Phone a friend?

Michael Kay is a historian of science and technology at the University of Leeds, where he is completing his PhD thesis on the early social history of the telephone in Britain, as part of a collaborative project between the University and the BT Archives in  London. In this post, in connection with Episode 12 of ‘Five Hundred Years of Friendship’ on BBC Radio 4, Michael explores some of the early uses of the telephone in Britain and asks whether and when it became a technology of friendship.


…it was not until I put the conductor to my own ear, and heard the unmistakeable tones of his voice… that I quite believed I was not the victim of some delusion.

– Phebe Lankester, October 1882[1]

Alexander Graham Bell’s early telephone, known as the ‘butterstamp’ telephone, which acted as both transmitter and receiver.

For Victorians towards the end of the nineteenth century, the telephone was a marvel of modern science and technology. First used commercially in Britain in 1878, and with the first exchanges opened in autumn 1879, many found it very difficult to believe until they heard it with their own ears. Although the telephone was promoted primarily as a tool for business correspondence in the workplace, and for household management in the domestic sphere, it was used for many other purposes as well. One of them, as newspaper columnist Phebe Lankester discovered in October 1882, was in maintaining friendships.

Phebe Lankester

Lankester, a writer on botany and health, had been invited to lunch with a friend in Kensington, London. After the meal her friend went to the telephone, fixed to the wall, summoned the operator, and asked to be connected to a mutual friend of theirs called James. James had broken his leg and was unable to leave his chambers. It took Lankester a few minutes to really believe that she was actually speaking from Kensington to Temple Bar. His laugh when she offered to send him some blackberry jam certainly convinced her.[2] Lankester had realised that the telephone could also be valuable for facilitating sociability in situations where it might otherwise have been difficult to communicate.

It’s unlikely, however, that this would have been possible over intercity distances until well into the next century. The trunk line network connecting towns and cities grew from the mid-1880s onwards – although London itself was not connected to the Midlands and the North until 1890 – but the construction of the trunks made it impossible for most subscribers to use them from their own offices or houses. If they wanted to speak across the country they needed to visit special call offices. It was also very expensive. Nevertheless, telephones were very useful over shorter distances for talking to those people such as James who were unable to leave their homes.

Nowhere was this more appreciated than in cases of infectious diseases. In August 1879, Eva Lükes, the Lady Superintendent at the Hospital for Sick Children in Manchester, wrote to the Bell Telephone Company’s local agent to express the gratitude of the hospital for the supply and installation of telephones within the building: “It is of the greatest value in connection with the Fever Ward, enabling me to always be in communication without risk of infection. I expected it would be useful, but I had no idea that it would prove the real comfort that it is. Already we begin to wonder how we managed before, and we would not be without it again on any account.”[3]

At this time speaking tubes were the main existing method of spoken communication within buildings. However, the benefits of using telephones instead were quickly recognised: whereas a speaking tube allowed the breath to pass through from one speaker to another, the telephone enabled the personal touch of a direct conversation without the danger of spreading disease. In December 1885 the medical journal the Lancet recommended its installation in sick rooms in private houses: “All of us must have felt the heartaching anxiety of longing to hear the voice of a dear friend when either ourselves lying on, or the friend being confined to, a bed of sickness. The comfort of hearing the voice, with all its intonations, in such a case does not need to be described in words.”[4]

In November 1887, at the height of a scarlet fever epidemic in London, the Lancet again commented on the telephone, noting its usefulness in isolating fever patients. It also again noted that enabling friends and family to speak with patients so safely and easily could potentially come with its own medical advantages. Talking to a friend directly, even at a distance, was comforting and curative, and the telephone was making such friendly communications possible where they had not been before.[5]

When Lankester used the telephone to speak to James it was an exchange connection which allowed them to converse. Lükes and the Lancet, on the other hand, referred largely to the use of shorter telephone lines within buildings. These latter were probably the more common means by which the telephone would have impacted on friendships in the late nineteenth-century. At this time, not only was exchange telephony not widely used in private houses, but it was not marketed in terms of sociability at all until well into the twentieth-century.

One of the reasons for this was that subscription rates were originally, and for many decades, flat rate. This meant that telephone companies tried to encourage people to keep conversations short because they gained nothing from longer conversations which kept lines engaged and kept the operator occupied constantly checking to see if the line was free yet. This did not change until 1921, when the introduction of measured rates meant that the Post Office – which acquired the British telephone system when it was nationalised in 1912 – could benefit financially from increasing the number of social calls. In addition the increasing number of automatic exchanges after World War One meant that the time of the operator was not such a concern.

However, historian Carolyn Marvin has noted that telephone promoters and the press believed that telephones definitely were being used for social conversations during the 1880s and 1890s, and that this should be discouraged as an impediment to the telephone’s ‘proper’ use as a serious business or household management tool. The perpetrators of this chattiness, according to these male observers, were, not surprisingly, women.[6] Although this was almost certainly based on Victorian gender prejudices, such concerns provide a window into debates around the question of what telephones should rightly be used for. And, for telephone promoters and business users in the late nineteenth-century, sociability was not the answer.


Further reading:

Claude Fischer, ‘”Touch Someone”: the telephone industry discovers sociability’, in Technology and Culture, vol. 29 no. 1 (January 1988)

Claude Fischer, America Calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940 (University of California Press, 1992)

Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1988


Follow Michael Kay on Twitter: @mkay162

Return to: Five Hundred Years of Friendship at the History of Emotions Blog

[1]    Lankester, Phebe, ‘Our Ladies’ Column’, in the Preston Chronicle, 21 October 1882, pg. 2

[2]    Lankester, Phebe, ‘Our Ladies’ Column’, in the Preston Chronicle, 21 October 1882, pg. 2

[3]    Telephone Company List of Subscribers, February 1880, pg. 19

[4]    ‘Telephones for the sick chamber’, in the Lancet, 12 December 1885, pg. 1113

[5]    ‘The telephone in medical treatment’, in the Lancet, 5 November 1887, pg. 927

[6]    Marvin, Carolyn, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1988), pg. 23