Cutting off links to the British phone booth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 12:00am

An important part of the British landscape is slowly vanishing. For almost 60 years, bright red telephone boxes have stood on street corners in the United Kingdom's towns and villages, but technology moves on and the world-famous, distinctive British phone booth is in danger of becoming extinct, like some prehistoric beast.

For many people, the British phone box is a symbol of Britain, like Buckingham Palace or 'fish and chips'. But things change. Today, people have their own phones in their back pockets and don't need to rush to a public phone when they want to make a call.

The phone box is struggling to survive. More modern and practical designs have been introduced by the British Post Office for places where there is still a need for public phone access. Britain's red phone box could soon be as dead as the dodo.

The phone booth first appeared in the UK at the beginning of the 1900s. The phone was a miracle invention and everyone wanted to use it. The first phone booths were small wooden huts where a three-minute call cost 'tuppence'.

The Post Office took over the running of the public telephone service in 1912 and a few years later it introduced the first standard phone box so that the general public knew what to look for when they wanted to make a phone call.

This was a clumsy box built of concrete with an ornately decorated roof. Very few people liked the design so in 1924 the Post Office organised a competition for architects to design a better cast-iron phone kiosk. The winner was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Liverpool Cathedral and the Bankside Power Station in London.

Scott's bright red kiosk appeared on the streets of London in 1926, but it cost too much to construct and plans were abandoned to introduce it in other British towns. Post Office engineers came up with cheaper kiosk designs but none of them lasted very long. The search was still on for the perfect phone box. In 1935, the Post Office asked Scott to adapt his 1924 design and come up with a version that was cheaper to build.

Scott's new kiosk was smaller and simpler than the original, but it was still bright red. It first appeared in London in 1936, and over the next decades, 60,000 distinctive red phone boxes sprouted up all over Britain.

Today only a few red phone boxes survive. What was once a British landmark is slowly and inevitably being devoured by the relentless march of changing technology.