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Into the digital era

The dawn of the digital age began in World War Two with the invention of secret computers to break German codes. More generally, the war inspired huge advances in electronics on both sides of the Atlantic. By the end of the 1940s, it was clear that the future belonged to computers.

It was the telecommunications industry that had provided the bulk of the components and expertise from which the first computers were assembled. In the end, the favour was returned because it was in telecommunications that the new computers were able to make their biggest early impacts.

The computer age dawns : the secret pioneers
Some of the boldest early steps into the computer age were taken in Britain. Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, did his main work at Cambridge University before joining the team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes.
An electronic future : generation two ...
By the 1950s the new generation of computers had already made the first machines look primitive.

Solid-state electronics, based on transistors and silicon, were beginning to replace bulky and fragile glowing valves of the 1940s.

The future of telephone switching no longer belonged to mechanics and electromagnetism - but to electronics and digital pulses. Realising this was one thing - making the transition was quite another.

Digital telephony

The late 1960s saw the start of the move from the old mechanical exchanges with their noisy banks of selectors, switch arms and electromagnets, to the electronic exchanges of the future - silent, compact and far more capable. In the process something else was created - switching that had logic that could be programmed and memory. Machine intelligence had arrived on the telephone network.

Digital switching
By the end of the 1960s the technology for digital switching had been tried and proven. The Post Office was ready to transform Britain's telephone network from analogue into digital based on electronics and binary data transmission.

This would turn out to be one of the biggest and most ambitious investment projects in its history - and would make Britain's telecomms network into one of the most advanced in the world.
Smarter phones
The switch to electronic and digital networks coincided with two other trends in technology - the miniaturisation of devices and the tumbling cost of processing.

As networks were getting smarter, so too were the phones and other devices being attached to those networks.

Before long, telephone users were able to do a range of things they'd never been able to before.
Video from the phone
Television proved it was possible to send moving pictures along wires. This raised the further possibility of what had always sounded like a great idea - videophones on which callers could see as well as talk to each other. But there were some problems with that vision.

There was a technical problem. Television pictures carry a lot of signal information - more than ordinary phone lines can accommodate.

There was a human issue, too. The truth is that people don't always want to be seen on the phone. But it took the pioneers of videophones a little while to learn that lesson.

Computer Networks

One computer is a computer. Two or more connected and able to exchange data, make a network. Allowing computers to talk to each was one of the great technological challenges of the late 20th century.

Into the networked age
Before the Internet came about there were other solutions to the need for data exchange and computer networking.

At various stages, these solutions were hailed as 'the future'.
The growth of e-mail
The Internet delivered e-mail - that other great social and business phenomenon of the last few years.

Since the late 1990s e-mail has started to reach every area of our lives, transforming the way we organise our work and social time.

Up to 50 million people are using e-mail worldwide. Not all that many yet, but the number is still doubling every two years. The growth of e-mail traffic has been even more rapid. There were around 2,000 million e-mails sent during 1998. By 2001 the annual traffic had grown six fold to around 12 billion - and it's still increasing at about 50 per cent a year.
Development of the Internet
The Internet didn't just happen overnight - rather it was the end result of a search that had been in place since the late 1950s.

By the time the world started to get online in the mid 1990s, the Net had been almost 40 years in the making.

Take a look at our free and exciting secondary education learning resource for a more detailed history of the Internet.

The Digital Age

Convergence doesn't just mean telephones meeting computers on the Internet - it also means digital and Internet-based technologies impacting on every aspect of communication. Everything is digital now, including our old friends television and radio. The old waveforms are being replaced by digital streams of ones and zeros that do all the old things - but faster, cheaper and better.

Convergence means technologies becoming more and more similar to each other. This means that something carried over one medium can potentially be carried by any of them.

A film, a television or radio programme, a song, a message - they're all different - yet in essence all the same - they can all be reduced to a stream of ones and zeros and pumped down the line (or over the airwaves).

This revolution is still in its infancy so it's difficult to say where it might be taking us. But it is possible to trace some of the milestones passed so far.
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...