In the19th century, telephones were mainly used by businesses and wealthy individuals. The first telephone exchange in Europe opened in August 1879, soon followed by another in Manchester, both operated by The Telephone Company Limited. Around the same time the Midland Telephone Company opened an exchange in Birmingham on the corner of New Street and Stephenson Place.

In July 1880 the company installed Wolverhampton’s first telephone exchange in a room in the Free Library in Garrick Street. Making a call was a long-winded affair. In order to connect the telephone to the exchange, a white button was pressed. The operator would ask if a telephone call was about to be made, and the user would tell the operator the name and number of the person to be contacted. After making the connection, the operator waited for the person at the other end to pick-up the earpiece, and then told the caller to proceed. When the telephone call had ended, the caller had to inform the operator, who would then remove the connection. Although this was time consuming, there were very few users, and so it worked adequately.

The first telephone line in Wolverhampton, about a mile long, was laid between Moses Ironmonger’s rope and twine factory at 272 Brickkiln Street, and the company’s office in High Street. Moses Ironmonger, the Chief Magistrate of Wolverhampton, and Mayor in 1857 to 58, and again in 1868 to 69, was also president of the Wolverhampton Chamber of Commerce in 1873 to 74, and a friend of Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone pioneer. Ironmonger’s telephone line was tried out by some of the local councillors, who appear to have been impressed.

Before the end of July 1880 Monmore Green and Ettingshall were connected to the exchange. By October between 50 and 60 calls were made daily.

Wolverhampton’s next exchange was set up in 1903 in a large house next to the Town Hall, where the Civic Centre is today. The house had previously been occupied by John Freer Proud, a surgeon.

As the number of users increased, the old manual telephone exchanges could no longer cope and so automatic exchanges were developed.

In Wolverhampton a large automatic exchange opened on the 29th September, 1932 in Red Lion Street, on the corner of Mitre Fold.

Operators at work in the Wolverhampton exchange in the 1930s.

The following description of the exchange is taken from an article in Courtaulds’ staff magazine, ‘The Rayoneer’. The article describes a visit made by a small group of Courtauld’s staff in December 1935.

We were first shown the fat lead-covered cables in which the paper-insulated telephone wires enter the apparatus room; a 2 inch cable carries 2,000 wires, grouped in various coloured divisions presumably to prevent the wireman going mad when he has to distinguish each circuit from its neighbour and join them up correctly. These leave their lead covering and are connected to a large numbered-frame, each pair having a fuse and a lightning arrester fitted for the protection of the exchange apparatus. A similar device is fitted at the subscriber's end of the cable.

For the sake of clarity, let us imagine that your telephone is connected to a pair of these wires, and that you want to call the works' number, 51226. You lift your receiver, the switchook arm goes up, makes contact, and a line switch at the exchange-end of your line begins to hunt for the first vacant line to the selector apparatus. This done, a low buzzing in your receiver tells you that all is set for dialling. (So rapid is this operation that almost invariably the dialling tone is heard as you place the receiver to your ear.)

Banks of selectors.

Everyone is now familiar with the outside of the dial: in fact the exchanges have trouble with children who enter call boxes and dial the operator. The inside is not so simple. When the dial is rotated a spring is wound which returns it on release, governors regulating the speed of the return. A cam plate with ten teeth comes into operation on the return journey, and by means of a contact breaker sends a number of electrical impulses along the line, corresponding to the number dialled.

The selector to which you are now connected is fitted with a bank of a hundred double contacts, ten rows, with ten in each row. Its vertical movement is controlled from the dial. In this case, you dial 5, and the "wiper" mounts to the fifth row, and then automatically hunts along the row for the first vacant contact. Those already engaged are passed over, and it does not come to rest until a vacant one is found.

When this contact is made you are connected to an outlet to the group of lines whose numbers lie between 50,000 and 59,999. This group has another set of selectors, each with its bank of 100 contacts. You dial 1, and the 'wiper' mounts one, and again searches along the row for a vacant line. This connects you to the group of lines whose numbers lie between 51,000 and 51,999, and this group again has its set of selectors and contacts. The digit 2 is now dialled, and the selector mounts to the second level, and swings round in search of a disengaged line and connects you to the 51,200's group.

The selectors attached to this group are different in action. You dial the last figure but one of our number (2), and the 'wiper' mounts two, but does not rotate until the next figure is dialled. As you dial 6, it moves six steps round the contacts, and you are through to 51226 - just like that.

That is the broad principle-a progressive selection through ranks of contacts by selectors controlled by your movements of the dial, but many other happenings must be provided for. When you are through to the number required, power must be transmitted to ring the wanted subscriber's bell, and a tone produced in your ear-piece to advise you that the distant bell is ringing. If the number is engaged, nothing happens at their end to disturb conversation, but a high-pitched burr, known as the "engaged tone," warns you of the fact.

All these tones are produced at the Exchange by varying the frequency and period of interruption of an alternating current generated by a small motor-generator specially designed for this purpose. Should this machine stop because of failure of the town electric supply, or for any other reason, an emergency set starts up automatically without delay. This set is driven by batteries, housed in the building, which are capable of running the exchange installation and the motor generators for thirty six hours without re-charging. This change over is hedged around with automatic safety devices, which come uncannily to life when required.

We were shown numerous other attendant marvels: a device which, once started, will carryon testing the thousands of contacts used in the selector apparatus until the proverbial cows come home-or until a fault is found.

The gadgets on the engineer's desk enable him to become a veritable magician. When a fault is reported he can plug into the delinquent line, test it, feel its pulse, etc., without moving from his chair. If the fault is outside the exchange, he can, with a sensitive voltmeter and some black magic, tell almost to a yard where the fault is. So delicate is this instrument that it was demonstrated how breathing on the plug was enough to make it register.

The dial speed of your phone can be tested from the desk by an ingenious device that registers the speed in impulses per second. Nothing appears to have been overlooked. Every eventuality has been provided for, and if the apparatus requires help, lamps glow to call the engineer's attention. These not only call for help, but indicate the urgency of the job; a white light meaning something not quite so urgent as a red.

The telephone exchange.

If the engineer has slipped out to have one (which, however, engineers rarely do), the call for help takes the form of a bell. If your receiver is left off for three minutes without a number being dialled, the apparatus informs the engineer, who applies a reminder in the form of a high-pitched note which gains in intensity the longer it remains un-noticed.

We were also taken over to the manual portion of the exchange, where operators control the calls not obtained automatically, i.e., trunk calls, telegrams, etc. The same painstaking efficiency was noticeable here, and the electrical call-timing gear had the magic touch, but our capacity for surprise was by this time exhausted. The crowning blow came when we were told that the marvels we had seen were already out of date and were being replaced by more up-to-date equipment.

The whole party expressed their gratitude to the Postmaster for his kind permission, and to the two guides who so ably piloted us through the intricacies of that modern wonder, the automatic telephone exchange.

The Red Lion Street exchange building still survives, although it has been greatly extended, and is now an electronic exchange.

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