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From Trunk to Touch: The Evolution of Telephones in India

We’ve come a long way since Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. 

Updated
India
4 min read
The slow but slick evolution of mobile devices in India.
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(This story was first published on 7 March 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Alexander Graham Bell’s birth anniversary.)

Did you know that on 7 March 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for an invention, called the ‘telephone’?

Today, it is the era of mobile phones – where it has become a gaming and social media centre, a music player, and an Internet packed device which brings the world at your fingertips. But back then, a telephone was just that – a device to make and receive calls!

And though the days of humble phones seem like from a millennium back, the evolution from trunk to touch in India happened only over a period of 20 years. Don’t believe us? Read on.

Romancing the Rotary

A vintage telephone. (Photo: iStockphoto)
A vintage telephone. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Telephones first came to India in the form of rotary phones. The phones consisted of a dial and a receiver. The rotary dial consisted of all the digits arranged in a circular finger wheel. To dial each digit, one had to rotate the dial all the way to the end.

Soon enough, the rotary phone became a symbol of romance and love across distance in popular culture, as seen in the exchanges between Sunil Dutt and Nutan from this song in Sujata (1959).

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The Inevitable ‘Push’

A retro wall phone. (Photo: iStockphoto)
A retro wall phone. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Push button phones came at a time when phones were becoming more common in every home. No longer did you have to maintain good relations with your neighbours because they were the only one who owned the prestigious phone. Things were changing, a nation was finally coming into its own and STD booths were fast becoming the new ‘adda’ in every market.

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Going Cordless

A cordless phone. (Photo: iStockphoto)
A cordless phone. (Photo: iStockphoto)

For an entire generation, cordless phones symbolised one thing — discovery of privacy at homes, and endless talking time with school crushes. One didn’t have to conduct all conversations in front of chacha, chachi, and that distant cousin from Punjab. You could discreetly take the phone to your room, and swoon over that new girl in class!

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‘Excuse Me, That’s my Pager’

For kids growing up in the 90s, the pager was the ultimate sign of sophistication – of having arrived, and of doing serious work.

 A two way pager was a device that allowed wireless communication from 1997 onwards. (Photo: Reuters)
A two way pager was a device that allowed wireless communication from 1997 onwards. (Photo: Reuters)

Funnily enough, the pager also became synonymous with another ‘business’ –the do nambari kaam, if you will. Remember Pappu Pager from David Dhawan’s Deewana Mastana (1997)?

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What is Mobile Number?

Old models of Nokia mobile phones made India mobile. (Photo: Reuters) 
Old models of Nokia mobile phones made India mobile. (Photo: Reuters) 

In its early days, owning a mobile phone was a rarity.

The beginning of cellular communication in India is almost synonymous with the growth of those clunky Nokia phones in the country.

And soon enough, all of India was hooked to its mobile games – c’mon, who hasn’t played Snakes and not bragged about their scores! Mobiles also gave India a new pick up line – what is mobile number, karoon kya dial number!

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Get Smart, Guys

Using new technology. (Photo: iStockphoto) 
Using new technology. (Photo: iStockphoto) 

But what really brought the mobile revolution to roost was the smartphone. Touch screens and a million apps gave Indians a solid digital footprint. And with a new smartphone hitting the market everyday, spoiling Indians with choice, we can only nod in amusement.

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Yes, things have changed but they have changed so fast that the current generation of children have no idea about how their parents (or grandparents) used to live.

Plonk a rotary phone in front of any 11-year-old and ask him to make a call. He would probably whip out his mobile and make the call in a minute, since that is more convenient.

And why shouldn’t he? The whole point of evolving technology is to make things easier to use, more accessible.

But there’s also something called history. Not only the one you see in books, but also the one that is everywhere around you. Phones, televisions, computers. A living account of how we once lived. Because inside every big clunky phone, there exists so many narratives of politics, geography and culture. Which is why instead of junking your grandmother’s phone, we need to preserve it. In a museum, in our homes, and offices.

Because the everyday is a part of a continuous, evolving history. And while we love our smartphones, we need to ask the 11-year-old boy to let go of his phone for a moment and let him fiddle with the big dials of an old-fashioned rotary phone.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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