Dear Old Phone Booths


A telephone booth with smashed tempered glass ...
A telephone booth with smashed tempered glass in Holloway, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nostalgia as phone booths make last call

Mobile phones win the war as Telecommunication Company recalls the last of its ‘call boxes’

The famous telephone booths, once a landmark in streets all over the world are taking their last calls gradually. In the next one year or so, the last of the booths will disappear from Kenyan streets.

With their exit – the war between the majestic red, yellow and (recently) cream booths, and the mobile phone, finally comes to an end, obviously won by the wireless. This process which may have happened years ago in developed countries, is happening now in most parts of Africa. Why? Pace of development.

However, as history goes, the first coin operated telephone booths were installed at Hartford Bank in Connecticut, in 1889. The English had their coin operated telephones in the early 1900’s at the Ludgate Circus Post Office.

But in the part of the world I live, in Kenya, the phone booths made their entry in 1960’s. So what will the people remember about them?

In those days, one had to go through the notorious eavesdroppers, called telephone operators. They were the demi gods of telephony then – all calls had to go through them. There was nothing like direct calls. First you call the operator and gave him/her the number you want, then replace the receiver and wait for your call. When the call comes, you hear this, ” Please insert coins into the slot to start talking”. The invincible operator would from time to time growl: “add more coins and hurry it up”. Then the worst experience follows, the operator was always the silent listener to every conversation!

The queues, and the desperate search for coins were the first headache one experienced. The phones in the booths used the silvery one-shilling coins. To ensure that your call did not end prematurely, one needed coins in plenty. So where do you get the coins from? Of course sweet and cigarette vendors had plenty of loose change. One had to buy a sweet for a shilling and give the vendor a larger denomination.

The most frustrating part of all these is that when one accidentally comes across a telephone booth where the telephone is probably out of order, and quickly ‘swallow’ the coins lined on the slot, even before you could say “hallow”. Scenes of frustrated callers angrily banging the phone’s coin slots were very common and very amusing.

The crooks were not left behind. I mean those who would do anything to break a law. They would try to use any unorthodox means to make free calls, from inserting any round object the size of the silvery coin – and even inserting tea spoons in the slots to make the machines work. Others would ask the telephone operators for the infamous “reverse calls”, this was a call to be paid for by the person receiving the call, on condition that he agrees and gives the operator a go-ahead. The “reverse call” was the closest version of the present “please call me”.

There was another trick though, which was commonly used by students or teenagers, it worked as follows – one simply lifted the handset, and “tapped” the protruding switch which cuts off the telephone when the receiver is placed on the phone. The tapping had to be as fast as possible, and the number of times must correspond with each individual number which makes the telephone number you are calling. For example if the number you want to call was 9112, one had to tap nine times very fast, with a small pause then followed by one tap and so on until the last number. And voila! The call would go through most of the time.

Today’s teenagers may not understand the agony of calling a sweetheart in those days. You had to have a thick skin; whether you liked it or not, someone was bound to overhear the conversation. A deliberate arrangement that usually involved strict timing to have the sweetheart wait at a booth on the other end.

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