The death of the phone box

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Sunday 4th January 2015

red-phone-boxMobile phones are so much part of our lives these days that it’s hard to believe we used to rely on old-fashioned phone boxes when we were away from home.

When I tell my children that in my university days I queued outside my college phone box to ring my mum once a week they look at me as if I’m 103. I can still remember my family’s phone number from when I was seven – Wendover 2666.

But the reality is that mobiles have only been around for 30 years. The first official UK mobile phone call was made by comedian Ernie Wise on January 1 1985, although an earlier call was made the same day by Michael Harrison, the son of Racal Vodafone chairman Sir Ernest Harrison.

It wasn’t long before this radical new invention appeared in newspaper offices. I was a reporter on the Evening Standard at the time and like my office pals had built up an impressive knowledge of the capital’s phone boxes, most of which smelled of urine and had hookers’ numbers stuck all over the place.

It was far trickier to find a phone box when we were sent out of town and had to file a news story minutes before the deadline. I’ll never forget hitching a lift in the middle of the Saudi desert so that I could get back to my hotel and dictate my story over the phone to London. When a driver kindly offered me a lift I jumped into the car, more terrified of what the news editor would say if I missed the first edition than of accepting a lift from a stranger.

The Evening Standard’s first mobiles were the size and weight of a brick and the news desk considered them so precious that we were terrified of losing them. They were the most unstylish accessories ever (they came with a horrible plastic case and shoulder strap) and to cap it all they weren’t even very reliable.

Now, of course, everyone has a mobile phone, even the Queen. Most phones have more power than the computers used to mastermind the Apollo 11 moon landing and a study has found that half of us suffer anxiety if we lose our phones, run out of battery or lose coverage. How times have changed…

2 comments so far

  • Love the description of the old phone! I smashed my phone before Christmas, and didn’t have it for two weeks. I had to call my husband from Banbury Station, and both of my daughters tried to tell me how to use the payphone, because apparently, ‘Mummy, you’ve never used one before.’
    Oh, how I laughed.

  • Thank you, Carlie – and Happy New Year! I don’t think my children have ever used a pay phone at all. There was one at the end of our road and I never saw anyone in it!

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