04 November 2015
A new PhD research project at University of Leeds is uncovering the story of how the Post Office (a predecessor of BT) helped develop technologies for deaf or hard of hearing people that are still used today. Researchers Coreen McGuire and Sean McNally tell us more…
In 1922 a London-based oil refinery business decided to vent some frustration in the direction of the General Post Office.
But what the firm didn’t know at the time, was that by making a complaint, it would also be making history.
‘The Smith Brothers’ contacted the Post Office to demand the provision of more effective telephone equipment. The firm argued it was losing business orders because its staff couldn’t hear what customers were saying over the phone.
Yet the Smith Brothers was far from alone with its grievance.
At that time, many of the soldiers fighting in Europe between 1914 and 1918 had returned home with hearing damage sustained on the frontline.
This was a genuinely significant problem and it put deafness on the national agenda.
Because it was a state institution, the Post Office had a responsibility to hearing impaired veterans, just as it had to all deaf telephone subscribers.
So, it sought a solution. And that solution was the introduction of amplified telephony.
Ironically, it was communications technology developed by the Post Office for the military during World War One that led to the creation of the first amplified telephone – the Repeater 9A.
This was followed by a second incarnation, the Repeater 17A, which was partly based on work carried out by an innovative customer subscriber who had (illegally) built his own amplification equipment and attached it to Post Office lines.
However, happily, he ended up working in collaboration with the Post Office’s engineering department at Dollis Hill to produce the 17B and help make sure people with hearing loss had an efficient instrument.
Then the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, set the wheels in motion for the creation of the NHS.
At the same time, attention also turned to how to help deaf people – who were once again at the top of national agenda thanks to the outcomes of World War II.
Three committees were set up. One of them, the Electro-Acoustic Committee (EAC), was focused on designing hearing aids and equipment to test hearing. Chaired by William Gordon Radley, director of the Post Office engineering department, it was tasked with designing a hearing aid that would help as many people as possible.
‘Master Hearing Aids’ were constructed at the GPO Research Station, and after testing the final hearing aid, the Medresco was rushed into production ready for the launch of the NHS in July 1948.
Called the Medresco, it was free of charge to those who needed it. It brought sound to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who previously couldn’t afford hearing aids.
And it was inspirational elsewhere – Denmark and Sweden both started providing hearing aids free of charge in the 1950s, following the Medresco’s pioneering lead.
Coreen McGuire and Sean McNally are working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project looking at telecommunications and hearing loss in the UK with Professor Graeme Gooday at the University of Leeds. They are working closely with BT Archives to investigate the Post Office’s involvement in designing the Medresco.