Good Connections - A Telecommunications Museum Trail

by Ylva French | 15 September 2003

The need to communicate is a basic human instinct – just as important for the preservation of life as for keeping in touch with friends and relatives. It’s one area of people’s lives that has changed dramatically in the last 200 years.

And it’s played a major part in shaping history in peace and war. So how did we get from smoke signals and drums to the mobile phone and the internet? The history of telecommunications is a fascinating tale of individual innovation and enterprise as well as technological evolution.

You can discover it on this telecommunications trail visiting museums and galleries throughout the UK; or by logging on to BT’s Museum on the Internet, www.connected-earth.com.

Photo: "Arthur" is one of the most historic satellite dishes at Goonhilly Earth Centre.

The need to communicate is a basic human instinct – just as important for the preservation of life as for keeping in touch with friends and relatives. It’s one area of people’s lives that has changed dramatically in the last 200 years. And it’s played a major part in shaping history in peace and war. So how did we get from smoke signal and drums to the mobile phone and the internet?

The history of telecommunications is a fascinating tale of individual innovation and enterprise as well as technological evolution. You can discover it on this telecommunications trail visiting museums and galleries throughout the UK; or by logging on to BT’s Museum on the Internet, www.connected-earth.com.

Let’s start in the South West – almost as far down the Cornish peninsula as you can get. Because of it's geographical position, this was an obvious place for the pioneers of telecommunications to start their work.

They established a series of communications centres for trans-Atlantic cable and, later, satellite communications.A short drive from Land’s End, at BT’s Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station, the new Visitor Centre and Connected Earth Gallery has already proved a huge draw.

shows a display about satellite phone technology at Goonhilly

Photo: inside the Connected Earth Gallery at Goonhilly Visitors Centre.

The dramatic story of the development of international communications is told in a colourful graphic display, supported by samples of transatlantic cables, equipment and photographs and, of course, the satellite dishes themselves. The Post Office built the first in 1962.

“Arthur”, as the first dish became known, was used to receive Telstar transmission. It weighs 1,118 tonnes, has a diameter of 25.9 metres, and is now a listed building.

shows a telegram sent by Queen Victoria to the precursors of Cable and Wireless after they built the first transatlantic telegraph link.

Photo: Queen Victoria’s telegram to the precursors of Cable and Wireless congratulating them on completing the first undersea telegraph cable link.

Nearby, the Museum of Submarine Telegraphy in Porthcurno expands the story of communicating across the globe, in what was once the world’s biggest and busiest international cable station, run by Cable and Wireless.

In 1870 when the beautiful valley of Porthcurno first became a communications centre, pioneering engineers were just beginning to create their own ‘Victorian Internet’. Using the most advanced technology of their day, they laid a telegraph cable network which transformed the speed of communication to the British Empire and beyond.

shows a room full of machinery at Porthcurno

Photo: the instrument room, Porthcurno.

By the Second World War, Porthcurno’s communications centre had become so important that it was moved into a bomb proof, gas proof, underground building. From here vital and secret messages were transmitted around the world. Today, the tunnels house the museum in which you can see working equipment from the Victorian age and Second World War.

shows a lady working a very old telephone switchboard

Photo: at Amberley Working Museum a switchboard operator shows how to work a mechanical exchange - this one is originally from Worthing.

Now let’s head towards Sussex. Here at the Amberley Working Museum, near Arundel, BT has provided funding and hundreds of artefacts for a new Connected Earth gallery which opened in 2002.

This is the place to explore in more detail the impact on people of this huge technological revolution. While telegraphs had already played an important role in making the trains run on time, the telegram started to change people’s lives in the early part of the century, conveying both good and bad news within a few hours. For many people, during the first, and even second, world war, it was unfortunately mostly bad news. At Amberley, volunteers from the Communications Network will take you through the process of sending a telegram.

shows a display of multicoloured antique phones at Amberley

Photo: just some of the rare phones on show at Amberley

The next biggest change was the telephone, which started to appear in people’s houses after the first world war but didn’t really become commonplace till the ‘50s. Part of a large manual switchboard is on view with a video introduction by the last supervisor in charge.

You can also see a wide range of telephones as well as commercial vehicles, including an Albion van (1936) – used when installing and maintaining telegraph and telephone lines. Thousands of people worked for the then Post Office extending telephone lines across the UK.

shows a black and white picture of the BT tower being built.

Photo: Britain in the sixties was, in Harold Wilson's words, in the grip of the "white heat of technology" - building the BT Tower in 1965/66 © BT Archives

And now to corporate London. In 1981, British Telecom separated from the Post Office. So the Post Office Tower, opened in 1966 (and Britain’s highest building at the time at 620 ft or 189 metres), changed its name to the BT Tower.

shows a black and white close up picture of the BT Tower.

Photo: formerly the Post Office Tower, the BT tower had a revolving restaurant floor right at the top. © BT Archives

You can inspect this impressive structure, now a listed building, from the outside. Since 1971 when it was struck by a bomb, it has been closed to general visitors. The BT Tower is the focal point for BT’s microwave network covering some 130 stations around the country including Goonhilly. The BT Tower is in Maple Street, WC2 and is best seen from the bottom of Maple Street.

shows switchboard operators working on old machinery

Photo: switchboard operators hard at work. © BT Archive

BT’s Connected Earth is now managed from BT Archives in Holborn. This is the place to visit to access historic collections of UK telephone directories dating back to 1880; historical records of the Post Office telecommunications function.

There's also an image library which includes photographs from both BT and Post Office days, dating back to the 19th Century. BT Archives is open by appointment on Tuesday and Thursdays.

shows a truck with old telephone kiosks loaded on to the back arriving at the museum

Photo: historic telephone kiosks go into the collection at the Museum of London store.

Explore a foretaste of the impact of telecommunications on the capital in the new World City Galleries at the Museum of London which feature some Connected Earth objects.

Photo: an early wall mounted telephone. © BT Archive.

Other artefacts, including the Buckingham Palace switchboard and various telephone kiosks, are in the Museum of London store, which has occasional open days.

In October 2003, a special exhibition featuring London in the 1920s will include more communications artefacts – illustrating the growth of the telephone network after the first world war. More will follow in a few years when the Museum opens its new 20th and 21st centuries galleries.

shows a bit of machinery from Colossus, a very early computer used for code-breaking during the second war.

Photo: the Post OfficeResearch Team developed what was in effect the world’s first computer atDollis Hill. Here's a transformer from the room-sized beast.

At the Science Museum in London, communications is covered in the Making of the Modern World Gallery. Here you can see Cooke and Wheatstone’s five-needle telegraph of 1837 – the first success electric device, in use by 1838 on Great Western Railway.

More than 100 artefacts from the BT heritage collection are now in the Science Museum collections (but not currently on public display), including a unique original power-supply transformer of the UK’s code-breaking “computer” Colossus. It fed power to the 2,500 valves in the first Colossus machine, and represents a dramatic period in UK history.

shows a roomful of complicated machines, pulleys and dials - this is Colossus.

Photo: Colossus wasn't exactly a miracle of miniaturisation, but it helped to win the war.

Colossus was developed by the Post Office Research Team during World War Two in response to attempts by British Intelligence to break high-level messages produced by the German Lorenz encoder.

Mechanical machines had broken the Enigma code, but were not fast enough for these more advanced codes. Led by Tommy Flowers, the Post Office Team developed what was in effect the world’s first computer at Dollis Hill and installed it at Bletchley Park in 1944, where it filled a whole room.

In all ten Colossus machines were produced and played a significant role during the D-Day Landings and the later years of the war. At the end of the war, the Colossus team was instructed to destroy all their work to ensure that Colossus remained a closely guarded secret.

This original valve heater transformer now being transferred to the Science Museum is therefore unique. A replica of Colossus has been reconstructed at Bletchley Park.

shows a giant yellow phone with a person climbing on top - it really works

Photo: it's a mobile phone, but not quite what you're expecting!

Head north to Milton Keynes, for a trip to the Milton Keynes Museum. This is an outdoor museum with an existing collection of telegraphs and telephones - in a few years it will have its own Connected Earth Gallery on the site.

Already on show is the famous BT Roadphone, the largest working telephone in the world; look out also for the classic 1952 GPO Morris Z type van.

shows some school children dressed in 1950's uniforms playing with old phone boxes

Photo: fun with phones at Avoncroft.

Not far from Birmingham at Bromsgrove is the biggest collection of telephone kiosks in the world, 25 in all, at the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings in Worcestershire.

The museum also houses three working telephone exchanges, while many of the kiosks are in working order and on most days visitors are welcome to ring each other – with a helping hand from volunteers on how to use the dial!

Used to push-buttons, children in particular find this fascinating, while many visitors are intrigued by the Dr Who Police Box.

shows the outside of Dr Who's police box

Photo: travel into a wormhole in space in Doctor Whos' rather special police box at Avoncroft.

shows two workers preparing the outside of an old phone box

Photo: getting ready for the new Connected Earth galleries at MSIM

At the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Connected Earth will form the core of new communications galleries in the historic 1830s warehouse on the site.

Telecommunications played a key role in the development of Manchester as a great industrial city and this will be explored in the galleries, due to open in 2004. Some telecommunications objects are already on view in the Museum’s open store.

shows Alison Taubman, curator of Connected Earth Gallery at Royal Museum, Edinburgh.

Photo: Alison Taubman is Connected Earth Curator at the Royal Museum.

In October 2003 the National Museums of Scotland will unveil the Connected Earth gallery in the Royal Museum, designed to engage visitors of all ages. A huge satellite marks the location of the gallery on the first floor.

The gallery explores the history of telecommunications from early telegraphs to the mobile phone through dramatic graphics and some 160 objects, including Scotland’s last manual switchboard from the Isle of Skye.

shows Alexander Graham Bell, inventer of the telephone, who was born in Edinburgh.

Photo: Alexander Graham Bell. I wonder what his phone bills were like?

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, born in Edinburgh, takes pride of place among the innovators. Try out your text-messaging skills in a new game built into the floor!

Although the BT Museum at Blackfriars in London closed in 1997, Connected Earth – the national telecommunications collection of thousands of artefacts - has now been transferred by BT to museum partners who will care for it in the future.

BT retains responsibility for the museum on the internet, www.connected-earth.com, with over two thousand web pages and a host of resources including games, movies and lots to see and do.

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