After all: My phone phobia

E&T on an innate fear of unexpected phone calls.

Dear Professor Bell,

I am sorry I have not been able to write to you sooner to tell you how very useful I find the Telephones which you so very kindly sent me. I have them fitted up as a means of communication between my house and my laboratory, and between my laboratory and the workshop of Mr White, my instrument maker, in Sauchiehall Street. On the latter circuit I have found them of the greatest service. By their aid I have been able to interrogate Mr White as to the progress of work in his hands, to advise him when difficulties occurred, to give him directions as to points of detail which otherwise might have been passed over, and even to describe fully to him a new instrument, and almost always I found that he had quite understood me. A great deal of time has thus been saved to me which otherwise would have been consumed in travelling between Mr. White's workshop and the University.

Believe me,

Yours truly,

William Thomson

I found this letter in the 'Testimonials' section of the UK's first telephone directory published in 1879. On top of the 'Testimonials', that flimsy dog-eared volume (borrowed from the IET Library) contained the names of all 'Metropolitan Exchange' subscribers in London (eight pages) plus another eight pages listing all of Britain's private telephone lines, starting with "Her Majesty's Household, Buckingham Palace" and followed by a somewhat mysterious and rhyming "Duke of Connaught at Bagshott".

The above testimonial helps you fully appreciate the progress made by telephone in mere 130 years, although I would probably be the last person to glorify "Professor Bell" for his groundbreaking invention which had helped William Thomson to be "almost always" understood by his instrument maker, Mr White.

For me, the key word here is "almost".

The truth is that, similar to Bob Slocum, the paranoid protagonist of the novel 'Something Happened' by Joseph Heller, I have been suffering from the fear of unexpected phone calls.

When I was a little boy in Kharkov, Ukraine, we were among the first in our street to get a telephone in the late 1950s. Largely due to the fact that my granddad was an Old Bolshevik who had fought in the Revolution and the Civil War of 1918-21 and had even lived through the Great Purges of 1937. A telephone was probably a sort of reward to those who had survived all the above and were still able (and willing) to talk.

An antediluvian black contraption - heavy and unappealing - was placed on a special wooden shelf, next to the obscurely abbreviated first-generation KVN TV set (deciphered by some home-grown wits as "kupil, vkliuchil, ne rabotayet", or, "bought, switched on, doesn't work"), with its water-filled magnifying lens attached to a matchbox-sized screen.

Strangely, I can still remember the number of the telephone: 3-39-22. We had a facetious relative - the chief engineer of a large factory and another proud telephone owner - who would call us up of an evening and bark in a disguised voice:

"Hello, this is a telephone exchange warning. A thunderstorm is approaching, so please make sure your apparatus is covered with a wet rag, lest it should explode!"

And we did - just to be on the safe side.

Ah, 3-39-22: you can dial this number endlessly now without reaching anyone, for all the subscribers, except for me, are dead and no longer have the need of a telephone.

Significantly, the death of each of them (starting with my granddad) was announced to me via the telephone - as most modern tragedies are, I presume.

My life's biggest (and darkest) mystery is connected with a telephone too.

Dead ringer

A couple of years ago, I travelled to Dublin to visit my eldest son Dmitri and to mark my 50th birthday with him.

On the eve of my first jubilee, we sat over a Russian meal of borscht, pickles and meat dumplings late into the night. When the clock was striking midnight, my son raised his glass to wish me a happy birthday.

It was right at that moment that the black old telephone on the mantelpiece gave out two short piercing rings.

Looking back now, I can see very clearly that the ancient apparatus was an exact copy of - a dead ringer for? - our first telephone in Kharkov.

Perhaps it was the same telephone magically teleported through space and time.

Now, the very fact of an old telephone ringing at midnight wouldn't have been much of a story, had it not been for one simple fact: there was no telephone line in the house of my son, who relied solely on his mobile. The disconnected antique itself was therefore but a useless piece of furniture - a leftover from some previous tenants.

There was no cable, no number, nothing.

And yet it did ring precisely at the moment when I clocked up half a century!

My son dropped his glass and grabbed the receiver. Of course, there was nothing but silence there. The phone was dead.

I felt a strong urge to cover the 'apparatus' with a wet rag - as I used to in my childhood.

The next day we called (from my son's mobile) a telephone exchange and were assured that there was no cable connection at my son's address and therefore the phone could not ring.

The problem was that it did!

"You were contacted..." some of my metaphysically excitable acquaintances suggested thoughtfully on hearing the story.

As if I didn't know. The question was (and still is) by whom?

The story has been haunting me for many months. My last hope lies with you, learned readers of E&T. As engineers you are sure to be dissatisfied with metaphysical theories. And perhaps you will be able to find a valid technical reason for the dead disconnected old phone to ring in the middle of the night.

You are my last hope

I'll be waiting for your explanations (please email them to with impatience and solemnly promise to publish the trustworthiest (and the funniest) of them on this page.

Believe me.

Yours truly,

V Vitaliev


Vitali Vitaliev, features editor of E&T, has been shortlisted for the PPA's UK columnist of the Year award for his 'After All' column

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