Napier businessman John Neal promoted in 1884 the idea that a telephone exchange would be a useful addition to the town.
Mr Pell, secretary of the Napier Chamber of Commerce, in 1885, "canvassed the principal houses of business with the view of forming a telephone exchange for Napier".
Twenty-five subscribers were needed, and these were easily found, and a manual telephone exchange was added to the Napier Post Office in Browning St.
The telephone exchange worked by manual operators connecting incoming calls to the desired number via the switchboard.
The exchange operated from 8am to 8pm and cost £9 (2020: $1880) per annum to subscribe.
On Christmas Day 1885, calls could only be connected between 9am and 10am.
Napierites wanted an all-night telephone service but this was refused by the Postmaster General on the ground of cost. But when it was found out in 1892 that Invercargill with 100 subscribers to Napier's 160 had a night service, Napier was soon granted one by November – at no extra cost to the annual subscription.
The Daily Telegraph believed as Napier did not support the Seddon government of the day, they were "ignored".
Despite the pleas for an all-night service, some months after it was granted little use was made of it and "the clerks on duty have rather a dull time of it".
When Napier received its automatic telephone exchange in 1927 within a purpose-built building in Browning St, Mr L Spiller, the engineer in charge of the conversion, said that 2000 manual phones in operation had to be disconnected and collected over four days during October before being replaced.
Three truck loads of the manual phones were railed to Wellington to be overhauled for rural lines.
Mr W Somerset Smith, president of the Napier Chamber of Commerce, praised the new exchange for its efficiency in now making calls.
During the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake those working at the automatic exchange crouched under the switchboard, which was credited in saving their lives.
The building (opposite St John's Cathedral) would be totally wrecked as was the automatic telephone exchange mechanism for 2000 subscribers. No one could make a call in or out of Napier.
A temporary exchange was soon constructed, but only for the use of essential services such as medical, police and fire.
In mid-March 1931, a temporary manual telephone exchange was built which connected at first 250 people.
There were 300 pairs of underground cable wires and only 150 pairs were found to be faulty and these were in Westshore, Awatoto and Wharerangi Rd. The outside toll lines were undamaged.
A new telephone directory was being printed, the old one now rendered useless.
When the engineer, Mr Hounsell, of the Postal and Telegraph office, was questioned in March 1931 as to when Napier would get an automatic telephone service, he replied: "Nothing had been decided as to what was to be done in that respect."
A new telephone exchange building in the same location as the wrecked one in Browning St was rebuilt in 1937 in preparation for the automatic telephone exchange installation.
Government architect J T Mair designed the building in Art Deco style.
A manual exchange had operated since the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake in a small tin shed using a manual telephone exchange.
It was hoped the automatic exchange would be ready by early 1939, but the man in charge of the installation passed away and his replacement had to come from overseas.
Mr I Davies, installing engineer for Siemens brothers of Woolwich, England, was therefore brought out to assist the Postal and Telegraph's engineer, Mr S J Macdonald, and 14 other men brought in from around New Zealand.
In 1938, 150 pairs of new armoured telephone cable wires were laid underground between Hastings and Napier by an agricultural mole plough rather than by manual labour. This "modern trunking system" was part of modernising the telephone system in the district.
Napier's automatic telephone exchange opened in late 1939.
An innovation in Napier's new automatic telephone exchange was automatic timing clocks for toll calls which would start and stop automatically at the beginning and end of the conversation.
This, it was said, would "greatly reduce the worries of the operator as under the old system the operator had all the responsibility of charging".
It was said the Napierites were at long last pleased on the opening of the automatic exchange not to hear "Number please?" from the manual exchange operators.
And the manual telephone operators were for their part pleased to vacate the small, inadequate quarters of the tin shed they had been in for eight years.
- Michael Fowler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contract researcher and commercial business writer of Hawke's Bay history. Follow him on facebook.com/michaelfowlerhistory
On Sunday, March 14 at 2pm Michael Fowler will be doing a talk at the Art Deco Masonic Hotel followed by a high tea. Bookings only at iTicket under Masonic Hotel High Tea. There will an opportunity to purchase Michael's history of the Masonic Hotel.