Tales In Tech History: Classic BT Red Telephone Box Celebrates 80th Birthday

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The red K6 telephone box is forever a symbol of Britain and this week it celebrates its 80th birthday

For more than a hundred years now the UK has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the humble telephone.

In the UK there are estimated to be 35 million landline telephones, and before the advent of the mobile phone, when people left their homes or businesses, they would often be totally incommunicado.

Into this breach stepped the telephone kiosk, with the first model (the K1) appearing on British streets back in 1921, to allow citizens (in exchange for some coins) to communicate whilst out and about. Over the next ten years various replacement models were tried and tested on British streets.

Design Classic

bt-k6-red-phone-box-1But it was in 1936, when the renowned English architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed the now famous K6 red telephone box (otherwise known as the “Jubilee Kiosk”). Sir Giles also went on to design Battersea Power Station, Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, and Waterloo Bridge.

The K6 was an instant hit, although some regions did not opt for the red colour scheme but instead chose to paint their K6’s in dark green and grey. The kiosk itself was made from cast iron with a teak door. It measured 8’3” tall (2.4 metres) and weighed three quarters of a ton (762 kilograms).

It was provided to every town or village in the land, providing they had a post office. Indeed, 8,000 K6 were installed in 1936 alone, and by the end of production in 1968 there were nearly 70,000 in this country.

Sadly nowadays there are just 46,000 working public payphone kiosks on the streets of the UK at any one time, around 8,000 of which are traditional red phone boxes (the majority of which are K6s).

A number of K models came after the K6, but they did not enjoy the popularity of the K6. In the 1980s and early 1990’s many of these boxes were replaced altogether with the modern KX series of payphone booths, and thousands of old K6s were sold off at public auctions.

But the K6 remains a true icon of this country, and they are still installed in notable locations and landmarks around the UK. Indeed, such is the architectural significance of K6 that 2,400 kiosks have been designated as grade II listed buildings.

Adopt A Kiosk

To help celebrate its birthday, giant images of the K6 were this week projected onto several of BT’s central London buildings.

bt-k6-red-phone-box-2“The red telephone box and in particular the classic K6 is an important part of the UK’s history and regularly tops the polls as a design and cultural icon,” said David Hay, head of BT Heritage.

“They’re recognised by people around the world. The K6 is held in great esteem and is an ambassador for the UK around the globe – many are now found in countries as diverse as the US, Cuba, Brazil, Switzerland, Hungary and Germany.”

Some observers have questioned the need for telephone boxes nowadays thanks to mobile phones, and it is true that BT’s revenue from telephone boxes has dwindled dramatically over the past three decades.

At the same time, BT is (perhaps unfairly) still required to maintain and operate these pay phones that nobody uses.

Since 2008 BT has given local communities in the UK the chance to buy their decommissioned local phone box, if it is not being used to make phone calls. Communities can purchase their local kiosk for just £1 under the Adopt a Kiosk scheme.

It should be noted that the payphone is removed, but more than 3,500 kiosks have been adopted by local communities and transformed into a number of different and interesting uses.

Some decommissioned phone boxes have been fitted with defibrillation machines, others have been turned into art galleries, mini libraries, exhibitions or information centres.

And according to BT, at least one decommissioned phone box was turned into a one-night-only pub, when their local closed down.

So next time you are out and about and pass one of these classic K6 telephone kiosks, appreciate its importance and give it a little bit of love. Maybe even put down your mobile phone for a moment and use it to make a telephone call to your nearest and dearest? (If you have change of course)

Quiz: What do you know about BT?

Author: Tom Jowitt
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