Operator. May I help you?: Bell Canada's 125 Years

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BELL-6124 BELL-1ANG BELL-2784 BELL-34090 M991X.5.120 BELL-8511-1 BELL-2ANG M998.48.103 VIEW-6488.Q
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Creative Commons License
Catalogue illustration of a telephone
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper - Wood engraving
11.3 x 10.8 cm
Gift of David Ross McCord
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Miscellaneous (671) , Print (10661)
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Keys to History

Manual Switching

The telephone as we now know it is the culmination of a long process of development of switching technology, that is the connection between two telephones. The first phones were massive wooden boxes. At the time of Melville Bell, the same device served as both transmitter and receiver, so the user had to keep moving it back and forth between ear and mouth to listen and speak. By the late 19th century, the boxes contained the battery that served as a power supply, which is why they had to be so big.

The year 1900 saw the introduction of telephone exchanges with a central battery. This made smaller telephones possible. With the inception of the first exchange with a central battery, subscribers no longer had to turn a crank to call the exchange. As soon as the receiver was picked up, a light corresponding to the telephone number lit up at the switchboard. The operator answered and then connected the caller to the requested party.

  • What

    This engraving by John H. Walker illustrates a wall telephone that must be cranked using the small handle on the right. The caller speaks into the transmitter, which is in the centre, and holds the receiver in the right hand. The lower box, partly hidden by the caller, contains the battery.

  • Where

    This type of phone was found both in businesses and in well-to-do homes.

  • When

    Wall phones were very common up until 1905. They were replaced by table models in the 1910s.

  • Who

    John Henry Walker (1831-1899) was a Montreal engraver who illustrated many books and periodicals.