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The telecommunications breakthrough

Illustration of a steam train

The first passenger railways (1825) : they travel at over 30 miles per hour!

The opening of the Stockton-Darlington Railway in 1825 marked a new era in communications.

For the first time, people could travel faster than a galloping horse. Within five years, Stephenson's 'Rocket' was pulling small trains at over 30 mph. It was feared that the human body would melt at such speeds.


Steam train derailed by flooding

Controlling the railways : the train is coming, whom can we tell?

The early railways faced an immediate problem - how to control the movement of trains and ensure the safety of passengers and the public.

The trouble was that the trains could travel faster than the quickest means of delivering a message to the next station or to the other end of the line.

The solutions to overcome this included someone walking in front of the train with a red flag, but this obviously reduced the effectiveness of the train.

What was needed was a device to take the message faster still over long distances to tell people the train was coming - or not. On some lines they used semaphore signals to contact the trains. This worked fine during the day and provided it was not foggy or raining heavily. But something more was needed to allow the stations to keep in touch with each other.

Galvani electrical experiment using frogs leg, 18th Century

18th century science : the Age of Reason

By the end of the 18th century, many of the basic building blocks of our modern knowledge were in place, although some of the radical advances in physics, particularly with electricity, were yet to come. The most startling advances of the previous 30 years had been in the physical sciences of magnetism and the chemistry of metals and electrolytes.

There had also been huge advances in the sciences of agriculture, which meant farms could produce more food with fewer people. This allowed the huge shifts of populations to the cities that were needed to fuel the Industrial Revolution.

See also:

Pavel Lvovich Schilling

Hans Christian Oersted

William Sturgeon

Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801 by Philipe J de Loutherbourg

The Industrial Revolution : the factory system

The Industrial Revolution that started in Britain around 1780 brought together steam power, iron working, machinery, transport and factories to create mass production.

The factory system was a new way of working - with people specialising in defined tasks brought together in centres of production. It was based on the use of machine tools - and that meant standardised components could be produced very cheaply and with great precision. Each of these components would fit straight into the machine of which it was a part - because the whole thing had been designed for mass production as a series of parts.

This paved the way for telecommunications based on cheap but reliable devices such as telegraph senders and receivers.

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...