Communicating With the Past

Yesterday I went on a tour of the Telstra Museum with some old work colleagues of mine. Located in Hawthorn, the museum houses a fascinating array of telecommunications equipment from highly technical back-end equipment to phones of both the novelty and common garden variety. There are displays of telegraph equipment, telephone switching equipment, cables, telephones of every era, a working exchange and a lot more interesting telecommunications paraphernalia.

candle stick telephoneblack and white photo of women operating a telephone switchboardNovelty phones including a Garfield the Cat phone

While the museum isn’t open to the public, a handful of dedicated ex-Telstra staff are happy to take touring groups – big or small – through the museum by appointment. They work on a voluntary basis, are extremely knowledgeable about the museum’s artefacts and clearly passionate about telecommunications.

Volunteers Richard and Murray standing by a Speaking Clock MKII

It wasn’t my first trip to the museum. I attended there last year to donate some old telephones from the 1960’s and 70’s that we’d found when clearing out my father’s garage last year, after he had passed away. Like the volunteers at the museum, Dad worked in telecommunications and was passionate about it. He’d worked for PMG in the early 1970’s (technically ‘Postmaster-General’ but as kids we referred to it as “Pig Meat and Gravy”), then Telecom in the 1980’s and finally Telstra in the 1990’s.

various telephones including a gold poneMobile phones of the 1990's including the ubiquitous Nokia 5110

Dad had worked in a number of different roles but his favourite jobs were the ones that took him out of the office and into the exchanges or into businesses to work with the actual telecommunications equipment; desk-bound jobs bored him to tears. At one point he travelled around Victoria fixing PABX’s and it was one of the happiest times of his professional life.

Sometimes when we’d be driving about the suburbs he’d pull over at a Telecom exchange building, say “I’ve just got to do something, won’t be long!” and disappear for about ten minutes before reappearing and getting back into the car. What happened in those buildings was a mystery to me when I was a child, though now that I’ve seen and learnt about how telephone exchanges work – thanks to Richard and Murray at the museum – I’ve got a much better idea.

step by step

He brought his passion for telecommunications home as well; we were the only family I knew that had multiple landline telephones in the house in the early 1980’s. Dad would get under the house in his blue workman’s overalls and set various rooms up with a phone line. He would take standard phones of the day and modify them, creating different switching systems so that we could switch from one phone to another.

800 and 809 series telephones

Going to the museum yesterday was a double-hit of nostalgia for me, not only because, like my colleagues, I recognised so much of the old private and public phone equipment from my childhood, but because telecommunications for me is wrapped up in the memories I have of my father. Maybe that’s why I was happy to go back for a second visit. It was an opportunity to communicate with the past.

eight different public telephones

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