Look But Don’t Touch

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.

Miss Nasmith’s father, Matthew Gray Nasmith was born in Tranent, Scotland and came out to Dunedin with his parents and grandparents in 1860. In 1871 he opened the first jeweller’s shop in Gisborne. His premises were destroyed by the town’s second conflagration which broke out at the Albion Hotel on the 11th of February 1879. The fire destroyed many other business premises including the Bank of New Zealand and that of long-time stationer Thomas Adams, causing damage estimated to be between £20,000 and £25,000.

Matthew Gray Nasmith had a keen interest in the turf, and died on the 18th of June 1926. Another of his daughters, Cecilia Ada married a great-uncle of mine, Cuthbert Morse, a local hairdresser and tobacconist who went on to a successful career as a horse trainer. But I digress, as one is wont to do in a blog!

From the 27th of February 1909, the telephone exchange hours were extended until 11 p.m. on weekdays and all day on Sundays. A continuous service was provided in October 1912, and this was replaced by an automatic telephone exchange located on the corner of Customhouse Street and Childers Road in May 1941 using pre-2000 series Strowger switching.

When I started work at the Gisborne Telephone Exchange in 1975, the older pre-2000 Strowger switchgear was still in operation, but had been augmented by 2000-type step-by-step switches, bringing the capacity to 13,000 lines.

Life inside a working step-by-step telephone exchange was similar to that experienced by Jonah inside the whale. At the start of a morning shift, it was quiet enough to hear an individual telephone call being connected. However, by the time the busy hour commenced at 10 a.m. the switchroom was a living, breathing place. Row after row of electro-mechanical switches could be seen stepping up and rotating around banks, and the associated clattering and buzzing noise rose in waves as hundreds of calls were connected and released. The sound of a Strowger exchange can be found on the Internet by doing a Google search for “Strowger Sounds.” This web page has some wav files that demonstrate the sounds heard from Strowger step-by-step switching equipment.

At the time I joined the New Zealand Post Office, the local Chief Technician was Eric Fox who had an equal opportunity employment policy. During the nearly three years that I worked for him, the intake of trainee technicians was close to 50/50 male/female, and I had the pleasure of working with and for many women, which was still rare in those days.

At the time, Gisborne was well-known as a “training station,” recruiting the trainee staff needed to maintain the rapidly developing telecommunications network. The electro-mechanical switching equipment of the time was labour-intensive as it needed regular maintenance. The infrastructure was hard-wired through vast runs of copper cable, with each wire manually wrapped around tags and soldered to the tight (and inspected) standards of the time.

Friday was a nightmare day for anyone allocated to MDF (Main Distribution Frame) duties, where connections between the subscriber’s cable pair and the switching equipment were made. This was the day when most of the “subscribers’ diversions” came in. Doctors, lawyers and other prominent people had to plan ahead if they wanted their calls diverted to another number. Special 4 wire jumpers were run from the back of the departing subscriber’s final selector bank across to the connection of the obliging friend (or locum). Hard wire straps had to be cut and the whole thing tested before the stand-in could head home for the weekend. The loosely twisted 4-wire jumpers had to be run tidily along the back of the racks, up to the top via special loops and overhead across the switchroom in the provided cable guides. Shoddy work had to be re-run, in a process that took 15-30 minutes depending on skill level and the distance involved.

Technicians were expected to learn most facets of the job, from jumpering new subscribers, maintaining the switchgear and power plant (including the huge open-cell acid batteries), to rectifying faults and testing subscriber lines. Even the PABX systems of the time were hard-wired and required a great deal of labour to install.

New Zealand’s first “electronic” exchange was a prototype reed relay system installed at Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast in the late 1970s. Technicians that I spoke to said it was a spooky place to visit – so quiet compared to other exchanges of the time, with only the hum of rectifiers and the “tic, tic” noises of the reed relays to be heard. At the same time, Strowger’s step-by-step switching system was being phased out in favour of crossbar switching. Although crossbar was still electro-mechanical, it was more space-efficient and energy-efficient than “step” and offered more features.

With the Strowger system, the switchgear was under the direct control of the subscriber’s mechanical dial and it was important to have the correct pause between digits to ensure that the next switch was ready to receive the next digit that was dialled. Its easy to forget just how crucial this was, and a whole range of specific terms and tests had sprung up around the operation. A free switch had to be identified (hunting, release guard timing, slow release, HA/HB selection), selector wipers had to have ceased movement (wiper bounce), relays had to have operated (seize timing, fast operate) all within a fraction of a second.

Crossbar switching introduced us to common control switching by which all the dialed digits were received by a single register, decoded from a telephone number into switching information, and a direct point-to-point connection was then made across the exchange. Crossbar heralded “push-button” telephones, as they were called at the time, and enabled the establishment of a backbone for Subscriber Toll Dialing – a much nicer meaning for the acronym STD.

NEC Crossbar equipment remained the backbone of the New Zealand telephone network for many years, while the older Strowger equipment was replaced with either crossbar or the fully electronic NEC NEAX telephone exchanges.

When it was introduced to New Zealand, the NEAX equipment was early in its development cycle, and provided a unique opportunity for a very successful development partnership between Nippon Electric Corporation and the New Zealand Post Office. Our local peculiarities presented some exciting challenges though – the reverse New Zealand dial which numbered 0, 1 through to 9 instead of the more universal 0, 9 through to 1 format, and free local calling.

At the time they were introduced in the 1980s, the NEAX exchanges had to contend with the high calling rates encouraged by the well-established concept of free local calling. This had two manifestations – people made lots of calls and then talked for longer, as it didn’t cost any more than the monthly rental. This provided a perfect (but at times painful) learning ground for the development folk.

The NEAX exchange also made possible all those customer-controlled services like call diversion, voicemail, call waiting, and many other features which we now take for granted. I bet the MDF jumper jockeys whooped with joy when they found their exchange was being upgraded to a NEAX – no more frantic subscriber diversions to be run on a Friday afternoon with that ornery jumper wire which snagged and those 50 volt soldering irons whose rubber cords were too short and whose wooden handles got hot! But the down-side was redundancy – low maintenance means fewer people.

But by then, I had wisely abandoned telephone switching for a career in transmission in an attempt to preserve my life and the sanity of others. I have an atrocious set of mechanical skills. In the days of on-the-job training, it was the sad lot of the senior technicians is Gisborne to instil in me the finer art of tuning a two-motion selector. To do this, my instructor of the day would mal-adjust a switch and give it to me to play with, in the hope that I would be clever enough to diagnose its problem and nurse it back to health.

I don’t think I ever succeeded in handing a group selector back in a better state than it was in when placed before me. The sound of a beleagured switch gasping, rattling and wheezing in the test jig still haunts me today. As it does, I suspect, my hapless “seniors” of the 1970s. I figure that if I was seen walking along Gladstone Road this afternoon by either Skippy, Royden or Jed they’d be into the pub like a rat up a drain-pipe trying to calm their frayed nerves.

I did fare better with crossbar, and there were many Pentaconta PABX systems in Wellington that had been installed by me and my team. These elegant systems that incorporated a crossbar switch on a vertical turntable for easy fault-finding were child’s play to work on – that’s probably why they let me touch them! As for the two-motion Strowger selector which was such clever design that it dominated telephone switching for more than 4 decades, well it was better for me to “look, but don’t touch.”

[some data from J.A. MacKay, “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.”]

One Response to “Look But Don’t Touch”

  1. Kirsty Stephens says:

    Thank you for this article, I am the great grandaughter of Mary Nasmith/Blair and GG Grandaughter of Matthew Gray Nasmith. I would be interested to know of the family connection to Cuthbert Morse as mentioned – and will see if I can source a copy of the book Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast. Many thanks again!

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