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A genuine miracle

Arthur C. Clarke: team of US astronauts

Clarke's Third Law (1962) : 'it's a kind of magic'

In 1962 the science fiction writer and visionary Arthur C Clarke proposed three Laws. The Third Law stated:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

But that phenomenon can easily be a fleeting one - Prestel, for example, was hailed as 'the greatest invention since television' - a claim that sounds distinctly shop-worn now.

Early Bell Telephone supplied to Queen Victoria, 1877

Royal reaction (1878) : 'we are amused'

'My God, it talks!' exclaimed the Emperor of Brazil on being shown an early telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

Queen Victoria was equally impressed - though less volubly. Her Majesty was so delighted with the telephone demonstrated to her by Alexander Graham Bell at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight that she wanted to buy it there and then.

Bell explained that it was a just a prototype - and offered her a set made especially for royal use - a clever early exercise in 'product placement'. The promised 'instrument' was specially constructed and presented for her use later in 1878.

Messenger boy, 1937

Post Office reaction to the telephone : missing the big picture

William Preece was no fool when it came to recognising advanced technology. He introduced a pair of improved telephone instruments to Britain in 1877, when he was Chief Electrician at the Post Office, and would go on to play a large part in encouraging Marconi's development of wireless as Engineer-in-Chief.

Yet his perception of the potential market for telephones was simultaneously shrewd and short sighted.

In 1879 Preece thought the telephone would fail to replace telegrams and personal deliveries, because the supply of messenger boys in Victorian England was both cheap and plentiful. In the short term, he was right. The UK had highly developed and efficient postal and telegraph services, and particularly so in the major cities.

But Preece initially failed to see the different applications offered by the telephone - ones that telegram messengers could never match, although he revised his opinion as the telephone became more successful.

Telephone user (but not always) : Alf Sawkins

Alf Sawkins is a 56 year-old engineer who grew up in the centre of Birmingham. He married at the age of 23 and moved to the outskirts of the city, which is when he had his first telephone at home.

Telecommunications has altered his life and his work in a variety of ways since that first phone was installed.

He recalls how he and his family kept in touch before any of them had phones, and compares this with how his family relies on it today.

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Well most of it was written communications, letters and post cards from holidays and things. There were two telephone boxes within easy distance, but then again we had no-one to phone because none of the other part of the family had phones either. It's become a living part of me in my work and my private life because I've got two daughters who are now married and moved away, and wherever I am, if I'm not in the house, I'm always able to contact them and they're always able to contact me. It's become part of the family and I can't imagine being without it because communications are so easy and so essential to a good life. And as Bob Hoskins said, it's good to talk.

Telephone novice : Mrs Polly Shakeshaft

Mrs Polly Shakeshaft is 82 years old. She worked at a local branch of the fashion store C&A and first came in contact with a phone when it was thrust into her hand by a busy colleague. Unused to the device she ended up with the mouthpiece against her ear and couldn't hear a thing.

Her mother was similarly confused by the phone and Mrs Shakeshaft explains how she taught her mother to use a phone, with deafening results.

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The first time she ever needed to use it she wanted to ring a relative and so she asked me to go with her to show her how to use it and so we went into the phone box and I dialled the number for her and I handed her the phone and she started shouting at the top of her voice and nearly deafened me. I put my hands over my ears and I said 'Mummy you don't have to shout to make them hear, that's what the cord is for, and the connection'. But even so she still shouted. She thought she'd got to make her voice as loud as possible to go through the wires or whatever.

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...