Give me a bell... phones, smartphones, and us - Katherine Roberts

Can you imagine a world without phones? They've been around for a while, but not as long as you might think.

1960s: Two tin cans and a piece of string. As kids, we built our own in-house telephone system using a piece of string and two tin cans. This worked on the same principle as Alexander Graham Bell's 1877 box phone, which transmitted a voice along a wire. If DIY is not your forte, you can buy a kit from amazon:

tin-can phone

Alexander Graham Bell's box phone.
If you want someone to call you, it's "Give me a bell".

1970s: The age of the landline. Most households had a phone by then, usually situated in the hall, where they were jealously guarded by teenagers chatting to their friends.

Landline phone with rotary dial,
very satisfying to use with either finger or pencil. 
Now something of a collector's item (try ebay).

My family, wary of the extra bill, did not get a landline installed until I headed off to university. So if I wanted to call my best friend (who had a phone at her house), I had to run up to the red telephone box on the corner and feed it with 2p pieces. Life-and-death teenage conversations were interrupted by "Hang on, the pips are going... pip-pip-pip... sorry, what did you say? Dropped a coin... pip-pip-pip..."

The red telephone box.
Now more often used to house defibrillators or community libraries.

1980s: The mobile phone... but not as we know it! The first mobile phone call in the UK was made by Michael Harrison (son of Vodaphone's first chairman) at midnight on 1st January 1985 over Vodaphone's original network (1G) using one of these portable 'bricks':

Transportable Vodafone VT1
(weight 5kg, talk time 30 minutes, price £2000-ish).
You could carry it around with you... just.

By this time, I had left University and begun a career in computers. Zero emails, no internet, no mobile phones, though we did have a landline in the office (shared between the staff). Bliss. We actually got work done in those days.

1990s: 2G and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Cheaper mobile packages, together with smaller, lighter phones, meant more people could afford them and they were easier to carry around. Most of them didn't connect to the internet, but they could make calls and send texts (predictive text, anyone?)

Nokia 1100

I still use my Nokia 1100. It's small and robust (has survived several wipe-outs on the ski slopes and countless knocks around horses), has a battery life of around a week, and often finds a signal where other phones don't. It also came with the retro mobile game 'Snake', which is curiously addictive.

2000s: 3G and smartphones. Devices that combine phone and computer have actually been around since the 1990s, although the earlier ones were limited in functionality.

From this...

Nokia Communicators 9000 (1996) and 9110 (1998)
opened up to make a mini computer,
could email, browse the web, and send faxes.

To this...

Blackberries... not the fruit, so no pips.
By 2011, there were 85 million Blackberry subscribers.
Nicknamed 'Crackberry' because it was so addictive. 

2010s: 4G and the iPhone. Smartphones became faster and smarter with sleek new designs, built-in cameras, and apps for just about everything. Apple's iPhone became particularly popular in this decade, but I've never used one - if you are expecting an in-depth analysis of your favourite smartphone, I suggest you consult your user manual.

Apple's iPhone 4s

2020s: 5G and all those ugly masts.

Typical 5G mast

Unlike earlier networks, 5G pulsed frequencies do not transmit as easily through buildings or trees, which means they require more transmitters and taller masts. Attempts have been made to hide these masts in conservation areas (look for awkwardly shaped evergreens on the horizon, like a tree playing at being a scarecrow), but most are highly visible and close to where people live and work, which raises the question of what price we are willing to pay for our phones.

Most people want a 5G smartphone,
but nobody wants a 5G mast in their back yard.

Today, we have really smart phones with multiple cameras that can take amazing photos and video. They have SatNav to find us if we're lost, can do our banking for us, send us emergency alerts, wake us in the middle of the night with vitally important pings from social media sites, chat to various AIs, read cryptic QR codes, monitor our heart rates, and do a hundred other things I probably haven't even thought of... remember, I'm still playing Snake on my retro Nokia :-) Your current phone probably looks a bit like this one, and you spend more time than you thought possible swiping at its screen with your finger. 

So much more than a phone...
no longer eats 2p pieces, but greedily devours data instead.

Life-and-death conversations in patchy mobile areas are interrupted by "Sorry, what was that? Just lost the signal..." or "Got to go, my battery's running out..." which reminds me of my teenage years wrestling with those pips. We might not be standing in a red box feeding a metal box with a handful of 2p pieces, but it seems we're still in danger of being cut off when we don't feed the machine.

2030s: The future. 6G, 7G, 10G...? One day we'll run out of (supposedly) safe non-ionising frequencies, and yet we'll still want faster phones and more data. The Internet of Things will be greedy, with everything talking to everything else. Artificial Intelligence will take over, and eventually our phones won't need humans getting in the way any more. We'll leave the robots to their own devices and turn our attention to outer space... where I'm sure someone out there is observing our planet and laughing at us.

The Carpenters saw it coming years ago... enjoy!

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers. Her 2000 novel Spellfall, written in the early days of mobile phones, explores the difference between our modern world which has no place for magic, and the enchanted parallel world of Earthaven where spells grow on giant trees that communicate through a living root system and provide sanctuary for people's souls.


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Griselda Heppel said…
Very impressed by this detailed history. It made me think of the subtle social changes brought on by the rise of the mobile phone, especially for teenagers living at home.

When I was young, the landline was always in the hall, meaning no phone call was private (great for parents keeping an eye on offspring). That is, when you were even allowed to make a call and had saved up enough pocket money to pay back your parents.

The advent of mobile phones not only meant total privacy for teenagers taking calls anywhere, it took parents out of the equation altogether, as often they would have been answering the landline and could at least say hello to the friend ringing before putting on their son/daughter. Moreover, I found it disconcerting when it meant I wouldn't even set eyes on my children's friends when they called round, as there was no need to ring the doorbell anymore, just text to say they were outside.

Now, as you say, there seems no limit on what phones can do, and apparently older people shouldn't phone younger ones out of the blue as it upsets them. Give me strength.
Peter Leyland said…
That's a great post Katherine which brought back two distinct memories. One was using assorted vessels like cans and string to carry out sound experiments in my teaching days, the other was telephoning my first girlfriend from the red box at the top of the road and pressing Button A for the coins to drop, and telling her that it was all over.

This month's blog, if it works, will use a picture taken with a mobile phone.
Aw, Peter - sorry to hear about the girlfriend, but I suppose it's better than being dumped by text as I believe happens these days!

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