FutureFive NZ - Telco time warp

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Telco time warp

If you’ve ever been to MOTAT (and according to its Web site millions of people have since it opened in 1964) you might have missed the telecommunications collection. This is largely due to it being in a shabby, run-down shed that is about as welcoming as the notorious London Dungeons with their dreaded portal ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.

On the outside the sign is peeling away, while on the inside many of the displays are confusing, poorly presented and often way above the heads of the ordinary punter. The display about Ohm’s Law of Resistance is an example of the reasons why the average visitor might give the telecommunications display a big miss.

Which is a shame, because if you do make the effort to go inside, and if you’re lucky enough to get chatting to a volunteer like Don Guthrie (41 years as a telco engineer) you’ll discover just what fantastic treasure it contains.

Guthrie will show you how the very first automatic telephone exchange operated in Auckland. Yep, there might have been hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of the telephone, but it wasn’t long before people in cities and towns all over the world were connected at home, and it would have taken an army of people to put through every call, even in a city the size of Auckland in the early 1900s.

That’s Guthrie in the photo below; he’s on the line to ConnectMe’s Chris Leggett. The call has been put through the Western Electric 7A Automatic Telephone Exchange that was first brought into New Zealand in 1919 for the Masterton area. The exchange below is a hybrid model of the Wellesley St exchange and the Mt Eden exchange (1925). It was donated to the museum by Telecom in 2004. That’s when Guthrie joined MOTAT as a volunteer, and together with his mates spent many hours getting the Western Electric 7A operational for visitors.

Guthrie explains that the Wellesley St exchange originally handled 5000 lines, but could only process 200 calls at a time. So callers were only permitted three-minute phone calls, after which a buzzer would sound on the line, getting slowly louder until the callers hung up. Like those old-fashioned lifts where the doors have to be manually pulled shut before the lift can operate, in those days phones had to ring off to free up the dial tone for another call.

It’s common knowledge that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but not a lot of people know that Almon Brown Strowger is the father of the telephone exchange. At MOTAT they remember and have tacked up a poem in his honour. It’s been stuck onto the door of a 1972 PABX that used to route the calls at MOTAT and that’s me reading it in the photo (below right).

Making an international call was of course a different experience; you had to go through Tolls if you wanted to connect across the world. The display in the photo above shows how calls were connected via the satellite at Warkworth.

As you might expect, after four decades of working in New Zealand telecommunications Guthrie has plenty of stories. He swears he only ever “crossed the line” (when you listen in on phone calls) when it was an emergency, such as when a child was lost in Remuera, or a criminal offence (people tapping public phones to make a free call), when he was operating the test desk (see photo above).

Guthrie’s personal favourite is the Ericsson Rotary (see photo on right), which he considers the “Rolls Royce of telephone systems”. But being imported from Sweden, they were very expensive and so there are not many examples in New Zealand.

It was a surprise to discover the same names cropping up in the displays – Ericsson and Siemens are two well known brands that still build telco networks today. In the photo above is a black Siemens Neophone from 1929, which according to the explanation, was based on the ‘Swedish influence’ (hope it wasn’t pricey!)

These days Siemens and Ericsson remain telco giants, lending their famous brands to everything from mobile phone devices to complex fibre networks. But you won’t learn anything about new innovation; everything kind of stops around 1980 at the MOTAT Telecommunications collection.

This is a pity, because there is an honourable tradition in New Zealand created by engineers who built – and continue to build and maintain – the networks that we all take for granted but which are critical to our national economy and our livelihoods. Their achievements deserve better.

The telecommunications industry is one of the richest in New Zealand; according to the Commerce Commission its total annual revenue is around $5.34 billion. You might think they’d invest in ensuring their own industry was better portrayed in a museum that was visited by 25,657 school children last year.

This argument is not lost on MOTAT’s manager of museum operations Derek Grieve, who in a written response to ConnectMe called our observation that the display is tired, run-down and confusing “a fair comment”.
The majority of MOTAT’s funding this year is via a levy imposed on councils in the wider Auckland area ($9.3 million) and visitor admissions (estimated at $750,000).

Since 2000 the museum has begun a programme to upgrade all of its exhibits. There are 11 sections that compete for funding from the restoration budget, which this year is $1.1 million. The telecommunications section has had 19 projects approved. In addition there is $400,000 set aside for all the exhibitions, but this includes building maintenance.

MOTAT has a ‘workforce’ of 230 volunteers, of whom 12 support telecommunications, donating about 2000 hours of their time every six months.

The good news is that MOTAT is planning to upgrade the telecommunications area in the next financial year (2010/11) and work has begun on expanding the workshop space.

“Developing new revenue streams, including sponsorship, is an area that we have been working on and have relationships with a number of parties in this regard,” concludes Grieve. “Approaching the telecommunications industry for assistance will certainly be considered as part of the planning for the upgrade for the telecommunication display.”

Telecom, Vodafone, TelstraClear, Orcon, Slingshot, WorldxChange, 2degrees et al – hope you are listening!

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