When the First World War came between Calicut and a central telephone exchange

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents)

Ambitious plans were spun around a proposed telephone exchange in colonial Calicut around the time of the First World War. The telephone as a utility instrument was growing in stature in the early 20 century and Calicut was pitching hard to get a central exchange to itself. The file from 1915 is thick with notes — requests and suggestions about being subscribers of a new exchange.

The letter from the Revenue Board of Madras in November 1915 almost gives a green signal to a telephone exchange here. It says the Collector of Malabar can “proceed with the selection of offices and residences at Calicut to be connected with telephone lines.”

Getting into the nitty-gritty of the matter, the Revenue Board even submits two lists ‘A’ and ‘B’ detailing the way the plan should move forward. “‘A’ – giving the names of Government offices and official residences which the Collector considers should be connected with the proposed telephone exchange and ‘B’ giving the names of firms, private persons…”

Possible subscribers

Field work too is done, and the number of instruments needed is furnished. “Number of telephone connections required for government purpose is 14,” says the letter. Among the private establishments that require a connection, the letter mentions Messrs Pierce Leslie and Co. and Messrs Parry and Co. “The number of private connections will not be less than 15,” it reads.

From the Board’s letter one understands that quite a bit of work has been done on the proposed exchange. Possible locations have been identified. “The Collector states that the Superintendent of Telegraphs prefers to locate the exchange somewhere near the Collector’s office on account of its central position.” Plans are made for the future, on how the building, which is now partly used as a post office and partly as a “tiffin room” for clerks, would need an upper floor to house the telegraph exchange. “The upper story (sic) to be used for the post office and telegraph exchange. Mr Evans (F.B. Evans, the Collector) considers the proposal be accepted, the board agrees with him,” the letter concludes, instructing the Collector to submit plans and an estimate for the exchange.

Another letter from the Superintendent, Telegraphs Engineering, Trichinopoly, further consolidates the idea of the exchange. In his letter to the Collector, he even gets the mathematics sorted. The “twenty-four hour exchange at Calicut to be worked by the Department” was not an inexpensive proposition anyway. “The annual rental charges for each connection from the exchange within a distance of two miles will be Rs 150 and for every unit of half mile of line in excess of two miles Rs 20 in addition,” he writes.

The merits

The Superintendent is quick to woo possible new subscribers. The exchange, he says, will aid not only communications for business purposes but also other “public conveniences” such as the “police, post office, treasuries, jails, shipping, doctors”.

All he wants to know from the Collector is, “Will you kindly let me know as early as possible if you are willing to become a subscriber.” In a subsequent letter, the Collector tells the Superintendent that the matter is under further consideration from the government.

The tone of the letters begins to change by early January 1916. A project that is almost approved suddenly appears to be making a u-turn. In a memorandum, S.B. Murray, Joint Secretary, Public Works Department, Government of Madras, asks the Collector “to enquire and report whether the telegraph department will open a central exchange at Calicut irrespective of the fact whether the government are prepared to join in the scheme or not.”

The government’s reluctance is all it takes to put an enthusiastic Telegraph Department in doubt. In February, the Superintendent again writes to the Collector, this time in a different vein. He wastes no time dilly-dallying and just scraps the plan altogether. “Since the installation of a public exchange will involve considerable expense it has been decided to drop the matter,” he writes.

Evans, in his reply to the memorandum, refers to the Superintendent’s letters and also writes, “It is not likely that his department will open an exchange unless government are prepared to join in the scheme.”

With it all finally boiling down to economics in a war-ravaged, cash-strapped time, the telephone exchange slips into the realm of a dream. In 1916, the Revenue Board’s communication to the Collector arrives, saying, “The proposal relating to the installation of a public exchange at Calicut will be dropped till after the war.”

(Source: Regional Archives, Kozhikode)

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