in Sydney. He is quoted as calling Bell's telephone a "Yankee Toy". However in the end, after some pressure the Superintendent of Telegraphs was won over and a trial line was set up between the Exchange and the GPO on 6 August 1880.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported how it happened:
"Mr F. R. Wells, the local agent for the invention, fitted up one of the Edison-Bell telephones yesterday at the Sydney Exchange and a fellow one at Mr Cracknell's room at the General Post Office .. . During the day almost everyone who entered the Exchange touched the communicator so that
Mr Cracknell, Mr McGuire and Mr Wells, who relieved each other at the other end were kept employed answering queries, many of which were of a rather silly nature."
The newspaper went on to say that the telephone "offers great convenience to businessmen and the project is likely to be taken up."
It was taken up. On 1 November 1880 the telephone officially arrived in Sydney when the first permanent telephone line was installed from the Darling
There were soon several telephone connections into the Royal Exchange but there wasn't yet a switchboard or exchange as we know it today. But in 1881 a switchboard arrived from America and from that point the subscribers could talk to each other as well as to the Royal Exchange.
Early telephone subscribers to the Royal Exchange had to pay for all the installation charges for their telephone services, including putting up the pole line and the cost of the receiver. They also had to pay 5 pounds a year for line maintenance, at the time an enormous sum of money. But once the telephone subscriber had paid these bills then he owned both the line and the telephone and could make as many calls as he wished without any charge.
In 1882 the Postmaster-General's Department opened its own telephone exchange in the GPO. So, for a short time in Sydney there were two separate telephone exchanges operating.
Percy Howe was the first switch attendant in the PMG exchange. He recalled that there were only ten subscribers when it opened, and on that first day there was only one telephone call. It was from a subscriber asking the switch attendant how he was getting on!
In 1883 the Postmaster-General's Department took over the Royal Exchange telephone exchange after several troubles there including a fire in the switchboard.
In Brisbane, Government offices were given telephone links in October 1880, through a central exchange at the GPO. By 1881 there were 36 telephones connected to the exchange, including a number of private ones. The Mechanician was a Mr Starke. He tested the privately-owned telephones before installation — they cost 10 pounds each.
The exchange operator was Fred Watson, who later became Manager of Telephones. He providedservice between 9 am and 6 pm. By 1883, continuous service was being provided and 175 telephones had been connected to the exchange.
In 1889, building alterations were made to provide for the introduction of female telephonists. A Mrs Dick was appointed Supervisor over 13 girls. They worked from 8 am to 6 pm — then male operators worked the night shift.
In 1882, the telephone system moved inland and the first country exchange in Australia was opened at Maryborough, Queensland, with 32 subscribers.
The following year telephone exchanges were established in Adelaide (48 subscribers), Hobart (10 subscribers) and Launceston (35 subscribers).
The first exchange in Western Australia, established in 1887, was located in a small three-room cottage in Wellington Street, Perth with 17 subscribers. The year 1888 marked the opening of the Fremantle exchange in a small room at the rear of the Town Hall. There were nine subscribers.
Around this time Mark Twain, the American humourist, evidently having had trouble with inconvenient telephone calls, said of the new-fangled invention:
"It is my heart-warm and world-embracing
Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us — the high, the low, the poor, the rich, the admired the despised — may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss —except the inventor of the telephone."
For the late 19th century telephone system to take on the features by which, more or less, we know it today, one more stride forward in technology was needed. The system had to go 'automatic' — otherwise an enormous workforce would have been needed to switch a multitude of calls manually.
The man to make this revolutionary advance in telephony was a Kansas undertaker, Almon B. Strowger. In 1889, he filed a patent for a method of automatic switching; one more example of a contribution to the technology of the telephone by a gifted outsider.
Legend has it that he was concerned to eliminate manual exchanges because he believed that the operators on the city switchboard had been diverting calls from next-of-kin about deaths to his business rivals, who were able to get in ahead of him with their sales talk.
Whether Strowger was justified in his suspicions is not known. But he was obviously an ingenious man. He is said to have sat down with a cardboard collar box, some matches, a row of pins, and worked out the theory of an automatic switching system. The system involved electrical contacts leading to other telephone subscribers on the inner surface of a cylinder. An arm on a central shaft was set so that it could be moved step-by-step up the inner side of the cylinder and then step-by-step across it until it reached the correct contact. After some years, Strowger was able to perfect a piece of electro-mechanical technology which eventually made it possible for modern telephone systems to cope with millions of subscribers, few of whom would ever be able to talk to one another if they had to wait for operators to connect their instruments manually. But automatic switching, at first, was by no means accepted speedily or with enthusiasm. For the introduction of the automatic exchange dispensed with the services of many telephone operators, and threw theburden of selecting the line required onto the user. In other words, the user now had to select the required number himself, by using a dial or other mechanism.
Apparently the experts of the time had no great confidence in the capabilities of the telephone user. One" E. Kingsbury wrote in 1915:
"The supervision of a telephonic connection has been regarded since 1887 as the essential duty of operating staff at the central office. In the automatic system supervision finds no place. The connecting mechanism is an automaton and the 'working of the figure' is dependent on the 'pulling of the wires'. Can the
subscriber be depended upon always to pull the wires correctly . .? The obvious limitations of the automatic system show that the operators are not to be extinguished . ."
Although the initial progress of automatic exchanges was slow, it was steady and relentless. Eventually, automatic switching was seen as inevitable, and growth became rapid. Strowger's step-by-step system was adopted around the world, and refined over the years. His system held its own against other forms of switching until the middle of our century, when advances in electronics meant it would be replaced by faster and more compact equipment.
AUSTRALIA'S FIRST AUTOMATIC EXCHANGE
Australia's first automatic exchange was installed in the GPO in Sydney, in 1911, for internal use. But the first automatic exchange for public use was opened at Geelong in Victoria in the next year — in July 1912. It had 800 subscribers.
The "Geelong Advertiser" described its local exchange in these terms:
"Nothing could be nearer human: to see it work and grasp what it does, makes it seem supernatural. It is so ingenious as to almost beggar complete description".
This Geelong exchange was the first automatic exchange in the Southern Hemisphere and the second in the then British Empire — it was preceded only by the Epsom Exchange in England.
Melbourne's first automatic exchange was opened in the suburb of Brighton in 1914; the first public automatic exchange in NSW began operating at Newtown, Sydney in 1915; and Queensland's first was installed at South Brisbane in 1925.
1929 saw the opening of Tasmania's first automatic exchange in Hobart. an automatic telephone service. In June 1977, the manual telephone exchange at Swansea was replaced with an automatic service and made Tasmania the first State in Australia to have a fully automatic network.
FEDERATION IN AUSTRALIA
By 1901, when the six Australian States decided to federate, there were 32,767 telephones in use. Each of the States had, until then, built up its own telephone services. But Federation brought all telecommunications under the control of the Federal Postmaster-General.
In 1911 there were 100,000 telephones in use. The rapid growth in the number of services reflected the growing popularity of the telephone as a means of reliable communication and the steady progress which the Post Office was making in the field of telephony.
The half-century following Federation saw the growth of automatic operation; a great extension of trunk line services; the introduction of radio, which was adapted to aid the expansion of the telephone service in several ways; and an enormous increase in the number of telephones in use. The more people who could be contacted by telephone, the more valuable and useful the telephone system became, so increasing the demand still further.
The automatic telephone contributed greatly to the early popularity of telephones in Australia. It was a quicker and more convenient way of communicating with another person on the same exchange — instead of having to go through tedious processes with the operator. From its introduction, the number of automatic telephones in operation grew to a remarkable extent.
In August 1885, the construction of the world's first commercial long-distance telephone line between New York and Philadelphia began. It made clear that people connected to one exchange could also speak to those who were connected to distant exchanges.
Australia was quick to make use of this new development; in 1886, the first trunk link — a 16 km line — connected the exchanges of Adelaide and Port Adelaide in South Australia.
Then, in 1907, the first inter-capital telephone trunk line was opened between Sydney and Melbourne. It was followed by a line between Melbourne and Adelaide in 1914. Sydney and Brisbane were linked in 1923, and Perth and Adelaide in 1930.
In 1930, the first overseas calls from Australia became possible with the introduction of a radiotelephone service to England, and through there to Europe and America. A similar service opened to New Zealand in the same year.
Initially, trunk channels linked different manual trunk exchanges. It was necessary for a succession of trunk operators to connect the appropriate channels together, one after the other, until the connection was made. As trunk traffic grew. the system became increasingly unsuitable. More trunk operators had to be employed and so labour costs increased. It was a tedious and slow way of making a long distance call, and it was sometimes hard to hear, particularly when several exchanges were linked
With technical advances, trunk switching moved from manual operation through a partly automatic phase. Automatic transit switching equipment was used and only a single operator was required to connect a trunk call to a wanted automatic subscriber. Until well beyond the middle of this century, the majority of trunk traffic went through this single telephonist control.
In 1953, the number of telephones in use in Australia passed the one million mark. By then, the need for improvement in the automatic exchanges was becoming well recognised. The need was for a telephone switching system which would do a better job more economically than the conventional step-by-step exchange which, basically, still followed Strowg,-;r's principles.
This led to the adoption of the Crossbar system as the standard in automatic telephone exchanges. The first major installation of this type of equipment was at Toowoomba, Queensland, where a 6,300 line automatic telephone exchange began service in September 1960.
The introduction of Crossbar switching was a big step forward in the automation of trunk calls. It substituted automatic switching and charging equipment for the originating trunk operator, and improved the quality of the system radically. Prior to the introduction of Crossbar, there were often very long delays in obtaining a booked trunk call, and the quality of sound was often very poor.
The new Crossbar exchanges had an electrical "memory" which took the number dialled all in one "gulp", instead of step-by-step. It then selected the best way to connect that number.
With Crossbar, Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) became a reality. A trunk call by STD was as easy to make and almost as fast to connect as a local call.