On this day … 9 February 1878

Preston's first telephone exchange in the 1880s
Sharples Telephonic Exchange in the 1880s.

The Preston Guardian carried a report of telephone experiments in Preston. The town was fascinated by the possibilities of this new medium, as is perfectly captured in an article in the rival Preston Chronicle.

Amateur scientists had gathered to witness a telephone connection between the India Mill in New Hall Lane and Calvert’s mill in Walton-le-Dale. The experiment was being conducted by George Sharples, who started Preston’s first telephone exchange shortly after. He positioned himself at India Mill, along with a Mr Parker, the managing partner of the two mills. At the other end was fellow experimenter, the photographer Robert Pateson. Members of Preston Scientific Society were among the guests:

In the early part of the evening the experiments were only partially successful in consequence of the hum and buzz, and at times complete roar, as heard in the telephone, from the government wires at Walton Bridge, where Messrs. Calverts’ wire crosses the river along with them. Occasionally there was a lull, when conversation was carried on with freedom by means of the wire; but the resistance was very considerable.

Towards 9 o’clock the interruption ceased, and every utterance of the voice spoken into the mouth of the telephone was heard distinctly, either way. Mr. Sharples, at the Preston end, read for the Rev. Mr. Shortt, at Walton, an account of the discovery of the remains of stags and oak trees in sinking down to the rock for the foundation of the south buttress in the widening of the North Union Railway Bridge, across the Ribble, as reported in Wednesday’s papers. Every word was heard.

When the microphone was coupled up the faintest sounds were heard at both ends. Small pellets of paper, rolled up between the finger and thumb, and weighing perhaps half a grain each, when dropped on the sounding-board struck like pebbles. The delicate stroke of a fine camel’s hair pencil brush sounded like a stroke with sand paper. When the instrument was blown upon the roar in the receiving telephone was too much for the ear, and the sound escaped in spurts as if from a penny trumpet.

Mr. Atherton hung on his watch, and the slow click, click, told instantly that it was a dead beat half seconds. The sound of it was louder than when held in the hand close to the ear. The beating of a quarter-seconds gold watch sounded like one of the noisy American cricket timepieces which are too noisy to be tolerated in a sitting-room. The grating, half-hoarse, uneven, jingling beat of a cheap Geneva watch, sounded like the weaving of a loom, or the loud beating of a Yankee eight days’ spring timepiece, worked with a balance instead of a pendulum.

These experiments afforded convincing proof that the microphone is to the ear what the microscope is to the eye. The inaudible becomes audible, and the invisible visible, according to the degree of the magnifying power. The instruments were made by Mr. Sharples. and the gentlemen who remained to the last were highly gratified.

There is an art in speaking as well as in listening, when using the telephone. A sharp, clear voice is required, and an attentive ear. In astronomical observations the eye requires to be trained to see to a nicety, and in using the telephone the ear needs to be similarly trained and practised, if a person has not a natural aptitude for pursuits of this character.

Image note: Drawing of Preston’s first telephone exchange at 7 Fishergate, owned by George Sharples, opened September 1881. On the left is the archway into Glovers Court. The premises were demolished in 1914 to widen Glovers Court. It is from the Preston Scientific Society collection. Members of the society were witnesses at the above experiments.
The society, since renamed the Preston Society, continues to flourish, but now devoted simply to natural history:

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