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Earliest days

The first priority for any inventor is to find customers for his new invention. Early telecommunication entrepreneurs had to use their best business and social connections to get both investors and customers. Today we'd call it 'word-of-mouth marketing' - but in Victorian times they didn't think that way. This was a different age, with different language and expectations.

Selling the telegraph
The telegraph started with a captive audience - the railway companies. Once the railway companies' needs were met, the telegraph entrepreneurs started looking for new markets to conquer.
Promoting the telephone
The market for telephones was very different. Who actually needed to be able to talk over distances?

The idea of using a telephone for anything so frivolous as a chat was quite unthinkable in the 1870s. Besides, early telephones were priced to discourage casual use.

In the end, sweeping changes were needed in society before the telephone could really become universal.
Marketing wireless
Wireless virtually sold itself. The spectacular and astonishing feats of radio - from saving lives on sinking liners to tracking down criminals at sea - made the marketing of wireless functional - if you needed it, you bought it.

The way radio broadcasting was 'sold' was rather different. Nobody actually needed to listen to the radio - but people soon found they wanted to, as the quality of programmes improved. Once again, wireless sold itself - this time on the strength of its content.

The public service network

Ways in which the people running the networks talked to the people using them changed radically during the late 19th century. The transfer of the telegraph and the telephone systems to state control (between the years 1870 and 1912) led to a change in the whole tone and language of communications aimed at users and subscribers. In fact, most of the time, it wasn't really marketing at all.

The Post Office takeover
The Post Office takeover of the infant telephone network was greeted with relief at the time.

Many felt the private companies had made an unimpressive job of providing high quality and good value phone services and most Britons were not sorry to see the service taken over by the General Post Office (GPO).

With the change came new bodies charged with talking to telephone users - or 'subscribers' as they were called then.
The national network
By the 1930s, Britain had built itself a fully switched, long distance, national telephone network. The trunk was the core of long distance lines linking the major cities of Britain. The branches were the feeder lines that came off the network to supply individual exchanges.

The new network made it ever easier for people to call long distance. But phone users needed to be told the new capability was there.

The birth of marketing

After the First World War, telecommunication providers began to move to the modern era - one in which they were selling devices like the telephone and services like telegrams direct to the customer. For the Post Office, now in charge of almost all telecommunications in the UK, the first challenge was what to tell people about the telephone services it was providing. The second challenge was how much it should be persuading or helping the mass of the British people to get connected.

Selling the network
For more than 20 years, between the 1940s and 1960s, the Post Office was substantially restrained from promoting the telephone network. During this time it never tried very hard to sell the telephone service to new users.

There was a good reason for that. The truth was there weren't enough lines to go around and more people wanted a telephone than the GPO could supply. It was only once the supply problems had finally been addressed in the sixties and seventies that the telephone network could be sold aggressively again.
1930s - finding new users
During the years after the First World War, the telephone ceased to be a status symbol of the very rich. It reached out to include a new breed of users - Britain's middle classes - and was increasingly found in ordinary homes - becoming part of everyday life in towns, suburbs and rural villages all over the country.
The work of the GPO film unit
Before creativity was entrusted to advertising agencies, ideas were originated and derived in-house by gifted people working for the Post Office.

A particular hotbed of creative energy was the GPO Film Unit, one of the most remarkable creative institutions that Britain ever produced. The unit incorporated the contributions of acknowledged film-making and literary giants.

War and peace

Sometimes, the communications campaign has been driven by needs other than increasing usage and business. In war and in times of national crisis, there are other messages that need to be put across... where the needs of security or national welfare have to come first. This was what happened during the Second World War. And afterwards the change in British society meant that post-war communications campaigns were very different from what came before.

Wartime communications
Throughout the history of telecommunications, most efforts have been aimed at encouraging people to use the service more. But in wartime, different rules apply.

The demands of military security and national priorities meant they had to be urged to use the service less - and with more care.
Postwar marketing
Britain emerged from the Second World War as a world leader in telecommunications, electronics and computer technologies.

It looked as though the post-war era would be a brave new age of scientific progress and creature comforts. But the reality - austerity, rationing and economic crisis - proved a little different from the vision.

Hard sell

During the 1960s and 1970s the Post Office had to face more and more commercial realities - the need to keep the network growing, the need to increase the user base and, more importantly, the need to keep increasing traffic. The telephone service became increasingly seen as a business rather than a public service - and more and more driven by public demand, rather than Civil Service whim.

The swinging sixties
Britain went into the 1960s still in the black and white age, and came out in colour. That applied not just to TV, but to films, clothes, cars, furnishings and telephones. The 'hip' decade saw telephones come of age as a mass-market consumer device.

It also witnessed communications from the GPO, which reflected some of the youthful optimism of the decade.
Into the 1970s
The 1970s were not a happy time for Britain: mounting economic crisis, industrial unrest, social tensions and a general feeling of uncertainty and pessimism about the future.

This was reflected in the telecommunication business, hampered by Treasury spending limits on new investment at a time when demand was soaring.
Changing the mindset
The industry mindset changed as telecommunications were taken out of the hands of The Post Office and vested in British Telecom.

In 1980 Post Office Telecommunications was a government-owned 'public corporation'. By the 1990s BT was a mature global commercial company - one of the biggest of its kind in the world.

The new age

The 1980s saw everything change about telecommunications in Britain. The ownership changed - taken out of the Government's hands and into a privately owned company. The industry changed - becoming liberalised and competitive. The technology changed - from analogue to digital. The design of devices changed - becoming smaller and smarter. And the whole mindset changed - seeing telephone users no longer as captive 'subscribers' but as customers with a choice.

Blueprint for the 80s
In the old days telecommunication had no conscious image or 'branding'. Telephones and telegrams were services provided by the Post Office.

Yet they did possess brand value - people associated telephones with Post Office vans and call boxes along with an expectation of expertise built up over almost 100 years.

When the Post Office gave way to British Telecom, the new company had to redefine those values and expectations.
Creating a new brand
The look of BT changed twice in the 1980s. First there was the move from the old reds and greens of the 'classic' Post Office era to the bright yellow and blue of the 'British Telecom' decade.

At the same time, a small team within BT was working on a radical change of image - one built around a completely new idea of the company BT was aiming to become.
Pumping up the volume
Rebranding and redefining the new corporate image was only one half of the battle for BT. The new corporation now had competition for business on its networks. It needed to find new ways to speak to its customers and create new business on its networks.
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...