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The Early Days

by Denys Parker

The article in January's newsletter entitled on Sydney's early Telephone System, 1915, prompted me to tell the story of Brisbane's Telephone Exchanges and their numbering schemes.

On 8th October 1880 the first telephone services were connected to the offices of the Colonial Secretary, Colonial Treasurer, Post and Telegraph Department, Education and the Ministers' room at the Legislative Assembly. Other Government offices were brought on line as quickly as wires could be stretched over the buildings.

It was announced the public would be allowed to participate and Messrs Quinlan, Gray & Co. (later Castlemaine Breweries) were the first to apply for a Telephone service between their offices in Queen St City and their Milton Brewery.

The first instruments were believed to have used Edison's carbon transmitter and bell coupled with a Bell receiver. By 1st June 1881 there were 36 instruments connected with the Exchange.

Public demand grew so that, by 1927 there were 7000 subscribers' services connected to the Central Battery Manual Exchange in the Brisbane City area and the Exchange employed some 200 telephonists or operators at the G.P.O.

The Exchange had 4 digit numbering, so that a subscriber asking for, say Central 6080 would have been connected by plug and cord, in this example, to a telephone line at Trackson Brothers (electrical & radio store) in Elizabeth St. City.

In Brisbane, the first Automatic Exchange was commissioned on 11th July 1925 at South Brisbane and in the space of a few years to late 1929, ten automatic exchanges were installed in the metropolitan area. In time there would be a number of Main Exchanges and each had one or more Satelites (if required) reaching out like fingers into the suburbs with Junction cables in between.

From 30th November 1929, at a cost of the equivalent of $895.000, the inner City was served by the very latest 10,000 line Siemens type 16 Automatic Exchange in Elizabeth St., the prefix of which was 'B' followed by four numbers. This was on the first floor of the Exchange building. In the basement was the Power Room which housed several large motor generators and in an adjoining room, the two 60 volt batteries they charged. These batteries consisted of two lots of 30 lead lined, 2 volt lead acid cells of huge ampere hour capacity. (From memory, each cell was housed in a wooden outer box, had a lead inner liner holding the plates and acid, was open topped and was about the size of a 2 drawer filing cabinet.) It was a noisy and somewhat dangerous place in which to work. The S.G. (specific gravity) of the acid in each cell was read with a hydrometer daily and a record kept.

The M.D.F. or Main cable Distribution Frame was on the Ground Floor which was half a floor up from the Entrance. Here were the Complaints positions and Test Desks. From around the early 1950's the Edison (later named City) Exchange, prefixes FA & FB was also situated on this floor. This was a 2000 type Exchange which later also used a fair amount of SE50 equipment. (An improved design which could be virtually interchanged with the 2000 type bi-motional switches.)

The Complaints Section consisted of a number of special desks manned by about 3 female operators during office hours and after hours by a Technician Tester. They sat on high wooden swivel chairs and wore head & breast sets. Their backs were towards the M.D.F. some 3 or 4 metres away. After a space on their left the Technician Testers sat at the Test Desks. There were about 6 Siemens Test Desks for the B exchange and after the 2000 type Exchange was installed in the room behind the Desks, two more modern ones for that Exchange. The staff were a small specially trained 'elite' group. (Or at least liked to think they were and I was one of them.)

Behind the Complaints girls and the first Testers and between them and the M.D.F. were some large wooden cabinets about waist high topped with a tray and dividers. In these trays or Catalogue sat the Master Cards, one card for each Subscriber's Exchange line in numerical order. If there were parallel phones, a switchboard, extensions or any other equipment, all these were on cards and listed. Prior to the introduction of small battery eliminators to power these switchboards etc, AC Ringer and DC Voltage were sent out to the premises on Ringer and Power leads. (One or more cable pairs in parallel, in the same cable as the telephone wires.)

If you were connected to the B Exchange and had a complaint, you dialed 'BOO'. If connected to the FA or FB Exchange, you dialed 'FOO'. (If connected to the 'M' or Albion Exchange or one of its Satelites, you dialed 'M00'.) The call brought up (lit) a lamp on one of the Complaints Positions, an operator plugged in and answered, writing out a Fault Docket with the details. This docket was collected from a box by a T.I.T. (Technician in Training), who selected the corresponding Master Card from the Catalogue, clipped the two together and placed them in the Tester's 'In' tray etc. etc.

Let's go back to the numbering.

During WW2, and certainly after the U.S. forces arrived, if one wished to call the Military from South of the Brisbane River, one dialed 'JLX' and the call would go to a manual Switchboard at Somerville House. (A girls' school temporarily converted to a Military HQ for the War effort.) On the North side, one dialled 'FLX' which went to the AMP Building on the corner Edward & Queen Streets City. (General MacArthur's HQ).

If we go through Brisbane's Exchanges of the 1950's and early 60's in the Alphabetical/Numerical order on a telephone dial, this is how it went. There was no 'A' Exchange because it was considered too easy to accidently dial '1' by fumbling the handset so level 1 was connected to NU Tone. (Number Unobtainable)





B = 2



FA & FB = 31 & 32

36 Paddington, 38 Ashgrove, and later 39 The Gap.


J = 4

47 Salisbury, 48 Yeronga, and 49 Mt Gravatt.


L = 5

55 Mitchelton, 56 Newmarket, VALLEY, 57 Lutwyche, 58 New Farm, and 59 Chermside.


M = 6

68 Ascot, 69 Sandgate.


U = 7

78 Chapel Hill, 79 Sherwood.


X = 9

95 and 99 Bulimba, 96 Wynnum, 97 Coorparoo and 98 Camp Hill

There was no W = 8 or Y = 0 Main Exchanges in Brisbane.

In October 1960, the Telecommunications Journal of Australia printed an article detailing how the 'Australian Post Office is introducing an all-numerical presentation of Telephone Numbers.' (All-Numerical Dialling, or A.N.D. for short.) The article covered 3 pages of British, American and Australian tests leading up to a National Numbering Plan for Australia and the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialing (STD). By late 1962, the recommendation had been implemented, the letters were no longer in use.

The first Cross Bar Exchanges were being installed about this time. Once a quantity of these were in use a change to 6 digit dialing with a 3 digit STD code was easy. Brisbane went to 7 digits in 1975 and ISD (International Subscriber Dialing) came in 1976. The Siemens 16 equipment at Central was incompatible with these concepts and the newer Exchanges, it was becoming expensive to maintain and so was finally decommissioned in 1972 after 43 years of service and handling 2,500 million telephone calls. By then it was the only large Exchange in Australia and one of very few in the world, fully equipped with Siemens Equipment.

We went to 8 digits in Brisbane by adding a 3 in front of all numbers in 1996.

POSTSCRIPT. On Sept 3rd 1928, while cabling was being installed at Central Auto, the mechanics, as technicians were called then, planted a message for posterity. In October 1972, while dismantling the old equipment, the hidden message was recovered. It simply reads: 'This meter rack cabling was installed by the following officers.' And signed Senior Mechanics: J. Bourke, A Hannar, C. Halliday, F.E. Bowser, R.W. McLennan, C.W. Lacey, F. Whittaker'.

I knew and worked with most of them. Frank Bowser is still going at about 97 years old at the time of writing. (Jan 2002.)

Information for this article came from 'CENTRAL AUTO 1929-1972', probably compiled by the APO Historical Officer at the time, The Telecommunications Journal of Australia Oct. 1960 and my memories of life as a TIT, Technician and Senior Technician at CENTRAL and EDISON Exchanges during the years from 1957-1967.

Denys Parker

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