‘Strange fits of passion have I known’

…but none stranger than my recently-conceived passion for bakelite telephones. Three months ago, I knew nothing about them, beyond faint memories of the telephone in the first house I properly remember: its number was Perth 284 (the code for Perth was OPE8, as I recall, which later became 0738).

Now I have these:

Both work, having been rewired by me to operate on a modern phone line; indeed the one with the natty red cord has been converted by a clever bit of wizardry from pulse dialling (which rotary phones generally have) to tone dialling (which is what your modern touchtone phone with its electronic bleeps has).

As you can see from that liberal spray of technical know-how, my little store of knowledge has increased, in respect of telephones at least, these past three months. For instance, I can tell you that the one with the red cord – which bears all the appearance of being a standard GPO model 332 – is in fact an ATM L.11560 manufactured by the Strowger works in Edge Lane, Liverpool (the black-painted brass 24c dial is diagnostic). Strowger specialised in automatic exchanges at a time when the GPO used human operators, hence the abbreviation ATM, which stands for Automatic Telephone Manufacturing. In fact, it is to the resoundingly named Almon B. Strowger of Kansas City USA that we owe the original concept of the automatic exchange, which he invented in 1889.

I can also tell you that the iconic British black bakelite telephone is in fact a Swedish* [Norwegian actually – see footnote] design, originally made by Ericsson, and distributed throughout the world – including New Zealand, where the dials run backward – who knew? (and isn’t that a lovely shade of green?)

I can also tell you that the iconic British black bakelite telephone is in fact a Swedish* [Norwegian actually – see footnote] design, originally made by Ericsson, and distributed throughout the world – including New Zealand, where the dials run backward – who knew? (and isn’t that a lovely shade of green?)

(photo courtesy of https://www.britishtelephones.com)

The second telephone – even blacker than the first – is a German Krone W48. This was a classic e-Bay purchase, bought on the ‘green tandem principle’ which I should briefly explain. A long time ago I saw on eBay a rather handsome pre-war tandem, possibly a Claud Butler, in a distinctive shade of light green. I did not bid on it and it went for £130, which I would happily have paid. Ever since then, I have resolved to make a minimum bid on any item that I would regret letting slip if it went for a low price. Such was the case with the Krone, which I secured quite unexpectedly for a penny under £25, which postage raised to just under £31 (if you look on eBay just now, you will see that the typical range is from two to three times as much).

The classic 332 and its variants show an extraordinary range of price. The coloured ones – jade green and red especially, but also ivory – command a premium and generally sell for several hundred pounds (indeed, there is currently a jade green 332 with a ‘buy it now’ price of £1800 and another with a more modest opening bid of £500 though asking and selling are two different things, of course) The once ubiquitous black ones are numerous and can be had much cheaper, with a starting price from around £50 and a good way upwards, depending on condition (a well polished bakelite telephone can be made to look very alluring). However, since they are heavy articles (around 6lbs/2.7kg) the postage adds a fair bit.

So when I saw one that offered free postage – effectively a discount – at a low starting price, I kept a close watch on it. The competition was another 332 with a buy-it-now price of £54.99 which postage boosted to a couple of pennies under £68 and at the time of watching that was by some distance the cheapest on offer (interestingly, it is still available – and it has a drawer, too, the one thing that mine lacks). So I was very pleased to secure mine for a penny under £45 all in. From subsequent observations, that remains a good price.

I was of course taking something of a punt, since no claim was made for the phone (beyond that it had not been tampered with) and I had no first-hand knowledge whatever about telephones. What I did have, however, was the internet, and this is one of those areas where it comes into its own. If you have some skill and judgement in research – i.e. you have a clear sense of what you are looking for, and do not take everything you read as gospel – then you can acquire a remarkable amount of knowledge in a fairly short time – and one of the basic points is that your bakelite telephone is a robust article that seldom goes wrong (though faulty dials can be tricky) and spares are available.

This cornucopia of free knowledge is thanks to those good souls who, having developed a passion for something, are happy to share it with the world. There is clearly a large old-telephone community and it has produced not a few excellent websites of which https://www.britishtelephones.com is one of the best and most comprehensively informative (so a good starting point – it has many useful links, too) while http://www.samhallas.co.uk/ is very useful on the practical technical side, particularly the section entitled ‘let’s take a phone to bits‘ which I found very useful. There is also a good range of dealers in bakelite telephones and related items, which gives a good idea of what is available in the way of spare parts and what things cost – from which you can infer what is a reasonable price on eBay..

Some that I have found very useful are https://www.theoldtelephone.co.uk/ and the excellent https://www.vintagetelephony.co.uk/ who make the beautiful cords that now adorn my phone. (Another source of superb hand-made cords is Geoff Mawdsley, whose rather underdeveloped website is here: http://www.telephonecords.co.uk/ Both can be found on eBay) while https://antiquetelephones.co.uk/ is another good site (where I first heard tell of the RotaTone pulse-to-tone conversion).

What drew me down this curious pathway in the first place – having never given a thought to bakelite telephones in my adult life – was the fact that we were shortly to move house and I was determined that one thing we would not persevere with was our modern two-station cordless wifi telephone.

It is hard to account for the animus that I have built up for this particular bit of plastic over my twelve years of ownership, but it does embody, to my mind, all that is worst in modern design. Its neat compactness may look well but it is ergonomically unsound, consisting of a short straight bar that stretches from your ear to about half-way down your cheek: it may well be that the microphone is well-positioned to pick up the human voice from there, but it doesn’t feel that way. Furthermore, all the buttons that operate it are located on the front of this bar, which makes them inaccessible when you are on a call. If, as is often the case these days, you find yourself negotiating a maze of non-human respondents before you reach a human being (generally on the other side of twenty-five minutes of tedious music if it is Virgin you have the misfortune to be calling) then you repeatedly have to take the phone from your ear to press the number that takes you to the next level.

There is also the possibility that you can inadvertently operate these buttons by pressing them with cheekbone or chin – my poor dear mother used to regularly mute herself halfway through a conversation by that very means. Additionally, these wretched machines need batteries to operate, which can be guaranteed to run out at the least convenient time, and in old age they become temperamental and will simply stop working in the course of a call, leaving you talking to yourself for some minutes before you realise that no-one is hearing you.

The bakelite telephone, on the other hand, has a sensible separation of functions: the dial that operates it – pleasing to use and soothing to hear – remains in front of you on the table, while the ergonomic handset is pleasing to the touch and fits snugly from ear to mouth; the whole looks damn good and has a lovely ring and requires no electric current to operate, save what comes down the line to make it ring.

Its only drawback is that the lovely rotary dial operates by a method –pulse-dialling – which is obsolescent: basically, for each number, it sends the equivalent number of pulses down the line, which the exchange can then convert back into a number – which is why dialling takes much longer. A modern phone uses tone-dialling (though no actual dial is involved these days, only an array of buttons) where each number is transmitted as an electronic bleep (the singsong bleeping you hear if you press ‘last number redial’ or use a single button to speed-dial a stored number). At the moment, all BT lines still support pulse-dialling but cable operators (such as Virgin) do not.

Since it looked as if we would probably persevere with Virgin (though I hate them too) I decided to invest in a RotaTone conversion kit (details here https://www.rotatone.co.uk/) a clever little electronic module that fits between the dial and the line and converts its pulses into tones.

In the event, this precaution proved unnecessary, since Virgin refused to connect our new property (despite there being a cable box right outside our window) and we went with Vodafone, who operate over BT (or OpenReach) lines. Old telephones still require to be rewired to use a modern line, but fortunately there are detailed instructions on how to do this on the internet – most notably the https://www.britishtelephones.com site, which is the one I used.

The most useful bit of advice (and here I must allow that the mobile phone has some advantages) is to take pictures of the original wiring before you change anything. As you can see, my ATM L11560 had led a pretty dirty life (owing, no doubt, to coal fires) and the original colour of the various cords took close inspection to discern:

The German phone was altogether cleaner inside:

I did the British phone first, and although it took a little time, I eventually got it set up to make outgoing calls and ring when it received incoming ones, though its ring at first was rather feeble, and sounded as if it was about to expire. As I gained more confidence from working on it, I saw how to adjust the gong mechanism, and the replacement of the original rather decrepit cords with lovely red new ones restored a healthy ring.

the sonorous if mildly diffident voice of the L11560, like an apologetic butler’s cough

Now that I had it working, I rather baulked at embarking on the further complication of installing the now unnecessary RotaTone, so instead I transferred the cheap conversion kit I had bought on eBay (then replaced on the L11560/332 with the gorgeous red cords from Vintage Telephony) to the Krone and (again with the aid of detailed instructions from the British Telephones site) was able to render it fully operational – there was a considerable pleasure in hearing its ‘voice’ for the first time – it has quite a distinctive ring, more urgent to my ear than the British phone:

the peremptory shrill of the Krone W48

Buoyed with this success, I returned to the RotaTone, reasoning that since I had bought it, I might as well use it. What had daunted me was that I needed to acquire some new skills to fit it, namely heat-shrinking insulation onto leads and soldering eyelets onto their ends. Fortunately there are plenty idiot’s guides on the internet for that, too, and for the fitting itself there were admirably clear instructions here https://studylib.net/doc/18558709/rotatone-installed-in-a-gpo-332 which made a useful supplement to the illustrated ones here https://www.rotatone.co.uk/fitting-a-rotatone-to-a-gpo-332/

I will not say it was straightforward, but it was ultimately satisfying, since by dint of reason I was able to accommodate differences in the 24c dial with which the L11560 is fitted to the instructions for the standard 332, which has a different dial (two of the wires are transposed). I rather surprised myself by my patience in repeatedly dismantling and reassembling the phone with different wiring combinations till at last I hit on the right one. And fitting all the components is rather fiddly work:

the bridge rectifier sprawled like half an octopus across the terminal block

But there you are, I did it, and it works – even if I do not actually need it and – to be honest – am not sure I really like it: bakelite phones are no place for such electronic bleepery, and who needs speed dialling when proper dialling is such a calming pleasure? Long may pulse dialling continue!

  • My apologies for the misinformation: ‘In 1932 L M Ericssons put a new telephone into production, their DBH1001. It was designed by Johan Christian Bjerknes of Elektrisk Bureau, LME’s Norwegian company. Styling was by leading Norwegian designer Jean Heiberg.’ – thanks to Bob’s Old Phones