The first UK telephone call

This mysterious looking polished wooden object (one of a pair) is actually part of the equipment through which the first ever telephone conversation passed in the United Kingdom. Its significance might have been lost for ever without the remains of an old museum label which stated that it was an “early telephone receiver” made and donated by James E. Bedford. Unlabelled this would have probably remained as an unregarded “mystery object” in the museum stores.

In 2010 we had an enquiry from a descendent of James’s brother Charles S. Bedford asking to see what was reputed to be “the first telephone in made England” and were able to locate it and start to understand its significance, but the evidence was still just anecdotal. Earlier this month we received a letter from George Rudram, a volunteer at Amberley Museum in West Sussex which helps shed light on the claim and enclosing a copy of an article in “The Telegraph and Telephone Journal” from April 1933.

The article is based on an interview with Mr Charles S. Bedford, Managing Director of the Leeds firm of Wood & Bedford, manufacturing chemists:

In 1876, he and his brother the late Mr James Edward Bedford, later to become the first Lord Mayor of Leeds in the Great War period, were two youths interested in all kinds of mechanical contrivances. To assist them in their hobby, they perused among others, the periodical “Scientific Americans”. From it they were vastly intrigued by a description of Graham Bell’s new invention, the telephone, and they immediately decided to make two replicas.

A suitable piece of beech was first obtained and by turning on a lathe the frames of two telephones were evolved. Mr. Charles Bedford has rather poignant memories of this lathe, for he states that he provided the necessary power, whilst the future Lord Mayor performed the more skilled operations. For the next stage a bar of steel 2 feet long and 5/8 inch diameter was obtained and cut to the desired lengths. The pieces were then bored and tapped for an adjusting screw, and magnetised.

The diaphragms were made of thin ferro-type plate and were very similar to the modern type. The coils were made of fine wire wound round bobbins, the latter being fixed to the bar magnet and the two ends of the wire coils led out to terminals at the other end of the magnet. A wooden cup, bevelled in the centre similar to the present receiver caps, was fitted by means of screws, and the combined receiver-transmitter was ready.

Bell wire was run on pot insulators from the attic to a workshop about 30 yards away in the grounds of their residence, Sycamore Lodge, Woodhouse Cliff, Leeds. The internal leads to the instruments were of gutta-percha covered wire.

Although no batteries were used, speech could be heard quite plainly at the first trial after a preliminary adjustment of the adjusting screws.

The first conversation over the line was:-

“Are you there?”

“Yes, I am, will you count?”

“1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9”

“That’s all right. Will you go through the alphabet.”

“A.B.C.D.–“

“Wait a minute while I adjust the screw.”

The new telephone was an object of interest to all the friends of the family and many were 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.

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