Two anniversaries are being celebrated today, a 50th and a 75th. I'll leave you to decide which is the more important.
So, to the first. Back on December 5, 1958 the inaugural British phone call to be made without the intervention of an operator sat there in an exchange and physically completing the switching and connection was made when Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated STD - Subscriber Trunk Dialing.
It happened in the main exchange of the venerable West Country city of Bristol when the Queen made an STD call directly to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Scotland. At a distance of somewhere over the 300 mile mark, the call covered that greatest distance that was then available with the new technology.
The call began with the sovereign saying, "Hello, This is the Queen speaking from Bristol. Good Afternoon, my Lord Provost." The throroughly stilted and artificial conversation lasted for two minutes and five seconds and yes, the Queen actually did do the dialing all on her own and without a body double.
The price of the call metered in the old way worked out to be three shillings and nine pence in LSD terms, an appreciable sum at the time. (Britain clung to its incredibly ancient, arcane and complex old money system for a long time and the country didn't go decimal until 1972, and then only very reluctantly).
STD did away with the distinction between Local calls and Trunk calls and the system was much easier and quicker to use than with the old operator-assisted method. Furthermore, the technology quickly resulted in significant reductions in call charges. Thus the call the Queen made and that was metered at three shillings and nine pence cost just ten pence over STD - massively cheaper.
However, it took a long time for the STD system progressively to be rolled-out across the whole of Britain, and for once London was not in the vanguard. It was 1960 before STD reached the capital and 1979 before everyone in the country was on Direct Dialing, although a limited form of international subscriber dialing (between London and Paris) was introduced in 1963.
The UK's last manual exchange - at Portree on the Isle of Skye - closed only in 1976.
When STD was introduced BT did not exist. Telephony in Britain was run by the General Post Office - an arm of the state - and revenues flowed directly from subscribers though the GPO and straight into the National Exchequer. A nice little earner.
That said, there was one bastion of competition. Uniquely, the telephone system in the Yorkshire city of Kingston-upon-Hull has been independent since 1904 and operated totally separately to the Post Office. To this very day call boxes in Hull are painted cream rather than the traditional red seen in the rest of the country and local callsl have always been untimed and priced only on a nominal connection fee.
Later, as a privatised company, Kingston Communications was one of the first telecoms operators in the whole of Europe to offer ADSL to business users.
The GPO spent the then massive sum of £35 million modernising the UK's telephony network and introducing STD. The initiative was very much of its time and was introduced with the stated government intent of "popularising the use of the telephone."
Back in the late 1950s few Brits had a home phone, the waiting lists to have one installed were horrendous (a wait of a year or more was commonplace) and the average numbers of calls made a day was just two! The government's aim was for the UK to achieve parity with the US where a much greater installed base of subscribers made an average of four calls a day!
BT took over from the GPO in 1981. In a press release celebrating today's anniversary, BT says, "The number of operators employed to connect calls peaked at 57,000 in 1967, as demand for the telephone outpaced the roll-out of the new system for the first few years. Thereafter, the number of operators needed declined steadily as a result of the adoption of the new direct dialling system.Today, BT’s fully automatic network means that only 550 operators based in only five customer call centres are needed to service traditional ‘100’ calls."
The relase adds, "With the expansion of phone ownership, by the end of the 1980s it was estimated that, if the old operator-controlled method had remained, the job of connecting UK calls would have required every man, woman and child in the country."
The new system required each area to be issued with its own STD code, basically an area code, which then could be dialled by subscribers. Calls were metered and charged automatically (in terms of both time and distance) and the first STD tariff was 2d for connection and a local call - less than a penny in decimal currency - rising to 2s 6d for a three-minute a call, down from the 3s.6d that had been charged under the operator-assisted model.
Today in Bristol some of the surviving engineers that were responsible for the installation of pioneering STD equipment there are re-enacting the first STD call but are doing it with cutting-edge telepresence technology.
You can also tell that STD is now part of the national psyche by taking a look at Terry Gilliam's film, Time Bandits. David Warner revelling in his part as Evil Genius lurking in his Fortress of Ultimate Darkness and planning to destroy the world says to his dog (yes it's a bit complicated) "Show me.... show me, subscriber trunk dialing. I must know everything." Says it all, really.
And the other anniversary? It's 75 years ago today since the US abolished prohibition. The booze ban ended on December 5, 1933. I'll drink to that. Woof, woof!
please sign in to rate this article