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International networks

Inaugural England to France telephone call, 1 April 1891

The first submarine telephone cable (1891) : the first Channel link

In 1891 The General Post Office's original cable ship, H.M.T.S. Monarch (the first of several cable ships of that name), laid the first submarine telephone cable between England and France, enabling telephone conversations between specially equipped booths in London and Paris.

The London-Paris telephone service was inaugurated in April of that year and was controlled and worked from the Central Telegraph Office in London.

Cartoon suggesting US to UK telephone link, c1880

The first transatlantic telephone calls (1915) : across the Atlantic

Achieving telephone communication across the Atlantic was not as simple as just laying a cable. The voltages involved in telephone calls were too low to be passed though such a long cable and there was no known technology for repeater amplifiers that would work underwater. It required the invention of wireless to provide telephone links across the oceans.

Bell System engineers achieved the first voice transmission across the Atlantic, connecting Virginia and Paris briefly in 1915. A year later they held the first two-way conversation with a ship at sea. However, these were just experimental demonstrations.

CAT 10 radio transmitter valve - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the British Vintage Wireless Society collection

First public transatlantic phone service (1927) : 'New York, please, operator...'

It took 50 years from the invention of the telephone to make transatlantic phone calls.

In 1926 Bell Laboratories and the British Post Office engineered the first two-way conversation across the Atlantic.

On January 7, 1927, a commercial telephone service (using radio) began between New York and London. Over the next few years the service spread throughout North America and Europe.

International operators, 1940s

International Direct Dialling (1963) : around the world by telephone

It was almost 100 years from the birth of the telephone before users were able to dial direct to other countries. International Direct Dialling (IDD) was first introduced in the UK in 1963, between London and Paris. The next year, IDD was extended to Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. By that time, the range of IDD destinations covered most of Western Europe.

Dialling direct to the USA didn't arrive until 1970 (London-New York), again extended the following year to the major British centres and almost the whole of the mainland USA. By 1980 IDD was available to over 90% of UK phone customers and reached over 87 overseas countries.

Now, there are very few overseas phone calls that have to be placed via an operator. Meanwhile, the cost of calling overseas has tumbled. In 1966 it cost around £3 to call New York for three minutes - equivalent to around £5 per minute in today's prices. The current rate is around 4p per minute.

International Direct Dialling : ...keeping in touch

An advert made in the 1980s to inform customers about the International Direct Dialling service.

Compared to the bother of dialling through the operator for an international call and sometimes having to wait for them to get back in touch when lines were available - International Direct Dialling was a wonderful benefit to business and families across the ocean.

International Direct Dialing

Grandpa: Well love, what shall we do now? It's still early.

Grandma: George, come on, it's nearly time.

Teacher: There you go Billy.

Grandpa: Go on then, you've been itching to do it all night.

Narrator: When you've got a phone miles don't matter at all.

Billy: Hi Grandma.

Grandma: Happy birthday, darling.

Grandpa: We said we'd call at our usual time, didn't we? Happy birthday Billy.

Narrator: And it doesn't cost much to keep in touch.

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...