Inside BT Archives
BT is the world’s oldest communications company, with a direct line of descent from the first commercial telecommunications undertaking anywhere. The Electric Telegraph Company, founded in 1846, was the first to introduce networked electrical communications to an astonished world.
Re-interpreting and re-connecting The University of the Arts London and BT Heritage collaboration
When Teal Triggs and Brigitte Lardinois first visited the archives it quickly became apparent that there was an immediate passion for the historical material in our care from a direction and knowledge base very different to the corporate history role traditionally expected of BT’s heritage team. It was clear that having the opportunity to work with University of the Arts London would bring the documents to another new audience, new interpretations to the archives and a shared pool of learning unique to those involved. The knowledge that the students brought with them and their ease with the serendipity of archival discovery was impressive. Hearing them sharing different stories of individual items, and discovering and articulating narratives - connecting sources in ways untried or unknown to us - was invigorating. Films introduced advertisements, correspondence whispered to photographs, audio records announced staff instructions - and any of our early preconceptions of what ‘design’ scholars would be interested in quietly, but definitely, silenced. Key to our involvement was the opportunity for new audiences to engage with BT’s rich history and extensive archives. The collaboration has acknowledged the value of the archives in the context of design history and the narratives of new connections - both between archive sources and between researcher/ practitioner and archival source - are advocates to widen the archives’ reach. The act of reinterpretation has reinforced how communications mechanisms written, spoken, visual and filmed as well as the technological - have evolved and changed, and constantly influence the way we live our lives.
James Holland, 1936, A telephone for your guests TCB 318/PH 16
Seeing Voices: Inside BT Archives
BT Archives preserves the documents, photographs and films that tell this fascinating and exciting story, and we’re committed to widening access to and improving engagement with the many stories held within the collection.
The Design Writing Criticism programme has captivated BT Archives. We’ve appreciated the innovative dynamism that the students brought to reinterpreting the collection, adding to the wealth of stories realised through the unique and original sources of BT’s history. David Hay, Head of Heritage Siân Wynn-Jones, Heritage Collections Manager
One archive, seven voices, seven points of view.
04 06 08 11 14 16 18
Sarah Handelman Alex Cameron Emily Higgins Krisztina Somogyi Kate Nelischer Prachi Khandekar Xanthia Hallissey
Seeing Voices: Inside the BT Archive This publication accompanies an exhibition held 2 March – 11 March 2011 Well Gallery London College of Communication University of the Arts London For further details: MA Design Writing Criticism www.lcc.arts.ac.uk/courses/design_ writing_criticism.htm# www.designwritingcriticism.co.uk Information Environments Network www.informationenvironments.org.uk/ London College of Communication University of the Arts London Elephant & Castle London SE1 6SB UK BT Archives 268-270 High Holborn London WC1V 7EE www.bt.com/archives
This edition of Fieldstudy provides us with a case study for how archives might be used and the role an archive plays in exploring contemporary authorial positions. If we look at archives in the broadest sense they are defined as repositories for knowledge, information and history. Archives are spaces where a user’s learning experience is the result of an active engagement with the books on the archive shelves, the posters in the plan chest drawers, and the ephemera in the boxes of original materials. That engagement necessarily includes a relationship with the archive’s custodians. The use of archives and special collections in the teaching of visual and popular culture, communication design and social history are key to the development of learning within courses at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Over six months ago, we began a collaborative project between BT Heritage and LCC. We agreed that such a partnership would facilitate students’ engagement with the collection and, at the same time, hopefully bring fresh insights into the materials held therein. Specifically, this became an opportunity (and a challenge) for students enrolled on MA Design Writing Criticism, who were tasked with the job of analysing and interpreting this material in terms of its social context and design history.
Acknowledgements We would like to thank BT Heritage for their generous support of this project and especially David Hay and Siân Wynn-Jones for sharing their knowledge and time to our learning about the history of telecommunications. In addition, our special thanks goes to Professor Val Williams, PARC, for providing us with the publishing forum to share with others the wonders of BT Archives. © All essays are copyright to the authors. All images copyright to BT apart from those indicated as such.
What better way to learn more about the history of a discipline than engage with an archive, which houses images and artefacts documenting a history of telecommunications? Students were asked to select an artefact to study whilst at the same time exploring the social, political, economic and cultural context in which that artefact existed. They met with the UAL photography and the Archive Research Centre and Fieldstudy designer Dean Pavitt, and gave presentations about their ongoing research, after which PARC invited them to edit an issue of Fieldstudy, its twice-yearly publication. The methods they employed to do this included close readings of a series of films, posters and advertising images, corporate correspondence, books and magazines, as well as photographs, maps and architectural plans, and to apply analytical approaches drawn from design history, criticism and cultural studies to their findings. The students remarked that: ‘By going back to original source material, we find “authenticity” and raw stories to tell. We learn that narratives lie in every archive and every object. They can speak to us, and we can listen.’ The results of this project include seven essays and an exhibition. Each student took an artefact or an idea from the archive and interpreted it within the history of telecommunications. The time span ranged broadly from the 1920s to the 1980s and topics included a communications exhibition that did not take place, Her Majesty’s long distance phone call to Canada, an advertising campaign involving wires and switchboards, graphic design under the visionary Stephen Tallents at the General Post Office (GPO), the language of telephone operators, the promotional materials of phone catalogues and books on the magic of telecommunications. The essays are contained within this publication and the exhibition was on show in the Well Gallery, LCC. This was collaboration about learning and making visible an often-invisible research process. You really can ‘see voices’ in these archives. Professor Teal Triggs Course Director, MA DWC Brigitte Lardinois Associate Director, PARC Anna Gerber Lead Tutor, MA DWC
16 Fieldstudy 13
Inside BT Archives Prachi Khandekar
Scripting The Future Of Telephony: A look at the formalized language of telephone operators BT Archive retains the history of telephony in the form of crystallized moments. It houses a scrupulous assortment of images, utterances and objects that are waiting to recount forgotten stories. I was drawn to how each artifact was laden with history, and felt my new Sony Ericsson dwarf in the palm of my hand from being faced with its own ancestry. Then, as if to reinstate attention onto itself, it started ringing. I answered: Hello? I don’t recall much of the conversation; I had stopped listening at hello. For the first time this automatic response had caught my attention. There are indeed countless codes of conversation that we unknowingly follow while using the telephone. But how did such codes develop? The archive helped me piece together a tale about the codification of language for the purpose of telecommunication. My research revealed an imperceptible service design strategy put in place to popularize the telephone. I discovered that the formalized training given to operators in the early days granted the telephone the indispensable status it enjoys today. 
 TCB 473/P 1026  TCB 473/P 1026  POST30/1781  TCB 473/P 1026  TCB 417/E 3749  TCB 325/EHA 197
On the 6th of September 1879, the first telephone exchange office was inaugurated in London. There was an avid reluctance to embrace the telephone at the time and hence, the office was able to recruit only ten subscribers. Infact, in the early days, this new invention was not even regarded as a serious threat to the telegraph! It was only with the opening of one more exchange office in Birmingham later that year, that the enterprise started amassing some attention. Still, the founder of the Birmingham office, Henry Piercy, found it difficult to secure support from investors and was forced to offer 3-month free trials and discount rental fees for this expensive asset. Initially, Piercy employed just one male telephonist to operate the switchboard. However, from then on, the demand for telephone operators and, consequentially, telephones began a steep ascent.
I believe that the eventual spread of telephony from the business to the domestic realm can be attributed to the service offered by telephone operators. Information entropy, as defined by the Shannon and Weaver Model of Communication1, is always a factor when it comes to the telephone. The prospect of losing information was a serious threat to the rooting of this form of communication, as people were already weary of its benefits. Therefore, fashioning a seamless experience over this feeble medium became an urgent task, setting the stage for a fastidious service design solution. According to Nicola Morelli (2009)2, service design is aimed at improving client experience by boosting quality and facilitating interaction between the service provider and client. This inevitably translates to formalized scripts prepared for actors engaged in the service, to ensure maximum flexibility for the subscriber. I believe that it was to this end that language over the phone line was formalized during the advent of telecommunication. I discovered various documents that evidence a deliberate attempt to standardize the language of telephone operators dating back to the early 1900s. The language used by operators was painstakingly defined through exchanges between officials at various General Post Office (GPO) locations. There was no particular method – most of the formalization took place as a direct response to customer complaints, reported either directly or in local newspapers. Slowly, the officials began to chisel away the confusing bits from the exchanges over the telephone to arrive at a tweaked version of the spoken language. This resultant language was designed specifically for the telephone. For instance, by 1923, a guide was released for the correct enunciation of numbers. This then became protocol and had to be followed uniformly by telephone operators throughout England. It’s interesting to see that wherever needed, the instructions consciously
morph the everyday pronunciation of numbers to arrive at a distinct sound. An examination of the exchanges between GPO officials elucidates the tedium involved in coming to a consensus about such codes. One example of this are the nuanced discussions that took place in the year 1909 to resolve the phonetic similarity between the number ‘0‘ (oh) and ‘4’ (four). Misunderstandings arising from the similarity, prompted Mr Preston, the General Manager of the Southern GPO, to write a string of correspondences. He wanted to see if other exchange offices had experienced similar problems and how the GPO might arrive at an apt solution. I unearthed a box of letters displaying the concerns from various parties and also found suggestions as to how errors could be circumvented. One officer pointed out that ‘0’ could be referred to as ‘naught’ but another officer responded promptly to point out that ‘naught’ could easily be confused with ‘eight’ if this was implemented. The discussion ensued for weeks with no resolution. Although the example didn’t amount to a revision of the script, it was crucial to my understanding of the vigorous consideration given to tweaking the user experience through standardized language.
The method of recording correct names and addresses also followed a stringent structure. The telephonists were asked to memorize the Standard Letter Analogy chart and were tested regularly to ensure adherence to the code. In addition to this, tightly defined guidelines instructed operators on how to connect a subscriber to the destination. While conversing, an operator was to consult and follow the script even when the response was obvious. There was no room for improvisation or casual demeanour. The aim was to deliver excellent and consistent service to the customer every time. If, as it often happened, there were technical difficulties, the telephonists were instructed to duly apologize and offer assistance to the frustrated subscriber in the most patient manner. The Archive continued to satiate my curiosity for hours while opening up new doors. By learning about the standardization of language as an aspect of service design, I was able to situate myself as a participant in the long history of telephony. Though the times of operators and standard expressions are obsolete, I take pleasure in knowing that these important considerations continue to exist in an inert form, waiting to be discovered. In BT Archive one has only to follow a vague curiosity to unravel an unforgotten tale from the past.
Bibliography Bechmann, S. (2010). Service design, Gyldendal: Akademisk. Bunch, B., and Hellemans, A. (1993). The Timetables of Technology, New York, Simon and Schuster. Eiglier, P., and Langeard, P. (1977). Marketing Consumer Services: New Insights. Cambridge, Mass. Morelli, N. (2002). ‘Designing Product/ Service Systems. A methodological exploration.’ Design Issues. 18 (3): 3-17. Morelli, N. (2009). ‘Service as Value co-production: reframing the service design process.’ Journal of Manufacturing Technology and Management, 20 (Special Issue on Product Service Systems), 568-590. Morelli, N. (2009) ‘Beyond the experience. In search of an operative paradigm for the industrialization of services.’ ReThinking service ReThinking Design – First Nordic Conference on Service Design and Service Innovation. Oslo, 24-26 November. Normann, R. (2000). Service Management: Strategy and Leadership in Service Business. Chichester; New York, Wiley. Southhall, S. (2003). Hold the Line Please: The Story of the Hello Girls. Brewin Books. Weaver, W. and Shannon, C.E. (1963). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Univ. of Illinois Press.
1 Information Entropy is a measure of unpredictability arising from the transmission scheme of the message. For example, a fair coin, tossed several times has full entropy. There is no way to predict the outcome. Similarly, a two-headed coin has zero entropy, since the outcome is fixed. It is impossible to have full entropy in any method of communication but over time, we have been able to move closer to this ideal state.
2 Eiglier (1977), Normann (2000) and Morelli (2002) are several authors who explain that, service comes into existence simultaneously with its use. This is unlike the design of products, which are first designed and then used. However, this could create problems in the interaction between customers and service providers. Service design helps by defining behavioral patterns or “scripts” for the actors providing the service, leaving a higher level of freedom to the customer.
Fieldstudy is published by the Photography and the Archive Research Centre, based at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. The Centre conducts research programmes and organizes seminar series, study days, film programme, conferences, exhibitions and publications, and also has a core group of research students attached to it. PhD student activities include practice-based research masterclasses, seminars and the Centre hosts the RePhoto group. Recent PARC activities include When Photograph meets Film, part of the LCC Expanded Cinema programme for BA students, and the Journal of Photography and Culture seminar series in partnership with the University of the Creative Arts and the Photographers Gallery.
PARC is the founder organization of the Journal of Photography&Culture, co-edited by Val Williams and has also led on two major AHRC research projects, on British photography in the 1970s and the Acme artists who lived and worked on the site of the M11 Link Road. For a full summary of PARC’s work, visit its website at www.photographyresearchcentre.co.uk PARC has collaborated with a number of groups and individuals on issues of Fieldstudy. These include LCC MA Photography, London College of Fashion, Marjolaine Ryley, Wiebke Leister, Roma Tearne and Alison Marchant. This latest collaboration, with MA Design Writing Criticism, is one indication of PARC’s continuing commitment to teaching and learning with the University of the Arts London. PARC Core member Paul Lowe and PARC Associate Director Brigitte Lardinois have recently been awarded a grant from JISC as part of their Enriching via Collaboration funding scheme. The grant will fund a new and exciting online resource called NAM, that will focus on three archives which reflect on the Vietnam war. PARC is the lead institution for a year-long project around the Daniel Meadows Archive; Fieldwork: Photographs by Daniel Meadows will be published by Photoworks in 2011 and a touring exhibition will launch at the National Media Museum in Bradford in October 2011. The project is curated by Val Williams and the partners are: PARC; Birmingham Central Libraries; Photoworks Uk; National Media Museum and Ffotogallery, Cardiff.
Photography and the Archive Research Centre University of the Arts London London College of Communication Elephant and Castle London SE1 6SB Director: Professor Val Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org) Deputy Directors: Wiebke Leister (email@example.com); Brigitte Lardinois (firstname.lastname@example.org) Administrator: Wendy Short (email@example.com) Interns: Belinda May and Bob Pullen
Excerpt of the BT Feildstudy with the essay "Scripting The Future Of Telephony:A look at the formalized language of telephone operators."
Published on Oct 14, 2011
Excerpt of the BT Feildstudy with the essay "Scripting The Future Of Telephony:A look at the formalized language of telephone operators."