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By Ashleylister @ashleylister
Alongside great inventions in time, such as the wheel, the humble box has also stood the test of time, and is all too much taken for granted in today’s society. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes, they have a festive celebration dedicated to them (just after Christmas), and for many, it is something we use throughout our lives in various different situations, to the point that we may also end up put in one when we are dead.
To this end, writing a blog about all things ‘box’ appears rather a mammoth task, like summing up war and peace in a couple of sentences, so after careful consideration I have chosen to look at one particular box which is more famous with science fiction fans, rather than its real use. I have chosen therefore to look at a history of the little known but well-loved Police Box. Cue Music…
What a curious series of events unravels in front of my eyes when exploring the history of the police box. For instance, when comparing various websites dedicated to this topic from around the world, I immediately found that the facts were somewhat skewed, with three different sites claimed three different cities as the original birthplace of these TARDIS-style boxes. It almost confirms the possibility that time travel is possible with such sightings being identified, I will leave it to you to decide.
This was not the only anomaly. Waters were further muddied when looking for the name of the inventor who first designed the box.Many different sites gave, different names and as such there still appears no unified theory of their development which we can reliably use for reference.
Having said that there are many facts which were agreed upon. For instance, the decision to use such boxes was to try and stay ahead of the criminal activities taking place around the early 1890s. The idea in Glasgow, was to exploit the emerging technologies of the telephone, creating a series of signal posts for Bobbies on the beat to keep in constant touch with each other.
The first boxes used were cast iron octagonal affairs, providing an intricate system of signalling lines, which when a trigger mechanism was activated, a red lamp lit up on the top to attract the attention of the local beat officers. Consequently the location of the box was crucial to ensure visibility. Officers therefore were encouraged to stay within line-of-sight of their Police Box for as much time as possible, although the top of the Police Box lamp in later versions contained a gong mechanism which also provided an audible means of attracting attention.
The more common square police boxes were introduced in the late 1920s firstly in the north east of the country. These were cumbersomely large, rather short and had a sloping roof. These shed-like structures proved very efficient in reducing crime in the area. This led to a decision to develop a standardised design, to which end Gilbert ‘MacKenzie’ Trench was recognised as producing the iconic box artwork (Mark 1) which would one day enter common parlance as a 'TARDIS', and first appearing on the streets of London in 1929.


author's own sketch

The original MacKenzie Trench blueprints indicated the material for the shell of the box as 'concrete'. Furthermore, the wood panelling required for door, was suggested to be made 'in teak'. In the absence of anything other than anecdotal evidence to the contrary, this casts doubt on the description of the TARDIS being a solely 'wooden box'. Although I’m not sure how aerodynamic cast concrete would be, so this may suggest why a change was required.
As progress always dictates, a change was required over time to modify the box design and use, therefore, in the mid-1930s, the Mark 2 design was released. (This version is more akin to the Tardis design we know from Dr Who). The main difference between Marks 1 and 2 was more focused around who could use the boxes. The Mark 2 boxes were made available to the general public, where no lock was fitted to enable access. The new loudspeaker-telephone system (what was referred to as a 'speakerphone'), required an explanatory notice due to its unfamiliarity with the general populous.Despite this detailed guidance for use, the public remained cautious about using the police boxes (on average less than once per month was recorded).
To encourage a change, the metropolitan police held a series of special exhibits to educate the public and encourage them to use the boxes which had some effect in doubling the amount of callers using the boxes. By the 1940s, the Police Box held an important position in local communities, since most homes still had no telephone, so the boxes provided a means to report fires, or summon ambulances alongside their primary purpose of reducing crime. Some other differences between the Mark 1 and 2 involved aesthetic changes such as the explanatory plaque and the St John Ambulance logo being moved one panel higher, whilst the original roof sign which simply read 'POLICE', was changed to the more familiar 'POLICE PUBLIC CALL BOX'.
There was also a suggestion that the Mark 2 had 'hammered' or 'frosted' glass in place of clear glass in the original design. Despite this guidance on design in reality this was not always observed. This is reflected in the design of the 1996 TARDIS prop by Richard Hudolin which had a mixture of all types of glass randomly placed. There was also a Mark 3 variation of the Met Police Box which was larger with no windows at the front and three at the side.
As time passed and technology developed these boxes fell out of fashion, and as such their primary use has fallen into the realms of history, but the design lived on thorough popular TV. The same will be said I’m sure of red telephone and pillar boxes in the future…
TARDIS Haiku Silently watching
As time moves relentlessly
Onwards to the end
Box Limerick (Harry Potter Themed). A wise old ‘house elf’ called fox.
Who lived most of his life in a box?
Was so surprised one day.
When he found as his pay.
A discarded pair of worn argyle socks.
SM-G 2019.
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