Monday, November 16, 2009

The humble coin phone

The other day, I was at a mamak shop located at the void deck of an HDB flat in Toa Payoh when I caught sight of this pathetic looking coin phone. It was dirty and looked like it had not been used for ages.

I took the opportunity to try out my new Sony-Ericcson Cybershot C903. By the way, would believe I paid only $1 for this 5 mega-pixel beauty? Of course I had to renew my mobile plan with Starhub for another two years, but then my plan was the cheapest they had, costing only $20 per month. Although it may not be as ‘cool’ as some of the latest touch-screen models or the famous iPhone (I just cannot understand why anyone would queue overnight just to be the first in Singapore to own one), it has everything I need; namely a decent camera that I can used to take pictures of Singapore’s fast-vanishing landscapes for my blog.

I cannot recall the last time I used a coin phone; but I can remember when I first used one. It was the first (and only) public phone that was installed in our kampong just across the road from our house. Like the one in this photo below (picture from the collection of the National Archives), it was housed in a wooden cabinet which had two doors which opened outwards. The cabinet rested on a single concrete stump and base. Chained to the cabinet was a phone book.

The year must have been around 1961. This public telephone was just in front of our neighbour, Chiew Soh’s house. Hence their family became the village telephone operators. I remember one time when we received a call from my dad. Both my younger brother James and I wanted to speak into the phone and were fighting over the receiver when suddenly we heard a stern voice from behind us. It was the technician from the telephone company. He thought we were playing the fool with it, and snatched the receiver from us and hung it back on the hook.

Can you remember how much it cost in those days to make a call? I think it was 10 cents for three minutes. Anyway, we had a cousin from Johor Bahru who knew of an ingenious way to avoid putting money into the phone. Instead of dialing the number on the circular dial, you tap the phone’s receiver hook a certain number of times in quick succession. For example if the number was 4, you did that 4 times, pause briefly and then repeat the process for the next number. I remember he demonstrated that to us when we were in JB one time. I wonder if any engineers out there can confirm if this was possible.

Over the years the public phone has evolved considerably. Below are some photos that I have taken recently, including one from Malaysia.

This one is from my friend Peh’s house. Although it looked pretty cute, he hated it because it was so troublesome to dial the numbers.

Next time, I will blog about my experience with phone cards.


Mandrake said...

Hi, its possible to dial by just tapping the receiver hook. This is called pulse dialing. You can even use it now on your land line phone, but you got to be fast.

Tab Once to dial 1. Twice to dial 2 and ten times to dial 0 and so on.

If you have a phone at home, go try it out. Its still workable.

By the way, thats why most land line phones have a switch that toggles between Tone and Pulse. Tone is for the push buttons and Pulse is simulate those rotary phones.

Roger said...

In Malaysia they know which public phone they can use for free. Whether they tweak it or it malfunctions I don't know. HPs these days are getting more humongous. I think your phone is the sort of size I prefer. Its 5 mega camera is more than adequate for normal use.

Victor said...

Chun See, my answer to your question is here.

peter said...

In my estate, there was a public telephone booth but usually working for some weeks and then 'dead". Thieves often cut the wires in search of copper. Initially I thot pranksters were at work but it was not to be the case.

This was the era of Singapore Telephone Board (SingTEL) in the 1960s but earlier there was also another phone company in Singapore called Cable & Wireless (M1's original shareholder from HK) which operated international lines and telegram services. Later both companies merged their telpehone services after 1959 except for telegram services. Who said we didn't have 2 phone companies then? STB became TAS, then Singapore Telecom and then SingTEL.

I was just talking to a friend the other day about "trunk call" or "STD Call" between Malaysia and Singapore. There was this special telephone service where you dial 02for Singapore (when in Malaysia) and 03 for Malaysia (followed by the town suffic) from Singapore. The telephone rates were cheaper than dialing IDD with a 65.

With coin public telephones, we "cheated" by using Malaysian coin instead of Singapore coin (Ringgit depreciated against Singapore Dollar). At that time, the Malaysian coins could be inserted and the system could not detect. After some years, SingTEL came "smarted". The last time I tried the old trick was probably in the 1990s

peter said...

One other old trick I remembered for the public booth phones, you dial a number and speak for 30 secs and then redial the number again. This was way you can talk for hours. How come? Well they telephone company gave free 30 sec call without using a coin and >30 sec, the phone does not go "dead" but you cna hear the other fellow's voice but the person cannot hear your voice.

One other trick we used to do was to call the "0" and complain to the telephone operator about line quality very poor. You see we often get noise disturbance in the background or the phone lines get crossed (and you hear the other parties talking). The operator promptyly asks you for the number and connects you - so this is free phone call.

When I was young, I loved to pick use the public booth to eavesdrop on cobversation just by picking up the hand-set. My cousins and I always laugh when girl talks to boy and give "free advice" on the phone. Then one party tells the other someone listening to their conversation.

Zen said...

I am a non 'techno' guy going for things that are cheap and basic, as long as they serve my needs. It doesn't make sense to me seeing people queueing up to pay an exobitant sum for the latest gadgets, but an incident did change my perception overnight. Whilst on holidays in genting with my sister and her husband, strolling around a temple complex, my brother-in-law asked a lady tourist from China to take a few photos of us. After completing the task, she remarked that the palm size digital camera was of first class quality, to which I felt nonchalantly. Later on when my brother-in-law projected the genting photos onto a large screen at home, I was really taken by surprise of the excellent quality of the pictures, as though taken directly out from a movie. My conclusion: quality does command a price.

Mandrake said...

I just remember another payphone incident. There was a period where we had to use phonecards to make calls. I think there aren't that many public phones with cards anymore.

Anyway, someone found a way to make calls using using those phones without having to pay. Its something to do with dialing 11111 and keying some sequence of numbers. Singtel stopped it after a while when they caught on to it.

jadelee said...

I recall another form of cheating by people who make calls to overseas. In the 70s, IDD(international direct dialling) was not available to some of the countries, e.g. Thailand, India, Pakista, Bangladesh, some parts of Indonesia, Sarawak, Africa. Some subscribers will make the calls via operator's connection, speak for 1-2 minutes and then claim that they were connected to the wrong number/party. They will then insist on a refund. The operator will not be able to verify much as the parties would have been speaking in their native languages or dialects, totally not comprehensible. IDD sure put this form of cheating out of business.

yg said...

chun see, are there set topics for blogging these days? it seems like there are to me - when one blogger asked for feedback on the british withdrawal, another followed suit; then when this blogger wrote about the humble coin phone, the other blogger also talked about the same thing. or is this a case of copycat?

Thimbuktu said...

Hi Chun See,

Congrats on your Sony-Ericcson Cybershot C903. Its a great bargain.

If you have email app on the phone, you can actually update GMY with the pix you have taken. I've done that with the Treo 650.
Its fast and hassle-free.

You'll need to set a secret code and email address on
though. Pls let me know if you need to more info.

Thimbuktu said...

Hi yg,

I think the blog topics these days are just like the NTUC-Income slogan: "Same same, but different".

The topic contents may be similar but no two blogs are ever the same as they are written from the personal perspective of each individual blogger.

The British withdrawal topic is actually just an informational blog from the same source to reach out to different groups of people and readers of their respective blogs.

Like you, I notice the current trend among bloggers to follow up on the same topic title to blog on their own personal experience and express their own views, linking to one another's blog to provide readers with a more comprehensive coverage on the topic. One blog inspires another...its a good trend. We cannot exisit in man is an island.

Just my 2 cents, yg ;)

Lam Chun See said...

Strange ,,, how come Zen has no recollections of this public phone in our kampong. Due to its proximity to our house, we were one of the lucky families which got to use it often.

Edward said...

While we’re on the topic of public telephones, a friend of mine used to make free calls overseas from a public telephone when he was a student in Melbourne. According to him this is done with his mobile phone. I didn’t pay any attention when he explained the modus operandi, as it was too high tech for me to understand how a mobile phone can “interact” with a public phone to secure a free connection. He’s originally from Malaysia and was studying computer science and engineering at Melbourne University about 20 years ago. Smart kid. He kept well in touch with his family throughout his student days in Melbourne … for free. No doubt many of his overseas classmates have done likewise. I am sure this “weakness” in the telephone system has now been rectified. Fortunately making overseas calls is now so cheap with pre-paid phone cards that it’s hardly worth the trouble trying to beat the system through “unconventional means”.