Series IT Finds 1/2024: Do you know your stuff?

Join us on a journey into the past: How familiar are you with telephony at ETH Zurich and with old analogue telephones, and what do you personally associate with these devices? Tell us your story!

Historic wooden telephone system with wall bracket and separate bell.

Historic wooden telephone system with wall bracket and separate bell. Such telephones were common between the late 1890s and the early 1930s. They represent the early era of telecommunications, before the modern dial and push-button telephones were introduced

Until 1993, the main number of ETH Zurich was 01 256 11 11. At that time, the switchboard was located in the main building.

Who can help?

Does anyone remember the former name of the department to which the service was assigned? Today, Campus Services offers the telephone service for ETH members. Since 2023, the switchboard has been called “Infoline”. The “ones” have been retained. The current number for getting information is 044 632 11 11, or internally 111.

Zurich used to have the area code 01 and the internal ETH telephone numbers only had four digits. In September 1993, the internal telephone numbers were given five digits. It was not until March 2004 that ETH switched to the 044 dialling code.

ETH telephone directory

ETH telephone directories

ETH telephone directories, which can be found in the reference library of the ETH Zurich University Archives

ETH maintained its own telephone directory in printed form. A real book. Everyone to whom a telephone could be assigned was listed in it. In the beginning there were a few hundred numbers. By the end, there were around 5 to 6,000 entries. The ETH Zurich university archives still have old telephone directories from the 1970s.

From the reference library: “The earliest telephone directory is from 1947 and is a bound copy.”

Does anyone know if the original still exists?

“The first few years were very patchy. From the 1970s onwards, however, they were complete until 1996, after which the telephone directories were replaced by the so-called ‘handbooks’. However, there are two types of manuals at ETH, one series is a continuation of the telephone directories, the other is an information publication.” Thanks to Claudia Briellmann, ETH Library, ETH Zurich University Archives, for her support.

Telephone operator at work on a telephone system at ETH Zurich

Telephone operator at work on a telephone system at ETH Zurich, photographer: unknown, Museum of Communication, dated 23.01.1952, title / object name Telephone exchange ETH Zurich

See also the anniversary post by Irene Furrer in the ITS Blog (in German).

Our history

An article on the history of the telephone prompted us to start researching telephones at ETH. At the same time, we were looking for old telephones that could be held by our photographers for the inside|out 29th issue – December 2022 newsletter.

René Müller, employee at ITS INFRA, was the trigger for our IT Find quiz. See also the first IT Find quiz (ITS Blog). The old phones were mechanical and had parts that moved. They were almost impossible to break. René opened a phone after 15 years and there wasn’t a speck of dust to be found. The old telephones would theoretically still work today with the appropriate switchboard. Hard to imagine: The switchboards used to be as big and heavy as a piece of furniture. René would certainly have got one for himself otherwise. The biggest problem with the phones was the bell. If it broke, nothing worked. All other parts were built so sturdily that they were considered almost indestructible.

Switchboard at the ETH in Zurich

Switchboard at the ETH in Zurich, photographer: unknown, Museum of Communication, date 1935 – 1945 ca., title / object name Switchboard, switch cabinet ETH

ETH history

In the past, you couldn’t buy telephones, you had to rent them from PTT, Telecom or Swisscom. ETH Zurich was no exception. The rental prices were different, and it depended on the phone. It could cost anywhere from CHF 1.70 to CHF 10, 11, 12 or 15 per month. The rental period was unlimited. A few phones were even in use here for 15 to 20 years. When they were no longer needed, they were returned. However, ETH always kept the telephone numbers and did not return them. They were internal numbers then, and still are now.

There were not very many telephones at ETH in the beginning. René reckons there were between 40 and 50 of them. In the past, not every employee had a telephone at ETH. It was not considered necessary. Initially, only bosses, professors and secretaries had them. Later, it slowly changed so that senior assistants and important employees also got a telephone.

Your story

What do you associate with these old telephones? Do you still have one, or perhaps any old pictures of them, for example, being used at ETH? We look forward to your stories and your comments on this post. And if you have any IT finds for our inside|out section, please get in touch with us.

Historic found-picture from ETH-Web

Historic found-picture from ETH-Web

Feedback after the first telephone quiz

“Thank you for the inside|out. I thought I’d just write since you ask about our own stories in the article. The article with the telephone immediately appealed to me. On the one hand because I had to learn analogue telephony extensively during my training, but also for the following reason. I converted the old analogue phone from my parents’ house so that it can be used for TEAMS via USB on the PC. With all of the functions that were on the analogue system back then. When the handset is lifted, you hear the dialling tone. The bell rings when a call comes in. When the handset is lifted, the call is accepted. The number dialled on the round dial is sent to the PC as a keyboard command. (Numeric keyboard). As well as being a real eye-catcher, it’s also very practical for short calls.”

Conversion to USB connection

Conversion to USB connection

In use via USB on the PC for TEAMS

In use via USB on the PC for TEAMS

On the lookout for more stories

We found almost nothing about the history of telephones at ETH on the ETH website. If you have any further information or pictures, please feel free to contact us. Other interesting links on the subject of telephony:

History / ITS & ETH make history

Contact us

Your inside|out editorial team, Sabine Hoffmann, Head of PR & Communications

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