In an age of smartphones and tablets, it’s hard to believe this humble-looking wooden object was once the pinnacle of telephonic technology.
But the wooden receiver, one of a pair now on display at Leeds City Museum, was in fact part of the UK’s first ever telephone conversation.
The receivers were made and donated by James E. Bedford, a former Lord Mayor of Leeds, in the early 1920s- but their significance was not fully known until much more recently.
The Leeds Museums and Galleries team were contacted in 2010 by a relative of James’ brother Charles S. Bedford asking to see what was reputed to be “the first telephone made in England”.
Later, a letter arrived from a volunteer at Amberley Museum in West Sussex, which included a copy of an article in “The Telegraph and Telephone Journal” from April 1933.
The article revealed that James and his brother, both science enthusiasts, were “vastly intrigued by a description of Graham Bell’s new invention, the telephone” and they immediately decided to make the two replicas.
Their first conversation over the line was between an attic and a workshop 30 yards away.
“Are you there?”
“Yes, I am, will you count?”
“That’s all right. Will you go through the alphabet.”
“Wait a minute while I adjust the screw.”
Councillor Brian Selby, Leeds City Council’s lead member for museums and galleries, said: “Like many of the seemingly unremarkable objects in our collection, these telephone receivers have an amazing story behind them and it’s a privilege to have an item with so much history on display here in Leeds.
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The new telephone was an object of interest to all the friends of the family and many were at the demonstrations given in the evenings.”
The original instruments were donated to Leeds Museums by James Bedford in the early 1920s.
It appears from the chronology that James and Charles Bedford just managed to make their replica telephone before Graham Bell patented his invention in England. Bell had been granted his US patent in March 1876. The Bedford brothers first tried out their version in October and Bell was granted his English patent in December. Bell’s telephone was first officially exhibited in England in August 1877 to the British Association at Plymouth and was demonstrated to Queen Victoria in January 1878.