Then versus now: The evolution of the telephone

Fort Richardson telephone operators Hilda Dahler, Arlys Berggren and Ruthie Duguid connect calls in 1950. The operators use the fort's first switchboard, which was based on a field tactical model. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The telephone has come a long way in the space of a generation. I’m sure my kids would be horrified by how simplistic the communications technology of my childhood was. From their perspective, it must seem akin to the Dark Ages.

You may have seen recently that one of the classic mobile phones of the pre-smartphone era, the Nokia 3310, is making a comeback. First launched in 2000, it sold a staggering 126 million units worldwide. It could go a week between charges – my iPhone won’t make it through a day without a top-up – and came with one of the most iconic and addictive games ever, Snake.

The original Nokia 3310

The evolution of mobile phones

Mobile phones are all but ubiquitous today but they have only really been around in anything resembling their current form since the late 1990s. Yes, the first ‘portable’ phones first emerged in the 1980s but they were more ‘luggable’ than truly mobile and only affordable by the super-wealthy (or super-pretentious).

Michael Douglas in 1987’s Wall Street showing off the latest in ‘mobile’ telephony. Ahem

Watch a film from that period and see how dated the technology seems. Characters carried ‘mobile telephones’ the size of a gold bar – and they were about as heavy too. Or they used pay-phones (remember them?) Think how often a dramatic narrative pivoted around the fact that one character could not relay an important piece of news to another immediately and had to rely on a hand-written note or a message relayed via another character.

Conversely, see how often contemporary storylines rely on mobiles to cram extensive plot exposition into a call or email, or to enable the rapid transfer of information between characters. (Homeland has used this specific narrative device to advance critical plot developments on three separate occasions in its most recent season.)

It’s also easy to forget how recent a concept smartphones are. Although there were a few around before it launched, it was the first iPhone that really kick-started the smartphone revolution. It’s hard to remember a world without them and yet the iPhone doesn’t celebrate its 10th birthday until June.

Me and my mobiles

I got my first mobile phone – a clunky Motorola with a pull-out antenna – in 1998. That was followed a couple of years later by a Nokia 8110 – the phone with the sliding cover made famous by The Matrix.

You too can pretend to be Neo with a Nokia 8110. Long black coat, shades and knowledge of kung fu optional

I then had another Nokia – yes, I wasted God knows how many hours of my life playing Snake in those pre-mobile internet days – followed by a Motorola Razr flip-phone (which I loved) and a Samsung slider (which I couldn’t get rid of quickly enough).

Motorola’s Razr V3i flip-phone – ultra-cool at the time, particularly for those of us who grew up with the original Star Trek

I bought my first iPhone – a shiny new 3G model – in 2008 and have progressed through the range ever since, from a 3G via a 4, 4S, 5 and 6 to my current iPhone 7.

Any modern smartphone combines the functions of multiple gadgets from my youth that would have cost thousands of pounds and required a heavy-duty rucksack to cart around: a Walkman, a camera, a camcorder, an address book, a diary, a notepad, a typewriter … heck, sometimes I even use my phone to make actual voice calls! (I know, I know, that’s so 20th century.)

Then versus now

For those of us of a certain age, cast your mind further back to before the golden age of mobile telephony. Remember when phones were physically wired into the wall? Most families only had one in the house, with a rotary dialling mechanism. We still use the word ‘dialling’ to refer to making calls, even though hardly any of us ever actually does so any more.

(As an aside, isn’t it funny that we still use an icon of an old analogue phone receiver to represent ‘call ‘, just as we still use a floppy disk for ‘save’?)

Until my late 20s (yes, I’m that old) if you wanted to speak to someone while you were out and about, you had to do it face-to-face or find a working pay-phone. These days we take it for granted that we can make or take a call anywhere: indoors, outdoors, in our local coffee shop, anywhere.

Even if you’re using a landline, most of us have cordless phones which means we can sneak off to anywhere in the house rather than being chained to the hallway or the living room or wherever your phone was.

I can remember when Heather and I got together at university. Whenever we were apart during the holidays we would phone each other, which meant I spent a lot of time sat in our kitchen where ours was located. And when she was away visiting her dad in Australia, we didn’t have Skype or WhatsApp or email and international calls cost a fortune, so we used to send each other airmail letters, which meant our two halves of a conversation would be separated by five or six days. That seems like such an antiquated concept now, doesn’t it?

The other key memory I have from my younger years was when we used to call my parents’ families in Malaysia. Back in the late 1970s you couldn’t dial international numbers direct. You had to call a human telephone operator, who would manually connect you via an international exchange to the Malaysian network. You would then have a conversation with people on the other end of the phone, often with a second or two’s delay over a crackly line, and charged approximately one gazillion pounds per minute.

Nowadays we Skype them. It’s more than a little simpler and cheaper!

The irony of course now is that modern mobiles make telephone communication simpler than it has ever been. And yet with the explosion of social media and ever-increasing information overload, the one thing we appear to be losing is the art of conversation.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Isaac has just sent me an urgent text message …

What about you? Can you remember your first mobile phone? And how much has advances in communications technology transformed your life?

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