Archive for the ‘Telecommunications’ Category

Look But Don’t Touch

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Gisborne’s first telephone exchange opened on the 1st of March 1897, with 60 subscribers. The manual service was maintained by two operators, Miss S. Buchanan and Miss Nasmith between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sundays.

Miss Nasmith, who authored “Land of Toi, By Pacific Waters” (short stories) and “Kowhai Blossoms” (a book of verse) married Douglas Blair from another of Gisborne’s pioneering families. I had the pleasure of working for another member of the Blair family when I worked at the telephone exchange in the 1970s but did not know, at the time, of their family’s long association with communication in the district.


Wash Day at Wellington Transmission Centre

Monday, August 14th, 2006

Back in 1981, the Wellington Transmission Centre consisted largely of analogue multiplex equipment, with 4 MHz baseband systems to Auckland, Palmerston North, Nelson, Christchurch and other centres.

The transmission centre was spread across two floors of the central exchange building with telegraph systems on the first floor and the analogue multiplex equipment on the second floor.

This layout proved to be convenient on the day that the cleaners turned up to try to wash the master oscillator.


Gisborne TMX – Part 3

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

Maintaining the manual toll boards of the 1970s was moderately labour-intensive. Installation obviously involved considerable labour, as circuits were hard-wired to modules which were repeated at regular intervals around the board. However, once installed, the various components were highly reliable considering the mechanical forces involved in day-to-day operation.


Gisborne TMX – Part 2

Saturday, July 22nd, 2006

Gisborne telephone subscribers dialling “0” in the late 1970s were often struck by how bright and crisp the ringing tone sounded when compared with the sound heard when calling friends or neighbours.


Gisborne TMX – Part 1

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

The Gisborne TMX (Toll Manual Exchange) was located on the first floor of the “new” exchange building in Read’s Quay when I worked there in the late 1970s.

In keeping with the ‘design for expansion’ philosophy of the time, the “toll room” (as we called it) was a huge well-lit room with Post Office standard linoleum flooring. Entering through the double doors near the top of the stairs, a visitor walked past the Toll Manager’s office and across an expanse of floor with the ubiquitous metal lockers to the left, past a few well-tended pot plants to the toll board and supervisors’ desks. On the right, near the supervisor’s desks were the standard time-book desks where staff signed in and out as they carried out their shifts.


Telephone Billing

Sunday, April 16th, 2006

Prior to computerisation, in the days when telephone switching was carried out by electromechanical switches, billing customers for usage was something of a nightmare.

Many different billing methods were employed worldwide, often requiring the electromechnical switches which made speech possible to be overlaid with a separate billing system to collect data.


Shaky Raoul Island

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

“Raoul’s calling you and he sounds worried!” said the radio technician at Makara Radio when I answered the orderwire.

On learning of the recent eruption at Raoul Island and the successful evacuation of 5 of the 6 Department of Conservation staff, I was reminded of a similar incident in the 1980s.


Quarantined For a Day

Thursday, January 19th, 2006

Not long after I transferred to the Wellington Transmission Centre from Gisborne, I was treated to a visit to the Somes Island quarantine station. No, I didn’t have some dreadful country ailment – I had skills that were scarce in the “big smoke.”

Not long before leaving Gisborne, I’d helped install a rural carrier telephone system at the remote settlement of Motu near Matawai. Outside the bigger centres in the 1970s, the telephone network was carried on these rural or open wire carrier systems, on wires strung from pole to pole on insulators just like power lines. Telephone circuits were multiplexed together (i.e. stacked) and sent on pairs of wires to the far end where they would be demultiplexed into individual trunk circuits for the local exchange.

Generally, each carrier system carried 12 circuits, but some were older technology. From memory (which is now decidedly flaky) the system I helped to install at Motu was a recycled STO-C 3 which carried only three telephone circuits.

On arrival in Wellington, I was looking forward to working on broadband systems of 960 circuits so was somewhat miffed to learn that one of my first trips into the field was to work on a dungery old rural carrier system. On the opposite side of the desk was obvious glee. At last! Someone on the station with recent hands-on experience who could maintain the last rural carrier system in the region.

At the time, Somes Island was still a fully functional quarantine station, used for agricultural and animal work. Its former roles as a prisoner of war camp during World War II and as a human quarantine station from the pioneering days were long past. The island had several permanent staff members, and its own step-by-step PABX system to allow calling between the houses and the mainland.

A new submarine power cable had been laid from the mainland, and the rural carrier system was connected to the old power cable to allow PABX trunks to be connected. An expedient solution, but the characteristics of a cable designed to operate at 230 volts and 50 Hz are far removed from those required for a system operating in the kilohertz range and at a much lower voltage.

For years, the staff at the Transmission Centre had developed bubonic plague, overnight cholera, 24-hour typhoid and many other mysterious illnesses as the maintenance rota brought the Somes Island rural carrier up for its annual maintenance check. Had I been the boss, I would have thought this made them eminently suitable for the job on a quarantine station, but it hadn’t worked that way.

On the appointed day we drove out to Petone wharf in one of the old brown Ford Falcon station wagons. It was raining steadily, cold, and a wind was up. Perfect day to be bobbing about in Wellington harbour in a tub. The gently sloping shore at Petone necessitates a long wharf at the end of which the official island launch was waiting for us. My worst nightmare had centred on a recycled government whale boat, so I was relieved to find a much bigger vessel than I had expected. The cabin was standing room only with all our test instruments, but at least we were out of the weather.

The skipper wasted no time and we set off in a straight line for the island, ploughing through the waves that were breaking over the bow. Fortunately, I’m a good sailor, but I would’ve enjoyed the trip more had I been able to see through the salt and spray on the cabin windows. Even the skipper found this to be an issue, and he frequently resorted to the storm window to see where we were going.

On arrival, I had been warned that we might have to go through quarantine procedures – whatever they were. Strip off and hose down on the beach? Much less, I’m glad to report. Walking through a shallow trough and an inspection of bags and instruments sufficed. They were more concerned about rats getting onto the island and killing off birds in the sanctuary.

The carrier system was in good condition and the maintenance was completed in a jiffy; we had plenty of time to enjoy the guided tour of part of the facilities before the launch came back for us.

But the cable. Oh, the cable. The frequency response of the old power cable was atrocious, and it was clear that it was coming toward the end of its life. Over time, the kinks and bends in the submarine part had allowed the conductors to be compressed and crimped. By the time an electron reached the far end it was so disorientated that it was in no fit state to do its work.

But we managed to bodge it. Rural carrier systems were quite robust and tolerant and, when we left, the terminal on the island was fair shrieking at its counterpart at Petone which in turn was shouting back. Call quality was better than before, and I could now start playing with newer toys like broadband systems.

I’d been quarantined for the day, and made a full recovery.

Telex Envy

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

Not too many years ago, having a cable address made a business easily reachable by public telegram from within New Zealand and overseas. The unique cable name, which was usually a contraction of the company’s name or a word which described their business such as “BASINS” for a company manufacturing handbasins, were tantamount to a trade name and a sign of success and distinction. They were proudly displayed on company letterhead as a status symbol.

This was also the time when companies proudly declared the number of automatic telephone lines their business utilised to show how busy they were. “Phone 6809 (5 lines)” often appeared in different forms on business letterhead.

With the growth of the telex service, a telex number and answerback were as jealously guarded as a website name might be today. Companies with shorter names could get their whole company name into a seven letter telex answerback e.g. DALGETY NZ50505 while other companies developed a whole new persona such as Williams & Kettle with their WILKET answerback.

Time has moved on and the telex service is no longer available in New Zealand.

With the growth in Internet usage, a website name is now a sign of distinction and success. For many businesses, their website is their front door for customers who do not wish to physically visit them. The website is more universally available, offers a method for promoting products and customer contact, and the associated tools let the company know how many people are visiting from “cyberspace.”

Unlike the telex, the company’s identification is not restricted to seven characters dictated by a mechanical device. The company can choose to use its proper name or a pseudonym and utilise search engines to help customers find it.

Emergencies By Appointment, Please

Friday, January 6th, 2006

My favourite shift when I worked in the Wellington Transmission Centre in the 1980s was noon to six – well the weekday part, anyway. At the weekends it could be a bit grim coming in for a 7-3 Saturday and doing a VFT (voice frequency telegraph system) line-up – especially if it was a TR1104 telegraph system and the trainee hadn’t been too hot at tuning the relays!

During the week the noon to sixer ran the console in the Test Room. The console was a rather large affair, being a custom-made telephone console and wire-photo switch rolled into one. Ah yes. In them thar days, newspapers had to book wire-photo circuits so that they could transmit their footie and other snaps out to other newspapers. To reduce cost, they made use of the multi-port wire-photo system to transmit the wire photo to say Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Christchurch and other papers all at once. We are talking about pre-facsimile and pre-email days here.

The newspaper’s wire-photo machine had a rotating drum to which the subject photograph was attached. The operator could talk using the attached handset to the receiving papers via the wire photo circuit to co-ordinate the transmission and then they all switched over to receive while the transmitting newspaper started scanning the photo. Exasperation occurred if the trainee at one of the regional papers leapt back onto the phone circuit while the photo was being transmitted and announced he hadn’t done this or that. All the receiving machines would get a glitch, and the whole sequence had to be started again. From memory it took about 5 minutes to transmit a standard black & white photo.

Boy some of those press hacks could be demanding, too. They wanted the service, and they wanted it now! Booking the circuit via the toll room just didn’t cut the mustard. Once booked, one of the operators would scoot down in the lift to the second floor with a completed form, and away we’d go. Bandwidth was expensive in those days, and circuits at regional stations were manually patched from the network to the local newspaper office. A bit of a bind if the Gisborne Herald booked to receive a wire-photo at the last minute and we couldn’t get hold of the call-out Transmission tech up there to do some patching.

At Wellington Trans the console operator answered all the inward calls to the transmission centre from the dedicated ’98 lines, local trunks and orderwires. Orderwires were hard-wired voice circuits that connected transmission stations within each region to their zone centre, and zone centres to each other.

By selecting an order wire to, say, Auckland, I could speak directly to a counterpart in Auckland Transmission – the same applied to Napier, Christchurch, Palmerston North and many other stations. At a time of migration from step-by-step to crossbar switching and extensive network upgrade, the orderwires were very handy as they worked in spite of a local exchange failure or overload. They could also be patched to monitors or staff in the field and conferenced together to allow collaboration during fault investigations.

To the left of the telephone console were the station’s two alarm consoles which displayed system failures. To the right was the microwave network alarm console.

From this position, and the calls passing through his hands, the console operator had a very good overall picture of what was happening on the network at any one time. A system outage could be identified, and appropriate staff alerted.

Walking in for a noon-to-six shift was exciting. As the outer door to the landing clattered shut behind me, I’d listen for the sound coming from the Test Room. There would usually be the “pip-pip-pip-pip-pip-pip…” of the telephone console as calls were coming in, and sometimes the “ding-dong …. ding-dong …. ding-dong….” of the Toll Test Board chimes as calls were passed to technicians who were testing data and other circuits.

If I could hear these sounds and the “ka-doing, ka-doing, ka-doing….” of the station alarms as I reached for the swing-door, I knew something was up. There was an outage somewhere on the network – a cable had been cut, a device had failed, someone had plugged something in at the wrong place – it was all go.

Finally rounding the end of the consoles to take a look at the alarm displays would confirm the diagnosis. The old Creed 75 teleprinter motor would be whining away, red and orange lights would be glowing steadily, and the console operator from the 7-1 shift would be on the PA system announcing calls and events: “TER! Auckland linelink one is down.” “Anyone in VFT?” “Auckland 2 for TER.” “Ah Leg 953.” “Palmy 1 for you Bam.” “Anyone know where the Gaffer is?” “Hamilton orderwire for you Torty.” With a mobile workforce the announced calls could be picked up from dozens of locations on both floors, and many people were paged by their nicknames.

Bustle and noise would be the order of the day. The fault would be localised, a solution found and the Network Management Centre would issue instructions via the omnibus teleprinter network on ameliorative action. Slowly the red lights would go out, the noise levels would drop, and calm would return.

Seeing the action on the stock exchange floor when the market crashed in 1987, I was reminded of the transmission centre during a large outage. To an outsider it looked like pandemonium and noise, to the participants, it was controlled chaos.

And speaking of chaos. In the bottom drawer to the console operator’s left was a very special phone. Not red like the one to the Kremlin. Black. Bakelite black with a coffee grinder handle where the dial should be. In the event that “the big one” hit Wellington and everything failed, this manual phone would allow us to talk to Area um, Services in Courtenay Place about it. I saw it tested twice. Once when an inspection discovered that we had tucked it away in a drawer (still wired up) and it had to be brought back out and rewired sitting on TOP of the desk. (tsk, tsk)

And again on a quiet day, when on a whim in a quiet moment a colleague decided to turn the handle and listen. It was answered and the voice that thundered down the line didn’t need the phone for us to hear it… We should have rung the normal number first to tell them we were going to test the emergency phone! For days the thunder boomed; working its way down through the layers of bureaucracy to reprimand the impertinence!

Emergencies by appointment, please.

Doggo Days

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

The changing of the guard at the Wellington Transmission Centre took place every day at 7 a.m., 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the afternoon shift commenced at 3 p.m. and, on Sundays, the morning and evening shifts commenced at 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. There were other shifts such as noon to six, eleven to five, and eight to five, but the three key shifts kept the transmission station running around the clock.

In the days of analogue communications, the transmission stations of the New Zealand Post Office were the places where speech circuits were multiplexed together for long-distance communication via broadband links. The individual speech channels were electronically stacked into groups of 12, then into supergroups of 60 and finally into broadband systems of 960 circuits. Other methodologies were used, but this was the backbone of the communications network in the 1970s and early 80s.

At the end of the day, smaller transmission stations would put their alarm systems into “night service” for monitoring – usually by operators at the nearest manual toll board. If an alarm occurred, the shift supervisor would call out one of the techs. But some stations had regional responsibility, and were staffed 24 hours a day.

At Wellington Transmission, the dog-watch commenced at 11 p.m., at which time the three “doggo staff” would take over from the evening’s 5-11 shift. Around the country, a similar hand-over was occurring at Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Christchurch and Dunedin in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As 11 p.m. approached, logs were checked, alarm consoles scrutinised, and intelligence from the evening shift was passed over. At Wellington, if Robbie was shift boss, there’d be a cheery “How are ya, sunshine?” followed by his walking to the radio monitor panel to the accompaniment of snapping fingers. The monitor would be set to National Radio and there it would stay. Woe betide anyone who changed it to another station – unless, of course, some fault investigation required it.

Over the next hour, things would be bedded down for the night – logs analysed, and headed up for the new day, statistics prepared, teleprinter messages summarised and the midnight message WN TRANS TO ALL STATIONS, THIS IS SEQUENCE 1, would be sent on the omnibus teleprinter to transmission stations at group or zone centres. While the midnight message was being typed, the late Relda Familton would be starting her graveyard shift at National Radio ending her summary of the morning’s fare with her usual quip “this and that, music and chat.”

The stage was now set for a new day of work. Scheduled maintenance could commence and, if a fault developed, instructions for its rectification would be sent in authoritative phrasing on the omnibus printer; cross-patching of working circuits could not be carried out without such authorisation. This was the scene in the Test Room.

Next door, in the Radio Telephone Terminal, the designated “TO” (Technical Operator) would have followed a similar routine with his or her counterpart on the previous shift. Scheduled radio contacts with ships which were written in chinagraph pencil on the Sked Board would be checked. Unusual propagation conditions announced by Australia’s Ionospheric Prediction Service, IPSO, would be consulted.

Any calls in progress would be checked on the hour, and the status of the circuits entered into the radio logs. If the signal had deteriorated, then the circuit would be taken back from the toll operators and an immediate QSY (frequency change) carried out.

As the outgoing shift headed off, a cuppa might be shared on a quiet night before the members of the team headed to their designated midnight routines. For the TO this always involved the ten past midnight sked for the weather stations at Raoul and Campbell.

More often that not, the cuppa was a snatched affair for the Technical Operator. The radio circuit for Chatham Island had to be taken down for the night and, if Scott Base had enjoyed a rare evening of favourable propagation, they too would have to be shut down when ready.

Communication with Scott Base in Antarctica was best carried out in the evening hours, provided the sun was not playing merry hell with propagation and trying to light the sky with aurorae. Wellington and Scott would meet on pre-arranged frequencies every evening and proceed to tune a “commercial” circuit. Through the background noise would come the barking huskies of Scott’s test tape – I’m convinced the tape recording had more noise on it than the radio circuit did! If man-made or natural noise was present, the receiving station at Makara, on Wellington’s south coast, would be consulted. Tests would be carried out and a frequency change made to achieve an M3 quality circuit – the lowest grade allowed for private toll calls, except in an emergency.

Once a quality circuit had been achieved, the five-band privacy would be switched in to encode the speech on the radio circuit and Scott Base was ready to go. The circuit was switched through to the Wellington TMX (manual toll exchange) and calls to family and friends could commence. The circuit needed regular monitoring as reception could rapidly deteriorate. The circuit was usually taken down by 9 or 10 in the evening.

In all my time in the radio terminal, Scott Base was only kept up round the clock on two occasions – once (for many days) when the DC10 crashed on Mount Erebus and on another occasion when a VIP on a military transport was overdue on a flight back from the ice. On the former occasion, we even managed to put up a second circuit – usually on the other sideband – for Scott so that the numerous police and air accident inspectors could carry out their work. On the second occasion, raising Scott Base in the middle of the night involved some ingenuity – and alarm at their end. After all, the cold war was still in progress at the time, and the TO at Scott feared the worst while he was trying to get his transmitter warmed up.

By the end of the doggo shift, Relda Familton would have signed off from her graveyard shift on National Radio and headed home. In the radio terminal, her voice would again be heard as the TO at Chatham Island ran their test tape for receiver tuning by the staff at Makara. A new day of skeds was beginning. “This is a single sideband transmission for receiver alignment purposes from ZLC Chatham Island. This station is operated by the New Zealand Post Office.” I can still hear her pearly tones today.

Telex messaging – a whole new language

Monday, December 19th, 2005

Mastering the telex service involved learning a new language of compressed words and acronyms, methods for adding emotion into a telex “conversation” and other etiquette.

The first, and most important, lesson was that telex messaging was a half-duplex operation, much like an address and reply conversation. Attempting to type a message while the other operator was sending resulted in characters from both operators being mixed unintelligibly and quickly led to mechanical keyboard lockups as mechanical buffers overflowed.

An interactive telex call involved alternating messages between the two parties with each operator indicating that they had finished transmitting by sending + at the end of their last word or ?+ on the last line which invited a response.

If the sender wanted to indicate that they were finished, they would end with ++ which invited the other party to confirm they had finished with +++ The last lines of a telex conversation would look like this:
followed by an exchange of answerback codes.

If one party needed to stop for some reason, they would transmit MOM PSE (one moment please) which let the other party know they were still involved in the conversation but otherwise engaged.

If they were thinking of a response, they would often alternately hit the numbers and letters keys which would cause the other telex machine to mechanically switch between numbers and letters mode without printing unnecessary characters. This was a highly expressive action as the receiving party would see the print head rotating indecisively back and forth without printing – a clear indication of uncertainty if ever there was one.

Anger was often expressed by several hits on the bell key or typing over the top of the other party – a very rude gesture. Growing anger could also be expressed by deliberately typing characters at a regular but slow rate such as DO YOU AGREE??? in letters sent at 1 second intervals.

With its origins in morse, many radio operator terms ended up in daily use on the telex service. RGR was, of course, “roger” for agreement. STBY or SBY meant “standby” or “please wait.” PSE was “please,” and TKU was “thankyou,” or TKS was “thanks.” MNG was “morning,” GM was “good morning,” TMW was “tomorrow,” and CUL was “see you later.” Operators who became known to each other over time would often refer to each other as OM – “old man” – such as in CU TMW OM.

GA had to be read in context, as it could mean both go ahead and good afternoon, but was not a challenge for an experienced operator. GA+ obviously meant “go ahead” as it was followed by one or two + characters indicating the sender had handed over to the other party. GA OM at the beginning of a message was an abbreviation for “good afternoon, old man,” and would usually be followed by more text.

In the early days of the Internet, when it was evolving from a text-based medium, many of these conventions entered into the etiquette of the time, and became known as “netiquette.” Sadly, much of the netiquette has now fallen into disuse.

A brief history of telegraphy in New Zealand

Friday, December 9th, 2005

Musing on the old telegraph network reminded me that it had an interesting evolution. Telegraphy was basically a messaging service, and therefore quite distinct from telephony which is so universally embraced by the public.

Initially, New Zealand operated a fixed-line telegraph service, employing mostly men to send messages via morse code. Small private links were established at first, slowly forming a network that covered much of the South Island and linked into Wellington with the commissioning of a Cook Strait telegraph cable in 1866.

Progress was slower in the North Island owing to dense bush cover, land disputes and rough terrain. A telegraph cable to Australia was commissioned in the late 1870s, not long after a link between Wellington and Auckland had finally been established. The network slowly expanded into the regions during the 1870s and 1880s.

Even as late as World War II, it seems that much of the telegraph traffic was sent by morse code, but via multiplexed circuits. The first telegraph machines were introduced in the 1920s but they still worked alongside morse until the early 1960s.

The Telex service, which offered users of teleprinters the ability to dial other customer’s machines, was commissioned in 1964. The service used step-by-step switching specially adapted from the telephone exchanges to switch the 80 volt telegraph circuits. By the 1970s, from memory, there were telex exchanges at Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Subscribers had 4 or 5 digit telex numbers. Telegraph systems allowed customers in the regions to receive a telex connection via a long-line connection to one of the city exchanges.

Inward international calls were automatically switched at Auckland, but outgoing international calls required the intervention of an operator in order to manage billing. Making an international telex call involved calling the international telex operator at INTELEX and typing in the call requirements. The international circuit would be established, right through to the remote answerback being triggered before the operator exited the circuit with a GA+ (Go Ahead). On call completion, the intelex operator called back with a message detailing billed minutes etc. As far as I know, all outward international calls were made on the “price required” basis, which involved a follow-up call with billing charges.

It was early in the 1980s that the step-by-step telex exchanges were replaced with a stored programme controlled (SPC) exchange located in Wellington. However, by this time, telex growth was minimal, with the 300 bps Datex service offering an enhanced service. This was the beginning of packet switching, and the days of Telex were numbered.

Telegraph Service Remembered

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

The sound of a message unrolling before your very eyes as it arrived on the 50 baud teleprinter or telex machine, is something that is hard to forget. It might have been a news story arriving from NZPA at one of the local newspaper offices, or a much anticipated order for goods arriving from overseas, or an imperious message arriving from Head Office instructing that something be done IMMEDIATELY.

All in upper case. Text in black to show it was an incoming message. The thrill of seeing the words being written at a constant rate across the page, the printhead rising and rotating to position each character to be struck against the ribbon to print a letter or number on the paper held in place by the platen. And, as the printhead reached the right-hand edge of the page, the sickening lurch to the left that shook the printer and table as it prepared to print the next line.

The whine of the motor starting was the sound that alerted you to an incoming message. Then the familiar sound of the answerback code RADPHON NZ31010 being printed in red to identify it as local text as your machine identified itself to the caller. A slight pause as the sender obligingly transmitted their answerback code before sending the message.

Another pause, and the message started. Haltingly, if the sender was typing, rhythmically, if they were sending a pre-typed message from a paper tape. At the end of the message the caller could activate a bell on your terminal if they wanted a response immediately by pressing the BELL key. “Ting!” or ” ting, ting, tinga, ting!” if they were impatient or jittery.

Otherwise the caller could simply disconnect after following the etiquette of pressing the IAM key and printing their answerback code at the bottom of the message, followed by the WRU (for “who are you”) key to trigger your machine’s answerback code.

And then silence. “Rrrrrrrrrrr!” As you pulled the top of the message to bring all the text from under the glass. “Thriiiiiip!” as the paper was pulled forward and along the cutting edge to separate it from the roll.

Sounds of the past. Sights of the past. The early teleprinters (like the Creeds and Olivettis) came supplied with metal tables to carry their immense weight – many went on to have long careers in the garages and workshops of the blokes who maintained the telegraph networks and equipment – long after the printers had been laid to rest.

New Zealand operated an 80 volt telegraph network for much of the 20th century. Signals between the machines and the network used a bi-polar +/- 80 volt baudot code which was the bane of any technician who had the misfortune to come into contact with the 160 volts of a telegraph signal in full flight. It felt as if a nest of rats was trying to eat its way out of your arm!

There were several private point-to-point and broadcast telegraph networks for press, large companies and the public telegraph service. There were switched networks too. The better known telex network which allowed business and government to exchange messages and, of course, the gentex service which made telex facilities available to those without a telex machine.

Remember those yellow forms with terse messages (sometimes contrived using incomprehensible shorthand) trying to convey as much information within the chargeable limit? These telegrams could be sent by completing a special form at any Post Office and were usually addressed to a person at a particular telephone number. The teller at the Post Office would stamp the form with a “thock!” and the messages were despatched in batches to the nearest telegraph office.

Telegraph operators would type the messages into the network, and their counterpart at the receiving end would cut and glue the message onto one of the ubiquitous yellow “inland telegram” forms. The message would be telephoned to the recipient, and the form annotated “telephoned.” If the recipient couldn’t be contacted, the form was marked “NR” for no reply and set aside for another attempt. The contact was usually attempted at half-hourly intervals and a “NO REPLY” stamp was applied to the reverse of the form providing a history of attempts to telephone the message through, showing times and the initials of the operator at each attempt. Once the telegram had successfully been delivered by telephone, it was (in the 1970s and 1980s) placed in one of those distinctive brown window envelopes marked TELEGRAM in blue and delivered in the post.

Charging for telegrams was simple, although I’m a bit vague as to the initial word count limit. It was a flat rate for a minimum of 12 words, with an additional fee for each word thereafter. The minimum included the recipients details, so these were usually brief such as “Bruce Kawerau 54321.” It was unnecessary to include the word “phone” in front of the telephone number or a salutation in front of the name, although many inexperienced users of the service did so, thereby reducing the number of words available to convey the message.

New Zealand’s telegraph network was decommissioned a few years back, after more than 120 years of service. It had become redundant as people used cheaper telephone calling rates, facsimile and email to convey their important news.