- This article should not be confused with phone boxing, a deadly martial art.
The telephone box, or phone box as it is commonly known (because common people often have feeble tongues and can’t pronounce “tele”), is an object that has been invented countless times around the world since the dawn of history. Everybody who invents it believes he or she is the first person to do so. They should really pick up the telephone and check with an expert before jumping to such a grandiose conclusion.
Phone boxes have been around (and a-rectangular) since Stone Age times, but the first recorded incident of people using a phone box was in Ancient Greece. A toga-clad couple were walking through the fish market when a builder accidentally dropped a box from his scaffolding. The box landed neatly on the couple's heads, coming to rest on their shoulders without causing any injuries, and they continued walking and talking in Ancient Greek as normal, but with the added comfort of knowing that they were doing so with a sturdy box on their heads. Unfortunately, they could not see where they were walking and there was a terrible accident. Knives are no longer displayed at neck height.
Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the phone box caught on quickly among the Greek aristocracy, and was often used when talking with the head exposed was inappropriate, as when the speaker was making controversial statements and wished to remain anonymous in a crowded forum. Philosophers also used phone boxes regularly, because it seemed to help them cogitate – hence the expression "thinking inside the box". No remnants of Greek phone boxes are known to survive, though there is a funny piece of smelly rotten wood that archeologists can’t account for on the floor of the Parthenon.
Though the concept had been around for centuries, a long-distance phone box was not invented until 1649. A working prototype was built across the English Channel, from England to France. However, nobody in England wanted to talk to the French and vice versa, so in 1650 the giant box was thrown into the sea, never to be seen again. Some theories suggest that the box floated for years until it eventually became New Zealand.
An enterprising Anglo-American inventor called Tony Barrell got out of bed one day and decided to create a transatlantic phone box in 1755. As its description suggests, this stretched right across the Atlantic Ocean (from the Isle of Man to the Florida Keys). But, unfortunately, the thin cardboard Barrell used became soggy and the box was swiftly destroyed by the elements, something he had failed to foresee in his drunkenness.
After the famous American plodders Lewis and Clark loudly explained the scientific principle that lay behind phone boxes in 1805, a Native American tribe near the Yellowstone River created their own phone box, which stretched all around the world from one person’s head to another. Not only did this work, but it worked really well, because the people were just two feet apart. Unfortunately, it was made of tobacco, fine-grade stuff really, and the whole middle of the box was eventually smoked by tribespeople, until it became utterly useless as a communications device.
The Modern Era
The first British telephone box of the 20th century was designed by Jonathan King and opened in Lisle Street, London, by the television comedian Reg Varney in 1920. It is said that he had enjoyed a liquid lunch at a pub beforehand, and that he blessed the box by coating the interior with his own urine. The citizens of England have followed his example ever since. When King discovered the unhappy news that he wasn’t the original inventor of the phone box, he screamed and tickled himself to death. King’s telephone boxes were bright red, which frequently confused tourists who mistook them for Post Office pillar boxes or London buses. They could be distinguished by clever folk, however, by the fact that they were not stuffed with envelopes, were always completely stationary and were not staffed by drivers, conductors or ticket inspectors.
The Near-Death of Phone Boxes
With the invention in the 1930s of the 'cup and string', phone boxes appeared to have had their day. Thousands of lovely old boxes, from Croydon, England, to Newport, Connecticut, were either sledgehammered or found new uses as novelty fish tanks, shelters for the homeless, or trendy wine bars.
However, after half a century of general misery (during which time there was a big war), the 1980s saw a revival of phone boxes everywhere, as people looked back on the old days and decided they liked that lifestyle better. Wine bars and fish tanks were re-converted to accommodate an old-fashioned-looking telephone, and a shelf for thick telephone directories. This is now regarded as the classic period of the phone box, when people would queue in their hundreds outside the boxes, just so they could call their loved ones and say “I’m on the train!” They weren’t, of course, on the train – they were in a phone box – but they were having a little joke, and it was a popular catchphrase of the time. The phrase derived from the futuristic NBC sitcom The Phonesons, which followed the wacky exploits of an American family living in the year 23-Clickety-Doodah, by which time the years had stopped being simply numerals. The months had funny new names as well, like Salamander and Apeshit.
But then the arrival of the cellular phone in 1991 meant that the formerly long queues outside phone boxes dwindled to one or two people, and then to zero. People were now actually using personal phones like the Phonesons did, and saying “I’m on the train” without irony. I even heard Barack Obama say it once.
By 2001, following a high-profile campaign by greengrocers and bleeding-heart movie stars, thousands of redundant phone boxes were awarded the phone-box equivalent of full human rights. The red phone box can now be seen across the British Isles and is viewed as an important part of society, as well as one of its main tourist attractions.
The largest phone box recorded to date is the aptly named "universal phone box", conceived anonymously “for the hell of it” over breakfast in Ireland. Created out of medium-density fibreboard and a few really long wires, it was originally used to talk to aliens, but when the extraterrestrials suddenly went silent, it was used by naughty children to send rude heavy-breathing calls to attractive grown-ups. Not only did the creators earn the Nobel Science Prize for this phone box, but they also mounted the stage to accept the prestigious "What the Fuck Were You Thinking" award.
The Clooney Tragedy
In an otherwise trivial interview in 2002, George Clooney made a casual prophecy that phone boxes would take over the world. An army of phone boxes then came after Clooney and killed him for his prediction, causing mankind to wage war on phone boxes everywhere, driving them away to live in the oceans. To this very day, phone boxes live their lives underwater, where they are said to be building fearsome armies and creating weapons more powerful than humans could ever imagine. That, or they've turned into that brown paste that you get when you waterlog cardboard.