At the Royal Academy in London's Piccadilly, nestling in the shadows beneath the entrance arch - is a red telephone box. It's the original prototype, made of wood and was the template for all later red telephone box designs. Existing more for street decoration these days, as the mobile phone has dampened the public's demand for public telephones, but right up until the 1980s, most people in the UK didn't have a phone in their home and if you were out. Well, public telephones were a necessity.
It was not the first telephone box design. That was produced by the Post Office four years before this 1924 prototype, but many were critical of the design and the Royal Fine Art Commission was called upon to judge the competing efforts, from three respected architects. Giles Gilbert Scott's was selected as the eventual winner. The domed roof of his design was a nod to Sir John Soane's mausoleums (he had recently been made a trustee of the 'Sir John Soane's Museum') and the overarching style was classical. The three prototypes were all constructed from wood, and each was sited under-cover across London. Though Scott's is the only one to survive and can still be found in its original location.
From 1926 Scott's red boxes were deployed across London and then countrywide. He originally suggested they should be made of steel and coloured silver, but the Post Office went ahead and built them with cast iron, and painted them red. Sometimes, compromise is a good thing.
In 1987, British Telecom decided to modernise their boxes throughout the UK and replaced them with a new utilitarian range of kiosks, some of which didn't shelter you from the elements. An optimistic strategy, in a country noted for its horizontal rain. There was a [minor] public outcry, with many members of the public opting to purchase the decommissioned old boxes. A popular use was to re-imagine them as shower cubicles. Though the practicalities of heaving the cast iron frame up a narrow staircase, must have deterred all but the most ardent, red-box fans.
BT's main motivations for replacement, were that the old boxes were too easy to rob, the heavy swinging doors could incarcerate the puny and they offered no disabled access whatsoever. Less mentioned, though no less significant: was the red phone's unofficial function, as a post-pub urinal - which silently helped to usher in the upgrade.
Westminster Council was the first to start 're-introducing' red phone boxes ('you know, for the tourists') in the late 1990s and the practice of welcoming back the red phone box, began to take root across Britain. Once the Millennium arrived, it scarcely mattered anyway. Even pre-school children have phones and as I walk around London these days, I see red phone boxes being used over and again for the same purpose. Picture a group of happy visitors, posing with the door open, holding the receiver to their ear and pretending to dial. Click. They then replace the receiver and move on - forwarding the snap to TwitPic or similar, via their mobiles. Red boxes are just a photo opportunity in the 'teenies'.
So why not snap yourself with the original, before you make your way into the Royal Academy. When departing, give it a knock. Yes - it really is made of wood.
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
Piccadilly Circus or Green Park Tube.