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Full throated on ‘hullo-machine’

Illustration by Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration by Sreejith R. Kumar   | Photo Credit: sreejith r.kumar

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With vintage field telephones, even a rank junior could have a ‘shouting match’ with the General on the other end

I first saw a radio set (that was the name, “radio set”) in 1950, when I was around nine. It was a box with many knobs and a shiny glass dial, and songs or a man’s voice came out of it! All India Radio and Radio Ceylon were the only broadcasting stations that our radio set could “catch” in those days in Madras. The word “wireless” had entered my life.

But why wireless, I had wondered. I discovered wired communication when my father was a Member of the Legislative Council and a telephone appeared at home. It had a circular dial with digits from zero to nine, and it went “Krrrr...” each time it was turned and released. When the phone rang, one picked up the handset, said “Hullo”, the caller said “Hullo”, and this repeated until the caller decided to say something different. We children called it the “hullo-machine”.

Years later, I joined the Army and my unit was located deep in the Kumaon Himalayas in 1963. My unit had a line connection with the brigade which, in turn, was connected to the division in Bareilly. The telephone wires went over very difficult terrain and were subject to loose connections and the other ills of temporary lines. The instruments, called field telephones, were of Second World War vintage.

A caller firmly held down the field telephone with one hand and with the other, furiously cranked a handle on the side, preferably with a silent prayer. Then one lifted the handset and if prayers were answered, the exchange operator responded. He then juggled the jacks on his exchange board and made the connection, while speaking with other subscribers and confusing everybody especially when he said “Please hold”, as if we had a choice.

Bellowing out

Although Army training emphasised clarity-brevity-security in communications and discouraged the “Hullo” habit, calls were always a shouting match, starting with several “Hullos” of varying duration and intensity. Shouting was not because of animus but because the speech (if that’s the right word) had to overcome line noise. Shouting helped to exercise the lungs and practise voice commands, necessary for clarity both on parade grounds and battlefields. Telephones also assisted in brevity, so that the message could be conveyed before the line got disconnected or one collapsed from exhaustion. A convenience of the line communications of those times was the credibility of telling one’s “boss” that his speech was unintelligible over the line noise. One side of every telephone conversation could be heard by anybody 100 metres away who wasn’t stone deaf, putting paid to security.

In 1982, I was a Lieutenant-Colonel, commanding a unit in Ladakh. My immediate superior, the Chief Engineer, was located in Srinagar, 480 km away by road. But considering that we still had the same vintage field telephones and equipment, he might have been located on the moon.

One evening, the division commander, a Major General, was in my unit officers’ mess, invited to dinner. While we were all standing together conversing, somebody came to me, saying that the Chief Engineer wanted me to speak with him. I excused myself and went to the telephone, which was in the adjoining room. And the shouting began, as usual prefaced with shouts of “Hullo! Hullooow!”

When I returned to the group, exhausted after the call, the General, in his usual friendly manner, asked whether I was having a fight. I stiffly told him that I was speaking with my Chief Engineer in Srinagar. The General, known for his wit and humour, said, “But Sudhir, why didn’t you use the telephone?”

sg9kere@live.com

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2019 4:08:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/how-vintage-field-telephones-required-people-to-scream/article29806473.ece

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