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Multifone telephone used by William McMahon

Listen for dial tone.

This telephone was used by Australia’s 20th prime minister William ‘Billy’ McMahon from 10 March 1971 to 5 December 1972. Nowadays we wouldn’t think much of it, but Billy McMahon was notorious for ringing business leaders, journalists, public servants and staff at all hours for advice and assistance. Imagine what he could have achieved with a mobile.

A light brown plastic phone with rows of red buttons and a manual hand dial. The receiver sits on the side.

This telephone was donated to the museum by Neil Baker.

This black and white group photograph captures Prime Minister McMahon in a tuxedo with ruffled white shirt and black velvet bow tie standing next to his wife Sonia who is wearing a sleeveless light-coloured dress with heavily jewelled belt. Her long blonde hair is piled up in a chignon and she is wearing large earrings. To her left is Prince Philip in a more restrained tuxedo and bow tie. The group are standing in an elegant room and there is a flower arrangement and oil painting in the background.

The user of the telephone Prime Minister Billy McMahon, Mrs Sonia McMahon and Prince Philip during the Duke of Edinburgh’s tour for the Golden Jubilee celebration for the Royal Australian Air Force, 1971 Credit: Australian News and Information Bureau NAA A1200, L95905

This Multifone telephone has the rotary dial mechanism and curly-corded handset familiar to telephone users of the 1960s–70s . But it has an added feature – direct dial buttons. Before telephones like this one, telephone numbers had to be manually dialled with the specific string of numbers you required. Multifones had a set of programmable buttons that let the caller press one button and place a call directly to the person they required – an exciting development in telephony.

This amateur colour photograph gives us a peek into the small, crowded and messy office occupied by the Telecom employees at Old Parliament House. The office is crowded with desks, chairs, bookshelves and a cupboard. A young, smiling Scott Cadden stands to the left in jeans and sweatshirt, Neil Baker sits at a desk holding a telephone handset and dressed in trousers, checked shirt and casual blue jacket. He has red hair and a beard and was known as ‘Bluey’. Seated behind Neil is a smiling Jeff Wilke with hi

Credit: Courtesy Neil Baker/Museum of Australian Democracy Collection

The Telecom employees in their busy office at Old Parliament House in 1987 - L to R - Scott Cadden, Neil Baker (the donor of the telephone), Jeff Wilke and Milton Rickerby.

And when those offices or individuals called you, the buttons would light up so you could see who was on the line. The buttons on McMahon’s telephone are linked to specific six-digit telephone numbers in Parliament House including switchboard operators, ministers, assistant secretaries, and press and private secretaries. 

Visual description

This telephone has a rectangular sloped unit with a rotary dial to the left and 18 square direct dial buttons with adjacent labels. 16 buttons have red covers and two have green. Below the buttons there is a plate with the name ‘Multifone’. The handset sits in a metal cradle on the left-hand side of the unit and is attached with a curly rubber cord.

The telephone is bulky and heavy measuring 13 cm high, 38 cm wide and 24 cm deep. It is made of plastic – the handset and main body are light grey and the plate containing the rotary dial and buttons is cream.

This professional colour photograph lets us view the switchboard operators’ office in Old Parliament House in 1988. In the foreground, a young woman with a gentle smile looks directly into the camera. She has shoulder length brown hair and a fringe and is wearing a black long-sleeve top. She is wearing a headset with headphones and a mouthpiece and her hands are resting on a thick binder. There are three other women seated at desks checking listings and handling telephone calls. The room has a large pinboar

Switchboard operators handled hundreds of local, national and international calls for politicians and staff at Parliament House, 1988 

Credit: Photograph by Robert McFarlane - Department of the House of Representatives 


How did this telephone end up in the Museum’s collection?

This telephone was donated to the museum by Neil Baker, a Telecom Technician who worked at Parliament House from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. During this time, he collected telephones and other telecommunications equipment that he was asked to remove or replace. An avid and dedicated collector, Neil saw treasure in humble office technology and passionately believed in its future value.

Neil donated a large part of his collection to the museum. The office telephones, exchanges, intercoms and public telephones provide a significant survey of the telecommunications used in Parliament House from the 1950s to the 1980s and its administrative and communication functions.

How do you operate a rotary dial telephone?

You pick up the handset and hold the end closest to the cord to your mouth and the other end to your ear. You wait until you hear a dial tone and then dial the number by placing your fingertip into the opening for the relevant number and drawing the disc in a clockwise direction until stopped by a metal fitting. You then withdraw your finger and let the disc return to its original position. You repeat this action for each of the remaining numbers. Once finished dialling you would either hear a ringing or a busy tone.