Antique Telephones

Old BT Telephone Questions

Do Old BT Telephones work correctly in the UK?

As an ex BT TO (Technical Officer) I often get asked "Do Old BT dial telephones still work OK on modern telephone lines?"

The short answer is YES Vintage dial telephones still work, however the more detailed answer is a little bit more complicated. See the detail in the next sections below. This yes also assumes that the old rotary UK dial telephone (1901-1986) has been converted and serviced "correctly" so that it will work on all modern telephone land lines in the UK (as of November 2016).

Note: There are slight differences in how these old BT/GPO telephones need to be serviced dependant on the telephone service provider you use, for example TalkTalk is slightly different to BT and Sky.

Trivia: All modern land line telephones that you buy today are still analogue telephones. There is no such thing as a digital land line telephone. Mobile telephones and VOIP telephones are digital, but not land line telephones. There are no plans to change this in the foreseeable future, which is a fantastic testament to a design that is over a hundred years old.

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Incoming calls to Antique Telephones.

All correctly converted GPO/BT dial telephones (1901-1986) will work fine for incoming calls regardless of which telephone provider you use in the UK.

Surprisingly the technology used in telephone exchanges to ring a telephone in a house has changed very little in the last hundred years. Only one minor change was made in 1980, this was not in the telephone exchange but to house telephone wiring. This change was made to accommodate the telephone plug and sockets we know today.

Before the 1980's telephones could not be unplugged and were "hard wired" into telephone junction boxes. This is the reason telephones made before 1980-1983 need converting for modern use. In technical terms these vintage telephones need converting correctly to plug & socket and to have a Ringer Equivalence Number (REN) of 1.

If these old BT telephones are converted correctly they will plug into a standard modern telephone socket. As always the maximum recommended number of land line telephones (old or new) on one telephone line is 4 (assuming each telephone has a REN of 1). A partially/incorrectly converted old vintage telephone will usually have a REN of 4 all by itself. So it will use up 4 telephones worth of ringing power, potentially preventing other telephones on the same phone line from ringing reliably.

Note, if an old telephone is NOT converted correctly it may appear to work, however the vintage telephone could cause intermittent problems with any other telephones or telephone equipment (such as Broadband) that you have in the house. The vintage phone may also test very strangely from the telephone exchange and an incorrect conversion of an antique telephone can often cause other minor annoyances such as bell tinkle.

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Dialling Out from your Old BT Telephone.

Old vintage telephones (pre the mid 1980's) use a method of dialling called "Pulse Dialling", whereas most modern telephones use a method of dialling out known as "Tone Dialling" or MF (Multi Frequency) Dialling. However because of the significant number of people who still own and "cherish" vintage telephones all the UK land line telephone providers still provide backward compatibility for pulse dialling. However in recent years it has become apparent that some telephone providers pulse dialling service is not as "fault tolerant" as others.

BT and SKY are as reliable with pulse dialling as they ever been and 99.9% of old dial telephones will dial out reliably. However it is believed that other operators offer a less reliable pulse dialling service. For example although "TalkTalk" support pulse dialling they are not believed to be as fault tolerant to old pulse dial telephones. This is why some vintage telephones will dial out and some slightly out of adjustment old dial telephones wont. Even though the same antique telephones will work fine with other providers such as BT and Sky.

This lack of fault tolerance of older pulse dials by certain telephone service providers has resulted in vintage telephone restorers being faced with a problem, in that all mechanical dials will vary slightly in speed and ratio over time. So they either refrain from converting telephones for certain providers or adjust them to work and exclude the "dialling out" guarantee from the warranty for certain providers. As already mentioned they will always ring in so you can answer calls and converse fine regardless of the telephone provider you use.

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Dialling Call Centres from Old Telephones

If you ring call centres for Banks, Utilities etc that use automated menus one function that will not work with old pulse dial telephones is the navigation of the menu systems. This is where you are asked to dial 1 for this department or a 2 for that etc. This is because these call centre automation systems use Tone Dialling to work.

One tip is to do nothing when asked to press your phone keys and most of the time a real "Human" will come on the line and talk to you. Although you have to initially wait many people claim this is sometimes quicker in the long run than working through all the automated menus. The other option is to have more than one telephone and then use your modern "tone dialling" telephone when you know you are going to talk to a call centre.

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What are Old BT Telephones ?

When I refer to Old BT or GPO telephones I mean telephones ranging from 1901 to 1986. The earliest UK Telephones that you see for sale, or that people tend to have converted for modern use are the Candlestick Telephones usually from the 1920's and 30's. After that in the 1930's came the classic Art Deco Bakelite Telephones. Up to this point all these old BT/GPO Telephones tend to be collectively referred to as Antique Telephones . After 1959 Old BT telephones such as the 706 model telephones (1960's Telephones) are referred to as Vintage Telephones. Finally the telephones made for BT in the 1970's and early 1980s such as the 746 telephones are generally referred to as Retro Telephones. Most collectors regard the British 746 telephones made in the 1970's and 1980's as the last of the "real telephones" in terms of build quality and engineering. "They were built to last forever" and can be serviced and if needed repaired to keep going and going.

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Converting Old BT Telephones Correctly

As mentioned above it is very important to convert these Old BT Telephones "correctly". If you are technically minded and are up for a challenge there are various useful Blog sites such as British Antique Telephones that contain very good technical information. There are also several technical forums where you can get advice for free. For the less technically minded, or if you run into problems there are a few British telephone restorers that specialise in this kind of work such as Abdy Antique Telephones. As always its best to shop around and check that the telephone restorer you choose has a good reputation for quality workmanship, and does not use foreign poor quality Bakelite telephone parts.

If you are thinking of buying an old Bakelite telephone so that you can convert it yourself there is a lot of very good buying/selling advice for old BT telephones available on the internet. Alternatively there are also a few good web sites that sell correctly converted retro BT telephones to be found.

Personally I would be very careful buying the "Brand New" modern replica Retro BT/GPO telephones that you see for sale as they usually disappoint the people who nostalgically remember the original telephones for their superb quality of engineering and the classic bell sound, the foreign made "look a likes" have neither. The replica bell sound can be particularly disappointing.

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Old BT Telephones