Deryck Fay's Connecting A Nation: the story of telecommunications in Ireland, which has recently been published by UCD Press, tells the story not just of cables, exchanges, SIM cards and broadband, but of how telecommunications has played a pivotal role in the development of the country from 1852 to the present day. 

Miss Agnes Duggan, telephone operator and revolutionary

On the morning of July 18, 1881, 16-year-old Agnes Duggan climbed the stairs of Commercial Buildings on Dublin’s Dame Street to start her new job as a ‘telephone operator’. Her destination was the United Telephone Company on the top floor, a newcomer amidst the venerable insurance companies and accountancy practices that also occupied Commercial Buildings.

Miss Agnes Duggan, one of the first telephone operators in Ireland, pictured in 1909. Image: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

Miss Duggan was not the first telephone operator employed by the London-based United Telephone Company. When the exchange opened 15 months earlier a young boy was employed in the role but with only five subscribers to this new ‘network’ he quickly became bored and adjourned to the courtyard to play marbles, leading to his dismissal.

A woman – the company’s first – was then employed as an operator and in the intervening 12 months business had grown so much that a second operator was required, and Agnes Duggan got the job.

On arriving at the top floor, Miss Duggan was led into the ‘exchange’ room, where a jumble of wires looped down from the ceiling before disappearing behind an upright wooden board punctuated with rows and rows of small single-hole sockets, some of which had cords dangling from them. In front the board was a table with even more contraptions.

An illustration of the switchboard at Coleman St in London; the first Dublin exchange was of a similar design

The apparatus must have appeared fearsomely complicated and Miss Duggan was perhaps daunted by the prospect of learning how to master such a contraption. But she might also have been exhilarated at the idea of talking to people all over Dublin, their voices carried through the telephone wires that stretched out over the streets from Commercial Buildings.

And amid all this novelty, she probably wondered if this new-fangled telephone was merely an expensive and temperamental fad and was grateful that she had her certificate from the Royal Irish Academy of Music to fall back on. Either way, on that morning in 1881, Miss Duggan certainly could never have guessed the power she was unleashing.

The dauntingly complicated-looking switchboard Miss Duggan was employed to operate was most probably built by Charles Williams Jr, of Boston, on whose premises Alexander Graham Bell had his laboratory.

While there are many potential claims to the title, ‘inventor of the telephone’, it was Bell who was awarded the patent and it is his name the world remembers. In 1877, a year after he had filed a patent for his ‘telephonic device’, the newly wed Bell embarked on a year-long tour of Europe with his wife Mabel to promote his new invention.

It might have been an unusual honeymoon choice but as a promotional tactic it was a great success with Bell registering a company in England to sell his invention in the UK. The Bell’s honeymoon itinerary did not include Ireland but that didn’t impede the Scotsman’s invention reaching the country. Indeed, even prior to Bell receiving his patent, it seems that he had sent a pair of telephones to his friend Mr Holdbrook, headmaster of Aravon School in Bray in 1876.

Those early telephone installations simply consisted of two phones permanently connected to each other, such as between different parts of a factory. It didn’t take long for the concept of a telephone exchange to be developed, allowing a telephone to be connected to any other telephone – by a telephone operator, like Miss Duggan.

The world’s first exchange opened in New Haven, Connecticut, on January 28, 1878. Within 18 months the first telephone exchanges were installed in Europe, with one opening in Dublin on 29 March 1880. 

The first Dublin telephone directory, 1880. Amongst the businesses that survive to this day are brewers Messrs A. Guinness, Son & Co. and wine merchant Edward Dillon Esq. Clearly selling alcohol in Ireland is a sustainable business model. Image: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

All these telephone networks were established by private companies, sometimes competing for customers. This was well illustrated in Belfast, where two different companies opened separate exchanges within a month of each other in 1880, causing some chaos.

With no interconnection between the two rival systems, a subscriber who wanted to be fully connected was required to rent a line from both companies with the result that, by August 1880, Belfast Fire Brigade had two telephones. The duplication in Belfast was solved when the rivals merged in July 1881, presumably reducing confusion at Belfast’s fire station. Perhaps to compensate for the initial chaos, the fire station was allocated the number Belfast 1.

Down in Dublin, by the end of 1880 the subscriber base had grown to 32 and when Miss Duggan started the following July she joined at team of seven: Mr Morgan the Managing Director, the other ‘lady operator’ mentioned at the start of this chapter, three clerks, a handyman who served as electrician and linesman, and a boy who carried all the handyman’s tools in a straw basket on his back.

The subscriber growth picked up even more after Agnes Duggan joined so that by 1883 the customer base had grown to 300 entities, making an average of 11 calls per day, the highest of anywhere in the UK.

Unfortunately for the company it derived no financial benefit from its loquacious Irish customers as the annual line rental of £20 (c. €25) per year included unlimited local calls. While the early telephone users were overwhelmingly from the business community, there was also a small but increasing base of residential customers.

Extract from the 1912 telephone directory. It is not clear whether the advertisement is aimed specifically at potential domestic customers in the Magherafelt area or more generally. Image: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

The telephone companies were not averse to preying on potential concerns about security and welfare in their attempts to boost sales to residential users as demonstrated by the 1912 advert with the slogan ‘If you had a Telephone at Home Your Wife could do most of the Shopping with it. It would save Time and Worry.’

To cater from this growing demand, the company opened a new, purpose-built, telephone exchange for central Dublin on Crown Alley in Temple Bar. The exchange, housed in a building designed by Thomas Manley Deane, whose father had been responsible for the Anglo-American Telegraph Company’s station at Valentia Co Kerry, was opened by its longest serving operator, Agnes Duggan, on June 4, 1900. 

Crown Alley exchange, which opened in 1900. Now surrounded by pubs and restaurants, the building is still in use as a telephone exchange, making it possibly the longest-serving such building in Europe

The new switchboard was very different to the primitive predecessor that had greeted Miss Duggan on that July morning in 1881. In the intervening years, the design and operation of switchboards had been streamlined and standardised. When a call came in, the indicator disk above the calling subscriber’s socket would drop down.

This was the signal for the operator to insert a cord with a brass plug into the relevant socket which enabled her to speak to the calling subscriber, who would tell her the number they wanted.

She would then take another plug, insert it into the socket of the required number and depress a key in order to ring the bell of the requested telephone. This mode of operation changed little over the decades that followed and Miss Duggan would have had little difficulty operating the Magneto ‘cord board’ in the Co Clare village of Mountshannon, which remained in use until 1987. 

A typical Magneto switchboard of the type used at Crown Alley in Dublin in 1900, Mountshannon in Co Clare in 1987 and many places in between. Image: Courtesy of BT Heritage & Archives

The technology used within the telephone industry also changed as a result of discoveries in other areas. A revolution in metal-making made it possible to produce thin wire from copper, while new forms of insulation made feasible the production of underground cables with capacity for hundreds of subscribers, each liked by a pair of copper wires to the exchange through underground ducting.

By 1908, 20 km of cable ducting had been laid under the streets of Dublin, some of which still remains visible on the streets of the capital. The copper pair remains a common method of carrying voice and data traffic into homes and businesses to this day. The broadband revolution of the twenty-first century can trace its roots back to the Victorian telephone revolution 123 years earlier.

Despite these advances in cable technology, there remained constraints, both technological and commercial, on early telephone development. The first telephone exchanges established in Dublin, Belfast and elsewhere were initially isolated from each other and could connect only local calls.

As the network expanded, ‘junction’ circuits were provided to adjoining exchanges operated by the same company, so that by 1883 it was possible to make a call between the main exchange in Dublin and the newly opened exchange in suburban Rathmines – but no further.

The ability to make ‘trunk’ calls took a long time to become universal, for largely technical reasons. With no way to amplify signals available at the time, trunk circuits had to use heavy gauge copper wire to minimise resistance so that the call remained audible.

This added greatly to the cost of building a trunk network and, as a result, it was not until April 5, 1892, that Ireland’s first trunk telephone line went into operation between Dublin and Belfast. To maintain adequate transmission quality, the wire used was the thickness of a pencil and weighed a whopping 800 pounds per mile (227 kg/km). The line was inaugurated by a call between the mayors of the two cities and calls were free of charge for the first week.

By May 1893 all exchanges throughout Ireland had come under the ownership of the National Telephone Company (NTC). This pattern was replicated across the UK creating what was effectively a nationwide private sector monopoly.

There was considerable dissatisfaction with the quality of service offered and the number of telephones per capita was adversely compared to the US and other places in Europe. As a result, the concept of the government taking over the telephone service, as it had done with the telegraph service in 1870, began to be debated.

The licences of the private phone companies, now largely consolidated into the NTC, were due to expire at the end of 1911, providing an opportunity to resolve the ownership question. With telegraph revenues being eroded by competition from the telephone, the Post Office saw its chance to pounce.

In August 1905, after prolonged negotiations and intense haggling, the Post Master General and the NTC signed an agreement by which the state was to take over the latter’s operations throughout the UK on the expiration of its licence for the sum of £12.5m (c.€14m). The formal handover would take place on January 1, 1912, with NTC staff becoming civil servants employed by the Post Office. 

Manhole cover in Dublin dating from the period of the National Telephone Company 1893–1912

The telephone network was expanded rapidly after nationalisation with many new exchanges opened, often in post office premises where the postmistress tended to the switchboard in between serving customers at the counter.

The trunk network was also extended, finally reaching Galway in 1913. By 1918 the telephone system in the 26-county area comprised of about 212 exchanges. But there remained a distinct geographical bias in the telephone network. Of the 12,500 lines in use, 6,400 (51.2 per cent) were in or around Dublin.

There were no exchanges at all in the counties of Mayo, Leitrim or Roscommon. A new country was in the making but its foundations, telephonically speaking, were shaky. One element was, however, firm. The telephone network was a government-controlled monopoly. It would remain so for 81 years.

Telephone exchange opening dates, 1880–1920

The influx of telephone operators and other ex-NTC employees into the Post Office reinforced its position as a significant employer of women in a time where other opportunities were limited. In 1913 the Post Office employed 306 female telephonists and 539 female ‘sorting clerks and telegraphists’ in Ireland alone.

While such jobs provided secure employment, the salary of about £26–45 (c. €33–57) per year was equivalent to just seven times the line rental charged by their employer. The concept of the telephone operator as a ‘woman’s job’ persisted: as late as 1977, the Irish phone book instructed callers who phoned the operator to ‘ask her for the number required’.

As it was considered unseemly for ladies to have to travel to and from work late at night, in exchanges with 24-hour service the night shift was operated by men on a separate and, needless to say, higher-paid grade.

Even the male operator grades, however, earned only a fraction of the £400 (c. €508) per year salary of the Dublin District Manager in 1912, Mr Percy F Currall. Indeed Mr Currall earned almost enough in a single year to buy outright the eight-room house in Ranelagh with garden advertised in the Daily Express for sale at £450 (c. €571).

Miss Agnes Duggan avoided the fate of her marble-playing predecessor and remained a telephone operator for over 30 years. We know that by 1907 she had progressed from putting through a handful of calls to the role of Chief Operator in the NTC, supervising a team of 29 operators handling 33,000 calls a day. History does not record if she moved to the Post Office at the time of nationalisation.

However the Crown Alley exchange building she opened in 1900 remains in use, still handling tens of thousands of calls each day, automatically and digitally, without the aid of any operator. Any doubts Miss Duggan had on her first day were unfounded. The new-fangled telephone had proved to be not a fad but an invention that transformed countless aspects of life.

On that morning in July 1881 Agnes Duggan had been at the vanguard of a revolution that was to sweep not just Ireland but the world. 

Part 2, 'Where's my bloody phone?!', will be published on March 28, 2022.

Author: Deryck Fay