From the 1980s Stevie Wonder sings ‘I just called to say I love you’.

Talking History: Cavan’s first phones well received

In his latest Times Past column, Jonathan Smyth looks at the technology that is telephones and how things have progressed from the days of the first telephone exchanges in the county...

I am writing this column while above in the clouds, literally, we are on our flight home from Spain on a warm summer's evening, at least on the Spanish side of the sea. After all, in any case, everything these days is stored in some form of virtual cloud on the internet, so why not place pen on paper rather than feeling sad about an enjoyable week that has come to an end.

As a youngster, one of my favourite songs was Stevie Wonders, ‘I just called to say’ and incidentally I entered a competition to this newspaper by phone in 1984 and won a vinyl record of the song.

It is hard to believe that people, in the past, had to ask which end of the phone to talk into as their faces contorted into a befuddled expression. That tells you they have experienced too much in life, to try and figure out what you’re showing them. Somethings go too far beyond the normal scope of what was then reality up to that point in time.

These days, I sometimes wonder if I am approaching the same turnstile in life as I get to grips with the latest and most awe inspiring development this generation has seen, and by that, I mean artificial intelligence or A.I. for short. Hopefully, humans will still think for themselves in the years ahead.

Alexander Graham Bell certainly changed the way we communicate. The simple device we call a telephone once caused an awful almighty kerfuffle when it was introduced to localities around Ireland. Indeed, the modern day mobile phone as we call it, is only partly a phone and more so a computer on which to complete a myriad of tasks from checking social media to searching the internet and even shopping.

Cavan's first phones

In a world weighed down by a million phones, it is impossible to imagine what the arrival of the first telephone in the county must have meant to a community who relied on the postal service to spread messages by means of handwritten letters and the telegraph office sending out signalled messages by Morse code.

On June 27, 1903, the Cavan Weekly News made the phenomenal announcement that Cavan was entering the modern age with the arrival of 'telephone call offices' having opened for 'public use' at Post Offices in Cavan, Killeshandra, Arva, Carrigallen, Crossdoney, Ballyhaise, Drumconnick, and Stradone.

So how was the new system to work? According to a newspaper report, this was the way that the public were asked to use the service: 'The call offices can be used for conversations by persons at these places only. The charge for three minutes' conversation is two pence. Persons who wish to speak to each other must arrange between themselves to attend at the post office at the same time, or an express letter may be telephoned from one post office to another (delivery fee 3d. per mile) to request some person to attend at his local post office and to make a call for the sender of the express letter'… while frequent users were requested to make an appointment 'to attend at the call offices at fixed times.'

In 1906, Samuel Smyth from Cootehill wrote a letter to Ballyhaise Agricultural College about his son Albert's entrance as a student to the college and the portion of the letter caught my attention, a letter which Michael Swords showed me a copy of back in 2002, showing the contact phone number for the young man's parents as being ‘Cootehill Railway Post Office’s where the town's first and only phone was located. We certainly have come along way!

Bell's box

So, as we can see, Alexander Graham Bell caused a right old ding dong in 1876 when he invented the telephone, an instrument, the like of which was never known before in the field of communication.

Some years earlier in 1844 a man called Innocenzo Manzetti put out the idea of inventing a 'speaking telegraph', in other words a telephone. Telephone has its origins in the Greek words 'tele', to mean far and 'phone' meaning sound. But instead of Manzetti, it would take Bell to invent the device.

There is a certain way to answer the phone, and some have a good manner and others not so great. When the telephone was invented, Bell wanted the public to greet each caller with a jolly 'Ahoy, hoy!' but it was another inventor, Thomas Edison, who suggested that a simple 'hello' was plenty to say. Bell made the world's first official phone call on March 10, 1876, from his laboratory when he rang his assistant who was stationed in the inventor's bedroom.

Bell's first words that he shouted down the phone lines were ‘Mr Watson – Come here – I want to see you’.

Without delay, Watson hurriedly arrived in the laboratory and jovially announced he had heard and understood his master’s voice at the other end. For at that time, there was only a mouthpiece at one side and an earpiece in the bedroom.

How many remember the old wind-up phone, or the pay-per-use coin box and how the post office operator then answered when you got through on the receiver. The wind-up handle generated electricity using a magnet and a coil, which then caused a bell to ring in the exchange office, therefore alerting the operator that a caller was on the line.

In the 1970s I remember hearing of an operator who shall remain nameless who was renowned for their politeness on the phone but then to meet them in person on the street was a totally different story because every second word would turn the air blue. Ah, those were the days!

In recent decades there came along house phones in all sorts of gaudy colours and, by the 1980s, there was the arrival of those brick sized mobile phones, which for those with the cash, could be bought for huge prices. Those mobiles were shown off on television as the latest and coolest of gadgets.

Nowadays, we would think such a massive device to be a monstrosity. But what was once a cool accessory yesteryear, is now just something to reminisce about.

Having now completed my last paragraph of the day, and another 40 minutes until the plane lands, I think I will lie back and have a snooze until I sight the welcome green fields of Ireland, at which point we will all be permitted to turn on our mobile phones again. How far we have come!


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