To the north side of Bankstown station the rows of shops are under a cloak of rain, with a grey sky above. It has been a few years since I’ve last been over this way, and through the gloom of the rain I look for some of the details I remember: a ghost sign for curtains and home linens, ‘Optical House’, and the inscrutable facade of the Telstra Museum. As long as I’ve known it to be there I’ve wondered what is inside, the building’s plain appearance only heightening its mystery.
This time, I go up to the entrance, and seeing that it’s a Wednesday and the sign indicates it is open, I press the doorbell. Nothing happens for a little while, but I wait. There are few clues to it being open from the street, the windows have frosted glass and heavy grilles, which make it difficult even to see if the lights are on inside. But after a minute or so the door opens, and a museum guide welcomes me in.
Never have I been in a room with so many telephones. Immediately it is clear this is a comprehensive and loved collection of telecommunications objects, arranged by type and category, in aisles signposted ‘telephone exchanges, public telephones’, or ‘morse code, teleprinters’. Soon I’m examining a row of public telephones, pointing out to the guide the ones I remember: ah, the gold phone, phone of my teenage years.
Telephone technology has undergone constant change since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, progressing from contraptions of wires and bells and plugs, through a series of advancements towards digital systems, a narrative documented here in the Telstra Museum through objects and ephemera.
My guide, like many of the museum’s volunteers, had worked for PMG, the Postmaster General’s Department, which handled post and telecommunications before the services were split in the 1970s, into Australia Post and Telecom. He shows me how the switchboard exchange mechanisms worked and we take up a bakelite phone each to role play a phone call as he guides me through the operation of the pyramid switchboard. Switchboard operators were generally women, who were thought to be more patient and polite for a job which required continual conversations with callers: my fumbling attempts were once actions conducted with great speed and precision.
We examine exchange equipment, morse code machines, teleprinters, and the Muirhead-Jarvis Picture Transmitter, which relayed news photographs by telegram, in a machine housed in a cabinet something like a piano, that prefigured the fax machine and the photocopier. One aisle is dedicated to domestic telephones, including a rotary dial phone in gold, which is, I see when I go up close, ‘the one millionth telephone manufactured by STC’.
Other phones have tapestry covers, or are wall mounted and in a range of colours (Powder Blue, Maize Yellow, Cinnamon). A photocopied illustration shows the Dolly Vardin cover that was fashionable in the early 1900s with those who found the sight of the telephone unattractive, a doll with a long lacy skirt, tall enough to cover over the telephone underneath.
These phones and communication devices were once regarded as new, then became everyday items, then were outmoded, to finally became museum pieces. In one section are the first mobile phones and car phones, big clunky bricks that cost many thousands of dollars in the 80s and 90s. I’m drawn to an earlier innovation, an alternative 1960s design for landline phones. The Ericofon, the guide tells me, came to be popular for use in airport operations, but they weren’t so popular in homes, because if you needed to put the phone down mid-call you had to remember to put it on its side, or else you’d hang up on the caller.
In the last row of the museum, beside a radio studio and ‘television operations centre’, is George the Speaking Clock. You have George? I ask, with a growing sense of excitement. In 2018 I wrote an essay for the Powerhouse Museum book Time and Memory, and researched 20th century methods of time keeping and recording, of which George was one. I draw closer to the machine which had once announced the current time to callers, from a series of three glass discs on which was recorded the voice of a radio announcer named Gordon (not George) Gow. One disc held the hours, one the minutes, and another the seconds, and the machine selected the correct combination of numbers according to the current time.
In the essay, I had described a call to George: “Upon calling B074, callers heard Gow’s voice cycling through the 4320 announcements that made up one day’s worth of time. At the hour, when the time announcement was followed by ‘precisely’, his voice seemed to relish the crispness of the word — indeed, the speaking clock was advertised as being accurate to within one-hundredth of a second.”
In his heyday, George attracted many thousands of calls a day, but here, in the Telstra Museum, he reads the time just for me, as the guide wakes him up for a solo performance.
Telegram stationery, pneumatic tubes, post office memorabilia, Beepa the Owl (the 1980s Telecom mascot), Telecom-patterned tableware… there was seemingly no limit to the technical and cultural ephemera of communications, and I vowed to return, another day, for a morse code demonstration and further investigation of the collection.
Like George and the Goldphone public phone, the crockery was familiar to me too. Many years ago I’d bought a Telecom teacup from an op shop, and so after navigating the wet, potholed streets back home, I settled down to warm up with a cup of tea in my own piece of telecommunications history.
With thanks to Jeff and Bob for their museum tour and demonstrations.