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DVD Smith
1269247.  Tue Jan 02, 2018 6:34 pm Reply with quote

How did the presidents of the USA and Russia speak to each other during the Cold War? [Klaxon: Through red telephones on their desks.]

(Sources for the majority of the following info, unlesss specified: [1][2][3][4][5])

It is a common trope in several films and TV shows that during the Cold War, the leaders of the USA and Russia each had a red telephone on their desk through which they could directly communicate. In reality this "red telephone" never existed - the two countries communicated through secure teletype from 1963, then fax from 1986, then finally email from 2008. The US transmissions were always sent from the Pentagon, never from the White House desk. According to one US Army translator, the idea of the "red phone" may have come from the Pentagon, where one general had on his desk a red telephone through which he had a direct connection to the White House - an account seemingly backed up by this blog, which states that red phones were used in the early days for internal communications rather than international communications.

The link wasn't completely direct either; it used the very first TransAtlantic Cable (TAT-1), which connected Washington to Moscow via London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. The London portion ran through the "Kingsway Tunnels" (or "BT Tunnels"), built during WW2 to serve as bomb shelters and military headquarters.[6] The connection was cryptographically secure but at times the actual physical cable was not; it was reportedly severed twice by bulldozers, driven by farmers in Denmark and Finland respectively, while it was once knocked out of action by a fire down a manhole in Baltimore. [7] Luckily, they also had a backup line via Tangier in Morocco.

The first message sent along the line was from the US to Russia, on August 30 1963, and read "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy's dog's back 1234567890." (This is called a pangram - see the Peculiar Parablas thread.) The Soviets' first message was rather more poetic, sending a description of the sunset in Moscow. Test messages were then sent through the system every hour, alternating in origin from Washington and then Moscow. (This practice continues to this day.)

To minimise the potential for misunderstandings, the communications were always done electronically and never verbally, with each side sending the transmission in their own language. Both sides each had encoding machines in the Latin alphabet (for English) and the Cyrillic alphabet (for Russian). These were made for both countries by a company in neutral Norway, to minimise the risk of sabotage by either side.

Despite the non-existence of the red phone, the press still use the phrase "red phone" when the presidents communicate via the secure line. [8][9]

Last edited by DVD Smith on Tue Jan 02, 2018 7:30 pm; edited 1 time in total

1269251.  Tue Jan 02, 2018 6:41 pm Reply with quote

Which reminds me of something. The North Korean loony claims to have the nuclear button on his desk at all times. Even for him I find it very difficult to believe. At best he probably has a direct line to the military bods who will carry out his order to push the (probably theoretical in any case) button.

DVD Smith
1269252.  Tue Jan 02, 2018 6:47 pm Reply with quote

crissdee wrote:
Which reminds me of something. The North Korean loony claims to have the nuclear button on his desk at all times. Even for him I find it very difficult to believe. At best he probably has a direct line to the military bods who will carry out his order to push the (probably theoretical in any case) button.

Assuming it's not all just political chest-beating - either that, or it's on his desk but in a clear box with "Break glass in case of Trump-induced emergency" written on it. Or it's some kind of elaborate key system like in GoldenEye.

But you're right, I can't imagine he's just got a big "destroy" button on his desk like Homer Simpson does.

DVD Smith
1269256.  Tue Jan 02, 2018 7:18 pm Reply with quote

What happens if you use a mobile phone in a petrol station? [Klaxon: It causes an explosion/fire.]

A 2005 paper by Dr Adam Burgess of the University of Kent [1] reported a BP study of 243 petrol station fires across the world, and found that not a single one could be attributed to mobile phones. [2] In fact, most of them could be explained by static electricity, where the driver has got back into the car, rubbed against the upholstery and then gone back to the petrol pump with their clothes all charged up, causing a spark and ignition. [3]

Fires at petrol stations occur much more frequently in the USA than they do in the UK. There are a couple of reasons for this. The main reason is that in the US "latching" is allowed, where the pump handle can be clipped into place and left in the filler cap, allowing drivers to return to their cars while the car is being refuelled. Another reason is that (as of the time of the Burgess paper) American gasoline doesn't have any anti-static additives to it. In one of the rare documented examples of a static fire at a petrol station in the UK, the victim was wearing a nylon shirt. [1]

Mythbusters also tested this theory and came to the same conclusion - mobile phones won't cause a petrol station fire but static electricity definitely could. They interview an American petroleum expert in this video ([4]) who goes into the exact science behind static ignition at petrol stations.

In fact, the only real reason given why phones shouldn't be used in petrol stations is to avoid people getting distracted while refuelling their cars. Despite the myth being debunked as far back as 2003, as of 2017 the UK Petroleum Industry Association still cite potential incineration as one of their reasons for forbidding phone usage at petrol stations. [5]

As an aside, Dr Burgess's 2005 paper also reports that in 2004 there were 42 reported incidents of cars being driven into BP petrol stations in the USA while already on fire. [1]

1269364.  Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:53 pm Reply with quote

Hi :)

I am sure the new red phone between South and North Korea is bigger than the USs....

Anyway I thought these might be of interest please feel free to amend/ ignore and sorry if some of these are covered elsewhere :)

1. When was the first prank phone call?


This could be argued but I found this on Network World where they reference an 1884 edition of The Electrical World. The pranks (fully quoted from the article) is

"A GRAVE JOKE ON UNDERTAKERS -- Some malicious wag at Providence R.I. has been playing a grave practical joke on the undertakers there, by summoning them over the telephone to bring freezers, candlesticks and coffin for persons alleged to be dead. In each case the denoument was highly farcical, and the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lively manner for that telephonist."

However there is the link in the Network World article from defunctmag also lists some more "traditional" prank calls from 1902 including:

  • Mr Graves - The North Burial Ground
  • Mr Lyon - The Bronx Zoo
  • Mr Stiff; Mr Coffin and Mr Biers - Bellvie morgue
  • Mr Bush - New York Botanical Garden
  • Mr Snow - Weather Bureau

In the US this was a big nuisance on April the 1st for some numbers with some disconnecting their lines or some like Chicago Zoo taking it one step further with their "phone operators set up a gramophone so that callers asking for Mr. Lyon were promptly hit with an ear-splitting roar through their handsets".

2. In 1878 Queen Victoria received an interactive demo of the workings of the telephone from Alexander Graham Bell.

The queen was impressed with songs sung down the phone to her but in the report on this blog this blog from the British Newspaper Archive she does not seem to speak on this occasion - with the Duke of Connaught returning the queens thanks.

She did end up buying one... mentioned here

3. Phones and psychology

Hat tip to the BPS research digest for summarising these two studies and basically doing any form of effort for this!

  • If you are on the phone to someone you are unlikely to notice if they change with another person unless it is with someone of another gender. A similar phenomenon to the interesting psychology finding of change blindness. (1)
  • Talking on a phone means that you are less likely to notice a clown (casually) cycling past them on a unicycle... then again it was a study on a university campus (2)[/li]

But there are many more of studies with phones

Thanks :D

1269412.  Thu Jan 04, 2018 7:14 am Reply with quote

crissdee wrote:
The North Korean loony claims to have the nuclear button on his desk at all times. Even for him I find it very difficult to believe. At best he probably has a direct line to the military bods who will carry out his order to push the (probably theoretical in any case) button.

I cannot speak for the "North Korean loony". But while it doesn't launch nuclear missiles, President Trump does have a red button on his desk. It summons his personal attendant, and it is said that the usual reason for pressing it is that he requires more Diet Coke to be brought.


The precise process by which the President orders the launching of nuclear missiles is understandably not made public, but he would start the process by asking for the "football" to be brought to him. The football is actually a briefcase, and while the President is never left alone with it, it is never more than one room away.

When the President is out in public, an official carrying the football is never more than a few yards away. That official actually carries two briefcases; it is presumed that the other contains his own things rather than being a backup football, but who knows. (While it seems likely that there is a backup football, surely it isn't carried by the same person.)

Inside the briefcase are a number of lever arch files. They contain information on the practicalities and consequences of various nuclear attack scenarios, and instructions (supposedly they change every day) for contacting the official at the Pentagon who would actually oversee the launch. But no big red button.


Alexander Howard
1269417.  Thu Jan 04, 2018 8:15 am Reply with quote

The Beeb has a detailed story on this today.

It also says that Bill Clinton managed to lose the nuclear codes. He kept them in the pocket of his trousers, which must have been hazardous given his casual relationship with his trousers.

1270302.  Wed Jan 10, 2018 4:53 pm Reply with quote


A little tangent but Hull's phone boxes are an off-white rather than the typical red. This is because until 2007 communications in the city were run by the city council rather than BT

Link that includes this here

Sorry if this is common knowledge, I only heard about it the other day and just remembered that phones go in phone boxes... still not adjusted to 2018!


1270307.  Wed Jan 10, 2018 5:09 pm Reply with quote

Those are the phone boxes I grew up with!

1270308.  Wed Jan 10, 2018 5:16 pm Reply with quote

Kevans: I'm not sure if it's common knowledge but it has been mentioned here twice before.

Post 86.

Post 1251553.

1270310.  Wed Jan 10, 2018 5:38 pm Reply with quote

It was actually 1999 when Kingston upon Hull City Council sold 59% of Kingston Communications plc (now KCOM Group plc) for around 260 million.

What happened in 2007 was that the City Council sold off the 41% that it had initially retained, and ceased to be a shareholder in the company.

BT does by now offer telephone services to business customers in Hull (and Beverley, which was traditionally also Kingston Communications territory), but not as yet to residential customers.

Residential customers can't have wired broadband from anyone other than KCOM either. There is apparently some kind of local agreement covering football and rugby league matches involving teams from Hull, since even Sky and BT Sports accepted it as not quite right that people in Hull couldn't otherwise watch their own city's teams, but that their broadband is both the slowest and the most expensive in the country is a common complaint from Hullensians.

1270388.  Thu Jan 11, 2018 7:26 am Reply with quote

Shirley, this should wait for the T series, under Telephones?

DVD Smith
1270395.  Thu Jan 11, 2018 8:08 am Reply with quote

tetsabb wrote:
Shirley, this should wait for the T series, under Telephones?

It's a fair question, but "phone", much like "fridge" and "bus", has had its own entry in the dictionary for several years now, supported by the proliferation of modern words like "cellphone" and "smartphone" (and other words like "headphones"). I don't know about you, but I can't remember the last time I heard someone refer to their mobile as their telephone. :)

I'm sure the T series will have enough ma-T-rial to work with! ;)

1270401.  Thu Jan 11, 2018 8:41 am Reply with quote

Shouldn't it be 'phones, like 'planes? I often see that apostrophe appear when nouns are abbreviated.

DVD Smith
1270404.  Thu Jan 11, 2018 8:47 am Reply with quote

'yorz wrote:
Shouldn't it be 'phones, like 'planes? I often see that apostrophe appear when nouns are abbreviated.

Apparently not, according to this article from University of Sussex. Since these types of words are considerd "clipped forms" rather than contractions, they do not require an apostrophe.


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