A History of the Candlestick Telephone in Australia

Candlestick telephones were made for magneto (generator signalling) manual exchange working, as was the common battery (CB) type, and of course for those subscribers connected to automatic exchanges.   It has been written that there were in the vicinity of one hundred variations to the many candlestick telephones, most originating in the United States and with a majority of manufacturers having a range of models, the earliest dating back to the American Strowger in 1896.   Magneto candlestick telephones (Type 38 MT) were first used in Australia from 1902, just twenty six years after Alexander Graham Bell placed patented rights on the invention.  

The first use of automatic candlestick telephones in Australia (Type 38AT) followed in 1912, when they were installed in subscribers' premises in Geelong (Victoria).  These candlesticks were the Automatic Electric models imported from the United States and are identifiable by the smaller than normal dial fitted at the base of the pedestal.  Candlestick telephones in the 1920's were popular in offices and business houses, and many a corner store had a candlestick taking pride of place in the establishment.  However this was not always the case and where units were installed in private residences the candlestick was considered a clumsy device.  Unfortunately, when the telephone became a necessity, the candlestick was usually supplied.  In many cases these telephones were shunned by subscribers because of their bulky separate components, and by the mid 1920's the Post Manager Generals (PMG) Department offered a reduction of rental tariff in order to encourage the public to have a greater acceptance of the unit which had begun a decline in popularity.  Its appeal further dwindled when Bakelite instruments began to appear in the mid 1930s, but because of instrument shortages and the increase in demand for telephones, the candlestick stood its ground. 

In fact, candlesticks were in use in Sydney up until the mid 1950s and in the case of Ryde, when the manual exchange cut over to automatic working in 1955, magneto candlesticks were still in use.  When telephone instruments became more readily available and were not in such short supply, thousands of candlestick telephones were dumped in the Municipal Council tip at St. Peters.  Other were used for ground fill in an area near where the Ashfield Telephone Exchange now stands. 

The candlestick is virtually a table instrument.  In fact it employs two units, a pedestal and a bell set.  The pedestal consists of a solid back transmitter, bell receiver, receiver cord, dial, switch hook assembly and a terminal strip, all of which form the pedestal (pole) section.  The bell set (usually wall-mounted, but at skirting board level) contains the induction coil together with the bell and associated line circuitry.  A three conductor cord connects the two units together.  In most of the early telephones used by the PMG, a No.10 dial was fitted and the bell set was made of timber as shown in the photograph.  Metal or Bakelite bell sets were also used during the various stages of production. 

As previously mentioned, there were a number of different types manufactured by various companies, and at the time these telephones were in use they were the most common form of table telephone.  Later models (Type 138) used inset type transmitters (immersed electrode carbon granule type) in place of solid back transmitters, which were becoming unserviceable.  The inset transmitter fitted into a Bakelite housing which was less costly to produce and much easier to maintain. 

Magneto candlestick telephones were far more bulky than their automatic counterparts, and consisted of four pieces of interconnected equipment.  This telephone was made up of the pedestal (without dial) and the bell set, but additionally had a generator to signal the exchange operator and a battery box was used to house two large local series connected (1.5 volt dry cell) batteries for speech transmission. 

Candlestick telephones varied in design but with only minor differences noticeable between manufacturers.  A large quantity of the candlestick telephones used in Australia was imported from the United Kingdom, with British Ericsson being credited with the original design.  Peel Connor, GEC and Siemens were also amongst the main suppliers and although most candlestick telephones are of a similar appearance there are many variations; the "fluted base" style of which there are several, has been credited to Siemens.  The major suppliers in the United States were Western Electric, Stromberg Carlson and Automatic Electric.  Some models were made in Australia under licence agreements from overseas manufacturers. 

An automatic fluted base candlestick telephone with a wall-mounted retractable extension arm (used to save desk space) and a control lock and key (to prevent use of the telephone by unauthorised persons), as used in newspaper offices, Police call boxes and the like (often seen in old movies), is on display at the Telecommunications Repository (old Post Office building) in Hercules Street, Ashfield, Sydney.  This particular telephone dates circa 1920 and was recovered from a Police call box in Sydney. 

Unfortunately some candlestick telephones now available do not appear as complete units and/or have had incorrect wiring modifications carried out because of missing parts.  When the telephone is correctly wired in accordance with standard circuitry, such modifications are not necessary. 

Many of the telephones have paint and nickel plating removed and the brass polished.  This practice, together with incorrect wiring, removes originality and from the authenticity aspect it substantially devalues the item. 

From a restorer's point of view it would be unreasonable to attempt to repair a Hans Heysen painting using a glue stick or a can of spray paint, and for logical reasons the telephone should be properly and painstakingly restored so its style and elegance will be correctly preserved.  Contrary to what many may think, it is the authenticity of the restoration that secures the right price. 

Prices of candlestick telephones vary.  Value depends on the manufacturer, type (that is, whether the instrument is a magneto, common battery or automatic telephone), type of bell set, the instrument's condition and if any form of restoration has been attempted.  A rusty pedestal and a battered bell set will now sell at around $550.  The photographed telephone has been completely dismantled and each individual part restored to its original and pristine condition before assembly.  Candlestick telephones of this calibre, complete with original plaited cords, are hard to find and have a high price tag. 

Taken from www.southernx.com.au/vintagephones/history2.html


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Last revised June 06, 2020