Rotary system

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The Rotary Machine Switching System, or most commonly known as the Rotary System, was a type of automatic telephone exchange manufactured and used primarily in Europe from the 1910s. Formally named the No. 7-A Machine Switching System, it was developed in Belgium by International Western Electric, a subsidiary of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), at the same time when AT&T's American engineering division, Western Electric, was developing the Panel switch in the United States.

The Rotary and Panel systems were very different systems, but both used the same newly developed component technology, such as Western Electric's latest relays, and the principles of the Lorimer system of revertive pulsing and preselection. The Rotary switches were smaller than the Panel system, and served only 200 rather than 500 stations. The initial version was the model 7A. It was succeeded by 7A1 and 7A2 and a rural system had the designation 7D.


The Rotary system used 1st and 2nd linefinders; when a customer picked up the phone all free linefinders in the group drove until one picked that customer line. Calls were switched over two, three or four group selection stages followed by a final selector. An office could start with two group selection stages for local calls (a first group level would serve 2000 lines), and be expanded to three group selection stages if it outgrew say 2000 or 4000 lines, depending on the number of first group levels required for other offices in a multi-exchange area.


While the Panel system was chosen for American large cities, the Rotary system was selected for use in Europe and manufactured at the Bell Telephone Manufacturing (Western Electric) factory in Antwerp, Belgium. The first exchanges were installed in England at Darlington (10 October 1914) and Dudley (9 September 1916). However the British Post Office standardised on the Step-by-Step (SXS) system in 1922, and subsequently the SXS Director system for London and other large cities. Rotary exchanges were used in the city of Hull, where telephone service was supplied by Hull Corporation rather than by the BPO.

The Rotary system was chosen for The Hague, (the Netherlands) and New Zealand in 1913-14, but manufacture was disrupted by the German invasion of Belgium. Dies were moved to England, then to the Hawthorne Works of Western Electric in America (manufacture resumed at Antwerp in 1920). The first exchanges cutover were Masterton, New Zealand on 31 May 1919 (followed by Courtenay Place and Wellington South in Wellington on 18 October 1919) [1] and Scheveningen, The Hague on 7 January 1920.[2] The Hague was the first multi-office area served entirely by the No. 7-A machine system with the cutover of the new Centrum office on 15 February 1924. There were four offices equipped with 23,000 lines; Bezuidenhout, Centrum (or Hofstraat), Hague West (or Marnix), and Scheveningen. The system was owned by The Hague Municipality; initially only 5000 lines were fully automatic, the rest were semi-automatic.

In 1925 IT&T purchased International Western Electric, formerly Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company, in Belgium, from AT&T; as the Bell System complied with regulators to sell its overseas manufacturing interests to settle anti-trust action. In the 1930s, ITT grew through purchasing German electronic companies Standard Elektrizitaetsgesellschaft and Mix & Genest, both of which were internationally active companies.

Apart from the Netherlands (38,100 lines) and New Zealand (48,400 lines), other countries who had installed or ordered Rotary equipment by 1925 [3] were Australia, Belgium (29,000 lines), Denmark, England, France, Hungary, Italy, Norway (41,160 lines), Romania, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland. There was a total of 104,615 lines in service, and 137,330 lines “proceeding”. Subsequently at Zurich, Switzerland; the mechanical registers were replaced by PDP-11 computers.[4]

In Kingston-upon-Hull which had the only municipal telephone system in the United Kingdom, operated by the Hull City Council, rotary exchanges were operated from 1922 to 1975.[5] This was the only city in the United Kingdom to have a municipally-owned system, see KCOM Group. In the rest of the United Kingdom, the telephone system was operated by the British Post Office (later British Telecom), which had installed a Rotary exchange at Darlington about 1912, but subsequently decided to use the Director system in London and other large cities.

Working Exhibit[edit]

In Christchurch, New Zealand at the Ferrymead Heritage Park, the Ferrymead Post & Telegraph Historical Society has a working exhibit of the 7A Rotary Switching system. The display also includes a bay of 7A1 Line Finders and a bay of 7A1 Registers.

At the Norwegian Telecom Museum in Oslo, Norway there is a 7A2 exchange.

US deployment[edit]


  • Note: Electrical Communication was published quarterly by the International Standard Electric Corporation. Subsidiaries of the company included the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company, Antwerp and Standard Electric or Standard Telephones and Cables in various countries. Deakin and Turkhud were with the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company, Antwerp; Shrimpton was with Standard Telephones and Cables (Australasia).


  1. ^ Shrimpton, E.A. The 7-A Rotary Machine Switching System in New Zealand (Electrical Communication Volume VI Number 2, October 1927)
  2. ^ Turkhud, B.A. The Hague Telephone Network (Electrical Communication Volume 4 Number 4)
  3. ^ Deakin, Gerald No. 7-A Machine Switching System (Electrical Communication Volume III Number 3, January 1925)
  4. ^ IEEE Explore PDP-11 registers in Zurich
  5. ^ History of Hull Telephone Department

External links[edit]