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Building telegraph networks

Tonbridge railway telegraph office, 1855

The railway telegraph system is built (1840s) : growing with the railways

The success of the electric telegraph on the Great Western Railway encouraged other railway companies to take up the idea. The new system soon paid for itself in cost savings as C.V. Walker, telegraph superintendent of the South Eastern Railway, explained in 1850:

'The cost of maintaining and working a single pilot engine (all of which have been superseded by the telegraph) amounted to a greater sum than is now required to defray the expense of the entire staff of telegraph clerks and the mechanics and labourers employed in cleaning and repairing the instruments and maintaining the integrity of the lone wires.'

A year later (the year of the Great Exhibition) the chief engineer of the London & North Western Railway company wrote that the telegraph had proved its worth by extending the capacity of the railway 'in an incalculable degree'.

From now on there was no stopping the spread of the telegraph on railways.

It was the railway companies who formed the first customers for the new technology of the telegraph. But even they needed some persuasion.

Cooke and Wheatstone's original interest came from Robert Stephenson's London and Birmingham Railway, but following trials it went cold on the idea of introducing telegraph onto its network. It took almost two more years before the Great Western decided to fund a trial telegraph from Paddington to West Drayton. But when Cooke and Wheatstone suggested extending the line to Slough, the GWR seemed to lose interest. As a result Cooke offered to run the line - even though he was almost bankrupt.

Although the telegraph was useful to the railways, it wasn't long before they developed their own dedicated systems for signalling and controlling the trains. This left the message telegraph to be mainly used for administration and passenger services.

Lines alonside a canal - from 'The Post Office 1934

Competing for wayleaves : the right to erect a pole

The first telegraph wires were laid underground but the standard practice soon became to hang them from insulators on telegraph poles. Erecting a pole route needed a continuous strip of land between the points to be linked and none of the telegraph companies owned land of this kind - nor did they want to.

Instead they made agreements with other landowners and obtained rights (normally exclusive) to erect poles. These agreements were known as 'wayleaves'. The early telegraph lines had followed the railway tracks and the Electric & International Telegraph Company made good use of these routes. Its chief rival, the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company, had no such facilities and instead was forced to use canal towpaths. Poles could also be erected alongside public highways or on private land but this called for extensive and lengthy negotiations with a multitude of authorities and landowners.

The early telegraph network developed mostly along the railway lines.

At first, it was the contracts with the railway companies that kept the telegraph companies going. The Electric Telegraph Company, the first of these companies, soon developed so many agreements with the railways that its rivals were forced to use the roads and canals for their routes.

In the cities the companies needed to be ingenious. Some wires were buried underground but this was expensive. In 1858, telegraph entrepreneurs hit on the idea of paying homeowners for 'wayleaves' and then running his wires over the top of their roofs.

By the following year, Charles Dickens reported there were already 160 miles of telegraph wire running over the rooftops of London.

The Central Telegraph Station soon outgrew its Lothbury premises, and moved to these larger premises in Telegraph Street

The first commercial public telegraph (1840) : a message from Queen Victoria

The growth of Britain's telegraphic network was extremely rapid, matching the growth of railways in the 1840s. The first commercial public telegraph line ran between London and Gosport, near Portsmouth. It opened in February 1845 with a transmission of a speech by Queen Victoria. Within ten years, most of the main cities of Britain were connected by telegraph.

In 1846 William Cooke joined a new partner, the member of Parliament John Lewis Ricardo, to set up the Electric Telegraph Company.

Within three years, the ETC had opened the world's first central telegraph station in the City of London. This was to become world famous as the Central Telegraph Office. The same year, 1849, the ETC gained a rival, the British Electric Telegraph Company. A new era of commercial competition had opened in the field of telecommunications.

Telegraph prices poster

The network grows (1848) : an explosion of possibilities

By the end of 1848, about ten years after the first telegraph demonstration, the telegraph lines covered over 1,800 miles of Britain's infant railway network - about half the rail lines in service.

Within 25 years, Britain was connected to 650,000 miles of telegraph wire and 30,000 miles of submarine cable. More than 20,000 towns and villages were part of the UK network.

In 1848 it took around ten weeks to send a message from London to Bombay and get a reply. By 1874 it could be done in four minutes.

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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.

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