Dialing up a ring-a-ding collection

From a wrought-iron creation from 1880s Sweden to half-brick mobiles, collector Neil Baker knows his telephones, Natasha Rudra writes.

Neil Baker knew the candlestick telephone was a prize the minute he set eyes on it.

It was the 1960s and he was a young telephone technician who'd been called out to fix a fault at a farmhouse in Leeton, in country NSW. The antique, cylindrical phone was still working and its owner, whom Baker recalls as an Italian or Maltese woman who couldn't speak much English, insisted that it should stay when she discovered it needed to be replaced. ''I said, 'I have to replace this with a nice, shiny new Bakelite phone,' '' Baker says. ''She said, 'No, you stay, it's [the phone's] been with us since 1928.' ''

The two of them had a little tug-of-war over the device until the woman's daughter came home from school and Baker was able to explain that the phone had to go. He fixed the fault and returned to the office with the candlestick phone, where his supervisor and another technician both tried to claim it. ''[They] said, 'Where did you get that? That's mine!' And I said, 'No, it's not, you've already signed off that it was obsolete, destroyed!' '' he recalls, the victory still capable of bringing a mischievous grin to his face more than 40 years later.

That was the start of an obsession. The affable Baker, known to mates as Bluey, eventually went on to a career as telephone technician to politicians at Old Parliament House and would amass a collection of telephones that now sits at more than 500 - everything from the very earliest models of telephone to half-brick mobile phones.

Now the jewels of his telephone collection will be on display at the Canberra Museum and Gallery starting on June 21. The exhibition, Telephones Forever, is part of the museum's Open Collection display area.

It takes just a heartbeat after stepping into the cool gloom of Baker's shed to realise that he's an inveterate collector who has the magpie in his soul. The shed out the back of his Giralang home is filled to the brim with stuff. Every square inch of the ceiling is covered with beer coasters from what seems like every known pub in Australia, creating a dizzying pattern of beer logos and slogans (''Leeton Welcomes You'', ''Your Publican Has Joined the Beer Revolution'', ''There's a Cold Draught On My Back''). Even the blinds of the shed's little window are home to a little collection, adorned with old cards bearing Baker's name - everything from an expired Visa card to vintage leagues' club membership cards. But there are also boxes, boxes and more boxes carrying telephones - all neatly labelled - and tubs packed with telephone parts. The evolution of the mobile phone can be traced in the rafters of the shed, where clunky old hand phones dangle from wire alongside slimline Nokias.


How did his family cope? Baker laughs, and says that his wife, Jill, never seemed to mind because he kept a lot of the phones out in the shed. ''Out of sight, out of mind,'' he says. Though they did go through a phase where a rising pile of telephones took over the dining table and the family were forced to eat dinner in the living room, balancing their plates on their knees. Jill put her foot down then, he says.

His favourite phone is an elegant wrought-iron creation from 1884, made in Sweden by the Ericsson company, which he restored and rebuilt. Its curved legs are magnetised and covered in decorative patterns that Baker added via transfer, the telephone cord is neatly braided, and the little hand crank still works.

When Baker was growing up there was an old black wall-mounted phone in the house where he lived with his parents. ''Not many people had them,'' he remembers. ''They were pretty dear to rent and people used to come and use it from the neighbourhood. But the rate at which technology moved - from a box like that to nowadays, you carry around computers that just happen to have a telephone in them.'' And he gestures to the iPhone on which the interview is being recorded.

Baker's fascination with the childhood phone eventually led to him trying to break into the telecoms industry. He sat the entrance exam to join the then Postmaster-General's department. Competition was fierce and the young Neil wasn't successful at first. ''The intake would be about 250 people and there'd be 1200 people there and you had to get 100 per cent [on the test] to get it,'' he says. Baker would get 99 per cent on the test and fail. ''I tried three times in a row and the third time they must have said, 'This bloke really wants to get in,' and I got in.''

When Baker was handed his first posting to Leeton in the late 1960s, swatches of rural Australia were still connected to switchboards, relying on operators to put them through to the numbers they wanted to call. Some people still had hand-cranked telephones. Baker realised that he wanted to collect phones as the country modernised its telecommunications and the old hand generator phones and exchanges were phased out and changed to dial telephones. ''I decided, 'Oh well, instead of destroying them, I'll keep them,' '' he says.

He did plenty of destroying though, telling cheeky stories of phone technicians collecting ute-loads of old wooden phones and candlestick phones and then dropping them off a bridge into the Murrumbidgee River instead of shipping them back to Sydney. Or slipping a couple of beers to the operator at a rubbish tip to bury a batch of decommissioned telephones on the sly. But he also collected.

In 1973, Baker joined a team of technicians who worked at Old Parliament House, installing hundreds of custom-made units for then-prime minister Gough Whitlam and staff. It was meant to be a three- to four-month job but Baker stayed for 15 years, working on telephones for ministers, public servants and dignitaries.

He tells a fond tale of going to test Whitlam's direct phone with a fellow technician, slipping into each minister's office and calling the PM to check that the lines worked. After the first call Baker noticed that his colleague, who was sitting at the prime minister's desk taking the test calls, seemed a bit short. Next call, he says, the voice on the other end of the line demanded, ''Who's this?'' When Baker replied, ''It's Bluey, mate'', the voice said, ''This is Gough Whitlam. What are you doing?'' Baker says he explained his task and Whitlam decided to stay at his desk and help him test all the lines. Not all of Whitlam's successors were so obliging. Malcolm Fraser, Baker recalls, was a bit detached but Bob Hawke was apparently the original Russell Crowe. ''He used to throw the bloody phone across the room and smash it.''

In the shed, Baker leafs through the book of photographs that details his collection, pointing out highlights such as a phone with a giant, 75-button additional keyboard that was made for Fraser and a colourful child's toy phone on wheels that he modified to fit an actual phone. ''The original mobile phone,'' he chuckles.

He can't explain what attracts him to telephones. ''It's hard to say,'' he muses, turning pages to point out a phone used down in the mines that doesn't produce sparks. ''They're different. That's what I liked.''

Telephones Forever opens at the Canberra Museum and Gallery on June 21. See www.museumsandgalleries.act.gov.au.