The end of the “Tickey Box” - News - Gondwana Collection

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The end of the “Tickey Box”

Avatar of inke inke - 11. mars 2016 - Discover Namibia

Tickey box cemetery at the Telecom premises in Windhoek, 2014. (Photo: Gondwana Collection)

Those were the days when people stood in a one-metre-square steel cabin during winter, coin ready in one hand, telephone receiver in the other, waiting for the lady at the telephone exchange to say when to drop the tickey coin into the slot. Only then would the call go through.

The red and beige booths would feel like a Turkish bath during summer. For generations of people in South Africa and Namibia, especially school children, students and young men doing their military service, the phone booth, also called Tickey Box, was the only connection to home, the farm or their sweethearts.

The metallic cabin with large windows containing the robust metal box attached inside with three slots for the British/South African coins tickey (three pence), sixpence and shilling (until 1961, after that South African coins) offered some privacy from the noisy world outside. It was as if the caller’s home was “beamed” into the phone booth. 

One would leave the Tickey Box afterwards either elated, having just received good news or after an intimate conversation with a sweetheart, or sad after receiving some bad news. Some callers had difficulty adjusting to reality after a phone conversation in the temporary shelter of the booth. People waiting to make a call could read the mood from the face of the person stepping outside. 

Those waiting, even total strangers, would make comforting remarks. Announcements like “I passed the exam!” or “We are having a baby!” also brought joy to those waiting in the queue. Many people felt the urge to immediately share their news with bystanders.

Callers using a Tickey Box helped each other to swap coins for the right change needed and sometimes donated coins if a caller was short. It was part of the Tickey Box culture; one belonged to that caller community and waited together in cold and heat to make a call. One would be disturbed by impatient drumming of knuckles against the windows, when those outside felt the call had lasted too long as they also wanted to phone. 

The first public phone booth worldwide was erected 136 years ago in the US in New Haven, Connecticut. In Great Britain, the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed the characteristic red telephone booths in 1924 for the royal postal services in a design competition. The red booths instantly conquered Great Britain. Shortly afterwards, public telephone booths were introduced into South Africa, though not as elegantly designed however. 

“In Namibia, public phone booths were already available before the Second World War. When I started my apprenticeship at the postal services in 1936, Tickey Boxes were in use,” remembers 95-year-old pensioner Karl Thiel.

South Africa became a republic in 1961 and a new currency comprising rands and cents was introduced in Namibia, which was administered by South Africa as a mandate until 1989. “We didn’t have to change the slots in the Tickey Boxes, the new 5 cent, 10c and 20c coins fitted into the slots,” says Thiel.

Another former employee in Namibia’s postal services telecommunications department, engineer Manfred Gürtel, says the first automatic telephonic exchange system was introduced in 1930 in the former South West Africa. “This system was delivered by the Siemens Company. I started working of the postal services in 1950,” the 80-year-old Gürtel remembers, “the Siemens system enabled the deployment of Tickey Boxes in rural areas.”

If callers had no money for the phone booth they used tricks. “There was the so-called ‘long Tickey’ – a piece of wire,” says Gürtel. “One would scrape that wire along the bottom of the coin slot until the humming tone could be heard, as if a coin had genuinely fallen through the slot and one could make the call.”

The post office lost money in this way. Another trick was to fasten a Tickey or larger coin to a string with a piece of sellotape and to pull it up after hearing the humming tone and dropping it again, when a new coin was supposed to be put in the slot. 

With some experience, one could repeatedly drop the coin on the string, enabling a long telephone conversation. 

However, the ladies at the telephone exchange would often be alerted and did not hesitate to interrupt the call and strongly reprimand the caller.

During apartheid (1848-1978), separate Tickey Boxes were available for “non-white” callers. When apartheid was officially abolished in Namibia in 1978 the sign “non-white” was removed from the booths.

Namibia gained independence in 1990. Shortly afterwards the postal and telecommunications services were separated to become Namibia Post and Telecom Namibia. 

New grey and blue phone booths were introduced, replacing the old Tickey Boxes after some 60 years of service. The new booths were close to each other and hardly protected callers from the weather, passers-by could listen to the conversation, and public calls have become uncomfortable.

Cards replaced coins and when mobile phones conquered Namibia, public phone booths started becoming extinct. 

Telecommunications expert Christoph Stork noted in a study that according to Telecom Namibia’s own annual reports, 6086 public phones existed in Namibia in 2006, the highest number ever. Only 3860 booths remained by 2008, the reason for the decline apparently being no privacy, the expense of the calls and fear of personal theft.

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