Christchurch’s first phone call

In 1877, the world was abuzz with the news of Professor Bell’s invention – the telephone.

The Steinway Hall,  in New York, was packed to capacity on the 2nd of April, 1877 with the first exhibition in a series in that city of ‘that marvellous discovery’ the telephone. Speculation was rife that it would supplant the regular telegraph system. Reports scoffed at the ‘unsophisticated’ people who were excited with the prospect of ‘having a private telephone, whereby they could sing songs and transmit sweet messages to each other in their natural voices’.

Looking east along Worcester street, 1878
Looking east along Worcester street, in 1878 – the year of Christchurch’s first phone call – from the Cathedral Tower, a viewer could see, in the foreground the Tramways office and workshop. Beside this is the bookbinding firm of Tombs (later Whitcombe & Tombs). In the middle left is the Trinity Congregational Church. In the middle distance to the right is St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church. [1]
By November of that year there were ‘no less than five’ telephones in use in the city of New York. [2]

It wasn’t long before Professor Bell’s invention was trialled in Canterbury.

‘The Telephone in Christchurch’ – From a front room in Worcester street to the workshop

Silas Pappril (1844-1920). Source: Private collection.
Silas Pappril (1844-1920). [4]
We have much pleasure in recording the fact that the latest of scientific wonders, the telephone, has now been tried in Christchurch, the credit of its introduction being due to Mr Papprill, of Worcester street east.[3] That gentleman recently constructed two instruments upon a plan which has been successfully tried in England, but which differs materially from that  adopted, by Professor Bell. The transmitting and receiving instruments are alike. In a light mahogany box are placed three horseshoe, magnets, clamped together, and held firmly in the box in a central position, the length of the magnets being 4 1/2 inches. Communicating with the magnets is a piece of soft iron half an inch in diameter and an inch and a half in length, one of its ends being tapered to admit of its being held between the magnets. The other end of the short iron rod is placed almost in contact with a circular diaphragm of thin sheet iron, the end of the box being suitably fitted for its reception. Outside is a conveniently formed mouthpiece. Round the bar of soft iron, is wound a length of copper wire, the ends of which are conducted to binding screws at the back of the box, where they are connected with the transmitting wire.

Worcester St East 1888
Ten years later and the view hasn’t changed much. This is a view to the left of the one above, taken circa 1888 by Dunedin photographer, Frank Coxhead. In the centre are the Lyttelton Times offices on the spot which would later be occupied by the Press.[5]
A series of trials were made yesterday, one of the instruments being placed in a front room of Mr Papprill’s residence, and the other in a workshop in the rear, the intermediate length of wires being 100 yards. Mr Papprill, who works en amateur, has had many difficulties to contend with, his diaphragms, for example, having to be made sufficiently thin by filing down. Despite the numerous drawbacks, however, the experiments were highly successful. Sounds of all kinds were audible, and the voices of different speakers could be readily distinguished, it being noticeable that vowel sounds were heard best. Mr Papprill, however, is of opinion that instruments upon the principle of those he has constructed, would not be of any real practical value, and he has therefore determined to abandon them.

He has commenced the construction of others upon the most modern principles, and in the meantime he has placed himself in communication with the Manager of the  Bell Telephone Company, from whom he expects to receive instruments at an early date. It is probable that he will act as the agent of the company here, and from the immense facilities afforded by telephonic communication, many of the leading merchants and others will doubtless be glad to avail themselves of the use of the instruments. Mr Papprill is at any rate entitled to commendation for the success he has achieved, and to the honour of having conducted the first direct experiments in Christchurch.

Source: Star, Issue 3071, 6 February 1878, Page 3

Looking east across Lyttelton, towards the Timeball. Ref: 1/2-070305-F. Alexander Turnbull Library
Looking east across Lyttelton, towards the Timeball. [7]
‘The Telephone in Christchurch’ – Calling the Timeball

It is with very great satisfaction that we inform our readers of a thoroughly successful telephonic trial which took place yesterday. Some weeks since Mr Meddings, [7] the Government Inspector of Telegraphs, commenced the construction of some instruments upon the principle adopted by Professor Bell. Owing to pressure of business they had to be laid aside, and were not completed until yesterday morning. In the meantime, Mr Joyce, the telegraphist from Lyttelton, had obtained a pair of instruments from Dunedin. These differ slightly in form from that made by Mr Meddings, but are identical with them in the results obtained. The instrument is as simple in construction as could well be conceived. Its total length is about six inches, and it consists of a wooden cylinder which can be conveniently grasped by the land, one end being enlarged so as to form a convenient receptacle for an exceedingly thin sheet of iron, termed the diaphragm. This is so mounted as to be capable of vibrating in the same manner as the head of a drum.

Passing through the handle of the cylinder is a bar magnet 4 1/8 inches long, and half an inch in diameter, an the end of the iron is so placed as to be nearly close to the centre of the diaphragm. Round the soft iron is wound a length of silk-covered wire, offering a resistance of 153 units, equivalent to nine miles of ordinary telegraph wire.

The ends of the silk-covered wire are connected with the lines of telegraph wire to be used for the experiment. Any sounds which may be made in front of the diaphragm cause it to vibrate in accordance with them. The influence of these vibrations is communicated to the bar magnet, and the sound waves are changed into sympathetic electric pulsations. At the other end of the line employed these pulsations are communicated to the diaphragm applied to the ear of the listener and are again rendered audible. In this way, messages can be exchanged, and an ordinary conversation carried on, with the utmost ease.

In Lyttelton yesterday, Mr Joyce established telephonic communication between his office and the time-ball tower. It was at once found that every word spoken was distinctly audible, and that singing, whistling, and sounds of all kinds were plainly and easily heard. To those who were in the tower, the clicking of the ordinary instrument in the Telegraph office sounded as sharply as if placed in an adjoining apartment.

Last evening, Mr Meddings determined to make a trial between Christchurch and Lyttelton, and a favourable opportunity occurring, a number of experiments were made, a representative of this journal being present throughout. The preliminaries having been arranged, Mr Meddings inquired if Mr Joyce were ready, and almost immediately came a somewhat impatient “Yes.” At first our representative was perplexed by the noise of wheels in the streets and the clicking of the instruments which were in use, but even with these drawbacks a conversation was easily carried on. Later on, comparative quiet was secured, and then Mr Joyce was requested to oblige his Christchurch friends with a song. It was intensely amusing to hear a man, who was nine miles away, playing the part of a coquette, and pleading that he “couldn’t sing because he had a sore throat, and didn’t know any songs.” At length he complied, but with two lines only, singing –

“There’s a land that bears a world known name,
Though it is but a little spot,”

Triumphantly adding, “There now, what do you think of that?” The listeners, delighted with the splendid results, demanded an encore, and obtained a continuation of the song. Then one or two tunes were whistled, the sounds being beautifully clear, and the obliging performer was given a little vocalisation in return. Numbers were tried, backwards, forwards, and in everyday possible to make sure that there could be no collusion. To our representative it seemed as though the sounds of singing appeared to be transmitted best, the effect being perhaps due to the more deliberate utterance.

Regarded as a whole, the trial must be deemed an eminently satisfactory one, especially as no precaution was taken to ensure the complete isolation and silence which scientific journals have spoken of as absolutely necessary. The instruments which Mr Meddings has produced have proved themselves at least capable of producing results equal to any that have been recorded for short distance trials. As soon as possible they will be subjected to further tests, the results of which will be duly announced.

Source: Star, Issue 3073, 8 February 1878, Page 3

‘A Telephonic Concert” – Christchurch calling Akaroa

Akaroa, circa 1870s. Illustrated Australian news. Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: PUBL-0119-1870-013.
Akaroa, circa 1870s. [8]
On Saturday a highly successful dual concert was carried out by Mr Meddings, for the purpose of affording a number of gentlemen an opportunity of testing the telephones constructed by him. It had been arranged that musical selections should be given at Christchurch and at Akaroa, the distance by wire between the two stations being 55 miles. At Christchurch, the invited party met in Mr Medding’s private room at the Telegraphic office, where eight telephones were connected together by wires, so as to form a long loop between the terminals of the transmitting arid earth wires, and to enable the instruments to be readily used by the gentlemen seated round the apartment. Mr Watkins had kindly undertaken to provide the music for the delectation of those who were listening at Akaroa, and Christchurch was therefore’ well represented. The arrangements at Akaroa were not known beforehand, but the audience here quickly learned that they comprised instrumental music, harmonium and cornet, and some part singing, although in one or two instances the Akaroa vocalists broke down lamentably.

The unique entertainment was throughout a thoroughly satisfactory one. It demonstrated that the sounds transmitted could be heard through any number of telephones at the same time, and that the high results obtained with the first instruments made by Mr Meddings were due to no lucky chance. All the instruments he has made have been equally successful, and wherever they have been tried have afforded the utmost satisfaction. It need scarcely be said that the results obtained on Saturday afforded great pleasure, and no little surprise to those who had not previously experienced so novel a sensation.

In the singing which was listened to, the blending of the voices was perfect, and the slightest error made by either of the singers was at once detected. The instrumental sounds were equally satisfactory. Some weeks since Mr Meddings projected a new telephone, which as yet he has not had time to construct, and by means of this instrument he anticipates obtaining much greater intensity of sound. For obvious reasons, we give no description of the design, but it may be mentioned that in France experiments have been made in this direction, and with decided success. One of the instruments which has been produced, and by means of which highly satisfactory results have been obtained, consists of a cubical chamber, in which each of the faces save one is a diaphragm, with the necessary arrangement of magnets and coils. The wires from these coils are all united and connected with the transmitting wire, and the intensity of the sound is proportionately increased.

In London, telephonic experiments have astonished thousands at the Crystal Palace and elsewhere, and at the London Institution Professor Barrett has been lecturing to delighted audiences, exposing the fallacy of the supposition that the toy telephones sold in the shops in any degree represented the new scientific wonder, and enabling his audiences to see sounds as re-produced by the telephone. This he accomplished by the use of coloured sand upon a sheet of paper carefully stretched over the top of a suitable box. The sounds produced caused the sand to assume various beautiful patterns, and it will doubtless be remembered that an analogous experiment was shown by Professor Bickerton at the Conversazione held on the occasion of the opening of the new Museum buildings in Christchurch. As we have before remarked, the telephone is yet in its infancy, and undoubtedly still more wonderful results will have to be recorded ere long.
Source: Star, Issue 3087, 25 February 1878, Page 3.

  1. Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0085.
  2. ‘The Tuneful Telephone’ Otago Witness, Issue 1332, 9 June 1877, Page 21. Inangahua Times, Volume IV, Issue 96, 16 November 1877, Page 2.
  3. Silas Papprill was claimed to be the first man in New Zealand to construct a telephone. A coach builder by trade, his great hobby was electricity. He worked in electroplating, electrotyping and stereotyping, and constructed the electric battery which he used to fire the first big shot in the Lyttelton tunnel, where, by pressing a button, he fired five tons of blasting tower. He was also a contractor for the first tramcars in Christchurch. He arrived with his parents, Joseph William and Marianne Papprill in about 1858 when he was 14, on board the ‘Henry Thompson’. Source: ‘Obituary’ Press, Volume LVI, Issue 16916, 18 August 1920, Page 7.
  4. Source: Private collection.
  5. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0047
  6. Ref: 1/2-070305-F. Alexander Turnbull Library
  7. William George Meddings was born in Shropshire and arrived in Lyttelton with his parents on the “Duke of Portland” in 1851, at the age of seven. He was educated privately in Christchurch, learned telegraphy and became an operator in the Telegraphic Department in 1867 before being appointed Inspector of Telegraphs in 1878. He was transferred to Nelson and Auckland, where he died in September 1911. Source: Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Auckland Provincial District. ‘Deaths’ Colonist, Volume LIII, Issue 13216, 20 September 1911, Page 2.
  8. Illustrated Australian news. Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: PUBL-0119-1870-013.

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