From the first to the last telephone booth in Spain: a journey through history and technology
For a long time the phone was a luxury item. It was the latest technology, the only way to talk remotely with another person and live. At the end of the 19th century, some devices were installed in the headquarters of the ministries and in the Royal Palace. Shortly after, the invention reached the homes of the wealthiest among the privileged class. and would have to wait until 1928 for the first telephone booth to open in Spain.
Actually, the term telephone box is not entirely accurate for the telephone that was installed in 1928. The correct thing would be to say that it was the first telephone for public use of a previous payment. This is how Pablo Soler, one of the authors of the blog Histories of Telephony in Spain, tells it: «The first telephones that had something particular were the pre paid telephones. You bought a token and with that token you no longer needed an operator who had to be on the lookout. That phone was already connected to the central. If the call was urban, local, it was all automatic, while if it was long distance, it was through the operator”, explains Soler.
This was the telephone that was installed in the late 20s in the booth of the then Vienna Park (today Florida Park), in the park of El Retiro in Madrid. It was a device that was located inside a kind of box, which was opened to access the telephone. It was not yet the cabin concept that we know, but it did have an important novelty. He didn’t need an operator to be in front of the phone and control the length of the call.
The origins of public telephones
It was not the first telephone that was installed in Spain, far from it. For that you have to go back to 1883, only seven years after Alexander Graham Bell’s famous phrase from a distance. Almost four decades would have to pass before this advance could be used publicly.
The telephone for public use was born even before the National Telephone Company of Spain (CTNE) itself, in 1924. The Guipúzcoa telephone network had already installed some since the beginning of the 1920s. “It was the same telephone as a normal one, but in very small towns, where only one telephone was placed. A family contract was made with someone from the town, so that that telephone line, apart from using it for them, the public could use itSoler comments.
“There began to be some call centers in which the operators who attended also controlled the length of the call and then charged the user,” adds Soler, referring to the people, generally women, in charge of supervising these telephones. Its location was public places, such as a railway station.
Manual calls: the need for an operator
Keep in mind that the very invention of the telephone was still in a rudimentary phase. Even pay phones, like the one in Vienna Park in 1928, staff needed to serve them. But, in addition, in the telephone switchboards through which the calls were conducted there was a swarm of operators.
They are those scenes that we have seen in the cinema, of rooms full of operators, who connect and disconnect cables to redirect calls. “In the 1920s all calls were manual. They had to go through an operator who was at the central office, in the building. And when the network begins to automate, the service is only automated within the same locality”, says Soler.
If the call was long distance, the action of an operator was required. To contact these operators, the old telephones had a crank. With it, the user notified the central operator to give him a line.
The first proper telephone booth
We have become accustomed to calling any public telephone a phone booth. Such has been the popularity of this telephone format in the last decades of the 20th century. That is why the Vienna Park box is often cited as the first telephone booth.
However, as its name suggests, a phone booth was literally a narrow, enclosed space. This provided the right environment of intimacy to make calls. The first phone booth that can be called that, with all the letters, settled in Spain in 1963. “The cabins are already outdoors,” Soler points out. “They are no longer a box but rather a whole casing where you get inside”
Despite this first sample, it was not until the end of the 1960s that telephone booths became widespread. But soon they will become part of the urban and rural landscape of the country. And they will be part of everyday life. So much so that by 1972, the short film The Cabin, starring José Luis López Vázquez, could cause a good deal of amazement.
The decline of the cabins
The popularity of the booths ebbed over time. When most people had phones at home they lost utility. Although they were still important in certain situations, for example, to contact relatives while on vacation. However, the real coup de grâce was given by mobiles.
“By the time anyone has a mobile phone, booths are already obsolete,” says Soler. These payphones automatically lose their functionality. Well, the mobiles fulfill the original role of the booths even better, because the user carries them with them.
In recent years, different uses have been tried out for telephone booths, which by the way are no longer that concept of a closet into which a person enters, but are more similar to the box that contained the first prepaid telephones. To take advantage of the infrastructure, it has been tried to use the cabins as chargers or as WiFi points.
But the original function of the cabins has been surpassed. today they have on average 0.37 calls per day. However, there is still a cabin in each municipality with more than 1,000 inhabitants. In Spain it is considered a compulsory universal service and, as such, it will be maintained at least until December 31, 2021. But everything indicates that we are in the process of extending these public telephones, which were so popular decades ago.
Top image: Nikotchan.