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Building the networks

Telegraph, telephone, wireless and mobile: the story of how the various communication networks were constructed over the last two hundred years or so.

Impact on the environment
Telecommunications is a relatively clean and discreet industry that creates very few emissions or pollution and uses few non-renewable resources. But it's not to say it has no environmental impact - it has.

Running cables and wires from place to place, or sending signals between towers, dishes and aerials has an impact on the landscape. If you try to route it all underground, that creates an impact too - every time you need to lay or repair a cable.
Wires over the ground
The easiest and cheapest way to construct a wired telecommunication network is to string the wires up over the ground, suspending them from poles.

It looks basic but that's not to say that there's no expertise and technology involved.

It's a lot more complicated and involved than it looks ...
Laying underground cables
A telecommunications operator can reduce the visual intrusion of its network by laying all cables underground. Nothing could be simpler...

Generally, only up to a point. It's expensive to bury cables underground - and very difficult to reach them for repair, maintenance and replacement once they're there. Also, laying cables underground is quite an involved and complex business.
Laying submarine cables
The difficulties of laying a cable network on land pale into insignificance compared with those involved in laying cable under the sea.

The main problems are in surveying the route beforehand - finding a nice flat stretch of seabed - and also in paying out miles of cable without it snapping. Then you have the problem of making sure the cable remains working thousands of feet underwater - and repairing it if it goes wrong.

Specialised techniques and cable laying ships are a must ...
What is behind your tv
You might think that televisions signals are transmitted exclusively over the airwaves - but that's not so. In fact, transmission from a tower is only the last link in the chain - and even that is changing as television becomes digital and distributed in different ways.

Throughout television history there has always been a large and hidden distribution network - a 'secret' infrastructure of feed points, cables, microwave and satellite links that covers the whole country and circles the globe. For years, this 'hidden' network was only really known to network and broadcast engineers ...

Keeping the network running

'We are not interested in the possibilities of failure - they do not exist,' Queen Victoria once said.

There are possibilities of failure in a telecommunications network, yet the network cannot be allowed to fail - it's too important. So it has to be made failure-proof.

The resilient network
Building a network that can withstand damage, disaster and technical failure is one of the biggest engineering challenges in telecommunications.

It means concentrating on 'resilience' - in other words, designing systems that are hardened against accident and damage - and therefore less likely to fail.

It also means incorporating 'redundancy' - an extra back-up that can fill the gap if anything does go wrong.
A network at war
Extraordinary efforts and stratagems are needed to keep the vital telecomm structure operational and resilient in wartime.

This was never truer than during the Second World War when Britain was under intense aerial bombardment for almost five years. Afterwards, the Cold War planners had to look at what would be needed to keep communications working in the wake of a nuclear strike.
How the network looked
The look of the network has changed radically over the decades.

In the beginning, when private companies were providing telegraph and telephone services, there was no recognisable 'house style'.

That changed when the GPO took over from the 1890s. The Post Office years saw the development of staff uniforms and vehicle liveries that defined the look and feel of the network in Britain.

Since privatisation, that house style has changed again ...

Buildings and places

If you want to see the physical monument to the history of telecommunications in Britain, just look around you...

Telegraph, telephone and other networks have created some very distinctive and in some cases dramatic building designs, structures and architecture. The physical infrastructure is everywhere, even under your feet as you walk.

Telecom buildings
Telephone exchanges always stand out in any town. Partly, that's a function of their distinctive look - which reflects the equipment that they housed.

Just as the equipment was standardised, so were Britain's 6,000 telephone exchanges, with a standard 'house style' that was adopted for more than half a century. Exchanges were almost unique in this - even railway stations tended to look different from one place to the next.

Throughout the history of telecommunications, numerous other buildings have stood out as particularly significant architectural and historical milestones.
Street furniture
The heritage and architecture of telecoms is everywhere - even down to street level. The network is all around us, requiring special artefacts to house it, signpost it and provide access to it.

What do all those boxes, cabinets and covers actually do? This is where you can find out ...
Telephone kiosks
Britons have had a long love/hate relationship with the humble telephone box - or 'telephone kiosk' to give it the right name.

Everything about the kiosk has been controversial at some point in its 120-year history: the design, the colour, the material, the availability and the locations chosen. The controversy raging now, in the age of the mobile, is whether we still need them at all ...
fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...