After all: Readers offer explanations for a 'haunted' phone

E&T returns to its old black telephone to hear the readers' reaction to the After All column in issue 11.

"Hello, can you hear me? Is there anyone there?"

My desperate yells into the battered receiver of an old black telephone were met only with the thick silence of a pitch-black Irish night.

The ornate contraption in my Dublin residence had always been dead: disconnected, numberless and cableless - or so I thought. But it suddenly gave out two piercing rings at midnight, the moment I turned 50.

It was one of my life's spookiest experiences, which I recounted back in issue 11. At the time I appealed to the learned E&T readership to help me explain that seemingly inexplicable episode.

The feedback has exceeded all expectations, and my email inbox - which, unlike the haunted phone, is very much alive - has been chirruping merrily away at the influx of readers' versions of what might have happened on that dark and rainy night.

Beria explanation

"Dear Vitali, I am so excited. I had always thought that every one of those 'Beria' phones had been destroyed," wrote David Cawsey from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, referring to Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, the chief of the Soviet security under Stalin. "You were too young then, but I well remember those days in Russia in the early 1950s. Ordinary people did not have phones, which were reserved for the apparatchiks, especially for hearing orders from the leadership.

"I now know roughly how the system worked. The early phones were basically crystal set radios, though the arrival of transistors resulted in a single-stage reflex receiver version. But the clever part was the ringer. The power source was a spring, with an extremely delicate and sensitive latch actuated by a high-Q resonator. Quite incredibly, the energy in the radio transmission was enough to trigger the latch, releasing the spring which rang the bell. The slightest knock would trigger it. Of course the Beria was receive only - the leadership did not want anyone to talk back!

"But its days were numbered. Beria himself was condemned to execution and the anti-Beria hysteria led to orders that everything connected with him - including the phones - was to be destroyed.

"Your father must have been disobedient, and the phone remained in your home, waiting for calls which never came. If you look at that phone of yours, you will find that the handset rest cleverly serves as a winder for the spring. Perhaps you and your son hurled those drinking glasses into the fireplace in the traditional way, and the vibration was enough to trigger the phone…"

Well, what a story! The only discrepancy is that the dead ringer was in Dublin, not in Kharkov. Nor had it ever been in my possession, but was merely a mantelpiece decoration at my son's rented flat.

Party-line explanation

John Irving has a different view: "The fact that the phone rang at a particular time is only possible if the phone wiring was connected to the clock wiring or it was a coincidence. If the telephone had in fact no wiring connected to it in the house, then I have no answer."

Having said that, he offers his version nevertheless:

"I know from past experience that when a telephone facility is not made available to a customer, the line is disconnected at the telephone exchange, but the wiring is still probably intact from the exchange to the customer's premises. If there was an (intermittent) external line fault and a partial connection between the 'dead' wiring and a working telephone line then it would be possible to ring your telephone.

"Also, if there was no external connection with a working telephone line but a lightning strike or other induced voltage in the vicinity, then again it would be possible to ring the bell. This would be especially likely if the old telephone circuit had been a party line, where the ringing supply current was fed down only one leg of the pair of wires and down to earth at the customer's premises."

The same 'party line' theme was also raised in the letter from D Elliott: "After reading your article I was reminded of an incident a few years ago when I was called out to a transient but persistent fault on an 11kV overhead feeder, supplying several hundred customers, controlled by a pole-mounted HSAR (high-speed auto recloser).A customer in a Shropshire village reported that every time the supply was interrupted, the phone rang.

"Investigation led us to a PN16 post insulator on the adjacent substation pole which had a hairline crack caused by a previous lightning strike.

"When this fault occurred, the current would discharge to earth, and the recloser would instantaneously disconnect and then reclose to restore the supply. The stray current was evidently being picked up by the telephone and causing the bell to ring.

"As I understand it, a 'party line' uses an earth return. If the phone to which you refer still had the earth loop connected, then stray earth current from any source may cause it to ring even if is not connected to the system."

Blitz spirits?

My biggest consolation, however, was provided by Anthony Harrison: "I have tried to find an answer to the following incident, which occurred one snowy night in Muswell Hill, North London in the winter of 1942. I was 12 at the time.

"As it was during the Blitz, my parents had rigged up a bedroom for the three of us in our cellar. The house had a front doorbell operated by two 4.5V flat batteries, which were on a shelf. At around 2am we were awakened by the doorbell ringing and, as I was nearest to the cellar exit, I went to answer it. There was nobody there. About five minutes later it rang again; there was still nobody there, but I inspected the bell-push to see if there was any melted snow inside which could cause a short(ish) circuit. The bell-push was dry, so I returned and made my report. My father then asked me to remove the batteries until the morning, so I did this and placed them under my bunk.

A few minutes later the bell rang again, but this time I was too frightened to move and my father investigated, but found nothing. We never found an explanation..."

It is reassuring to realise that I am not the only puzzled one. Here it is hard not to quote the email from Michael Taylor, an IET member and a self-confessed spiritualist. "You may not be entirely uplifted to hear that I strongly believe in things metaphysical! I have experienced many events in my life that can only be explained by 'cosmic connection'…"

Oops… We are running out of space here and our connection (cosmic or other) is about to be interrupted. But do go to our website (see below) if you want to acquaint yourself with Mr Taylor's and other readers' responses.

Thanks for calling, everyone, and talk to you again soon!

Further information

More reader explanations as to why Vitali's phone was ringing.

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