Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wireless chats on the Neophone

My eyes were drawn yesterday to an article in the NZ Herald of 21 November 1931, describing the first business transaction by radio telephone between Auckland and London. We still rave about the marvels of wireless technology today, so it had me wondering about what led to the breakthrough described eagerly by the reporter -- and about the "Neophone" that did the job.

The 1930s neophone (see image at the left, from this page at the NZ Electronic Text Centre site) was the result from both Ericsson and the Western Electric Manufacturing Company (WE) to WE's advances in the "rotary" variety of automatic switching equipment, dating from 1919. Don't know about you, dear reader, but I grew up with rotary dial telephones. As a kiddy, I was taught not to touch the telephone without permission from an adult, and certainly not to answer one without such permission! But I was still taught how to use one, and learned my home phone number by heart in case I was ever lost (although that number has long since changed, it was on a party line and Mum didn't like those, I still know it and can still recite it.) The rotary phone was what we played with at school -- and yes, even in these days of push button advancement, I still term making a call on the phone as "dialling".

I picked up an excellent book recently on the history of New Zealand telecommunications recently called Wire & Wireless by A C Wilson (1994). He provides an explanation (page 119) why New Zealand's emergency number is 111, whereas in dear old Blighty it's 999:
Most of the New Zealand rotary system, incidentally, used a dialling pattern, numbered from 0 to 9, rather than the reverse, as in the UK. That is why we dial '111' here rather than '999', the full turn of the dial being necessary to ensure a definite connection for emergency purposes.
The initial rotary phones were the classic candlestick type, with the mouthpiece and the receiver as separate components -- the "neophone" in the 1930s replaced this type by combining mouthpiece and receiver in the same handset held up to the ear and mouth, the pattern carried through even to today's mobile phones.

So, we had a less clunky method of making and receiving our phone calls available by 1931 -- what about those chats to Aunt Lil back home in London?

International communication by cables laid along the seabed dated from the 19th century, but true wireless technology for international calls had to wait until short-wave radio technology was perfected. The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company inn the mid 1920s refined the 'beam' system, which meant that instead of radio waves radiating along diffuse, less effective paths, special directional antennae allowed the waves to be beamed along clear paths, with a more effective signal. Competing European radio technology firms were rationalised into larger corporates in thye late 1920s, and one of these was Imperial and International Communications Limited, taking in Marconi and others. The new company's policy was determined by an Imperial Communications Advisory Committee, on which New Zealand was represented.

Short-wave radio's marriage with the telephone system began around 1926, when the first telephone link between Britain and Canada was set up, and continued with:

30 April 1930, establishment of a UK-Australia link;
26 August 1930, Wellington and Sydney linked;
22 September 1930, Wellington to Melbourne;
3 October 1930, Wellington to London.

The Australia-New Zealand link was formally inaugurated on 25 November 1930, by a chat between Sir Apirana Ngata, Minister of Maori Affairs, and the Acting PM of Australia, J E Fenton. 

The official inauguration of the NZ to UK link wasn't fficially until 23 July 1931. The rate, according to Wilson, was ₤6 15s for a three minute call.

And so we come to that Auckland conversation with London, from November 1931.
The modern marvel of the radio telephone made it possible for an executive of an Auckland millinery firm to spend ₤15,000 in just over 10 minutes with a London business house this week. It cost him ₤23 12s 6d to do it. This was the first time the Auckland-London service has been used to transact business from Auckland.

The Auckland man who spoke considered the cost to be justified by the great saving in time and bother. Moreover, it enabled him to gain an impression of the best fashions in vogue in London at the very moment he was speaking and to have any queries answered immediately.

The reception at both ends was astonishingly clear and no difficulty was experienced in hearing every word. The conversation was carried out shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning [18 November] London time, being about midday Tuesday. Conditions were so favourable that listening-in both at Wellington and Sydney in order to note instances of fading if any, did not affect the clarity in the least.

In fact, the voices were as audible as in a local telephone conversation. Instead of first one person speaking continuously for a period and then awaiting the other's reply, as is sometimes necessary, it was possible for short sentences to be exchanged. Static was completely absent. The clarity was also attributed to trhe use of the new improved neophone machine, in which mouthpiece and receiver are attached to the same handpiece.

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