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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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4.9 A consumer's experience of innovation

First phone in 1968

As I mentioned earlier my parents first acquired a domestic telephone in 1968 – more than 90 years after its invention.

Before then other ways of communicating seemed good enough. In the early 1950s in our street of around 100 houses only one family had a private telephone. My family used public call boxes occasionally but we didn't know many people with their own phone so not many calls needed to be made. When we needed to communicate with people at a distance we sent a letter. In emergencies or for urgent communications we sent or received telegrams – but these were usually reserved for bad news.

Product awareness

My parents and I had been aware of the telephone all our lives but it seemed like a luxury item and was lower in our priorities than, say, a car (that we bought in 1956) or a television (1958). Even by 1970 only around 30 per cent of households in the UK had a home telephone – this had risen to 95 per cent by the year 2000.

New but familiar

There didn't seem to be anything particularly novel about our first telephone. On the surface the design had not changed significantly for 40 years, consisting of a dial on the front and a large handset sitting on a cradle on top. The most obvious changes were in the materials used – moulded plastic had replaced Bakelite and metal. These material changes in our 1968 telephone had been introduced in 1959 with the launch of the 700-series telephone (Figure 7). This was much lighter than previous designs with lightweight components and a plastic body.

Figure 7
Figure 7 700-series plastic-bodied telephone, launched in 1959 (Source: courtesy of Telephones UK)

Also, for the first time, telephones were available in a range of six colours (ours was green), marking the demise of black as the standard telephone colour. The now familiar curled cord connecting the handset to the body also made its first appearance with this design change.

In those days the apparatus and the line were both rented from the Post Office but for the first time it was possible to exercise some consumer choice. The first choice was over the colour. Even as late as 1968, limitations in the capacity of telephone exchanges meant the norm was to have a party line shared with at least one other household. The other choice available was to have a dedicated line, although that was more expensive to have installed. We were relatively unusual in having our own dedicated line.

Product price, reliability and reasons for buying

We acquired a telephone when we did for a mixture of reasons. When my mother got a job our family had more disposable income to spend on consumer goods. Costs of owning a phone had fallen in relative terms as use of the telephone spread, bringing its running costs within our price range. More of our family and friends were getting telephones so it began to make more sense for us to get one so we could keep in touch. Reliability didn't seem to be a problem. Another significant factor was that my mother worked for social services and her employer wanted to be able to contact her quickly as part of her job. So the requirement for instant communication was spreading into the culture of certain types of occupation.

Once ownership of phones reached a certain proportion of the population its take-up seemed to gather momentum. And once people began to experience the ease and convenience offered by having a telephone in their own home it became part of their expectations of modern living. For increasing numbers of people, owning a phone became a necessity rather than a luxury.

Telephones since 1968

The ending of the Post Office monopoly in 1981 and the introduction of competition, firstly to the apparatus supply market and then to the provision of phone services, led to an increase in competing products and a spread of the technology. That first handset my parents rented lasted us for 10 years.

Since competition was introduced and cheap handsets became available to buy, most of us seem to replace our handsets much more frequently. This has been stimulated by an increasing variety of innovative features offered over the years – push-buttons, built-in answer phones, handsets combined with a radio, novelty handsets, cordless phones with several handsets, and so on. In contrast to my parents’ house of the 1960s, my own family has two telephone lines, two computers connected to the internet, and we have three handsets in various parts of the house. In addition every member of the family has their own mobile phone, a product of a merger between the telephone and radio timelines. But that's another story.