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Using the telegraph

Telegraph Co offices listed on Share dealing Telegram, 1860s

Why people used the telegraph : 'keeping it strictly business' - almost

Britain's first working telegraph line, from Paddington to Slough was licensed to a businessman, Thomas Horne, who promoted it as a 'marvel of science'.

In 1844, the line made headlines when it was used to transmit news of the birth of Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Albert, to London. But it was several years before people outside the railways began to understand the uses of the new device.

Telegraph use really took off in Britain after the Great Exhibition of 1851, when 13 new designs of telegraph instrument were exhibited.

Within three years, the network was carrying many thousands of messages a week. About half were related to the stock and commodity prices, a further third were business related and about one in seven were to do with personal or family matters.

Pneumatic counter despatch tube, CTO, London, 1932

The telegraph in the City : solving telegraph congestion

By the 1850s telegraph services were becoming hopelessly congested, just as the Internet sometimes is today.

Messages were taking hours - sometimes more than a day - to travel a few hundred yards between the high-traffic destinations of Fleet Street, where newspapers were written, and the City, the financial hub of London.

The solution was a pneumatic tube system, carrying messages in sealed carriers. The first system was installed between the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) and the Stock Exchange.

By the mid 1860s similar systems were operating in every major city of the world. By 1875 the CTO in London had 450 telegraphic instruments on three floors, linked by 68 pneumatic tubes to form a highly developed system.

A message from, say, Holborn, London to Piccadilly, Manchester would be handed in at the local telegraph office, sent down a tube to the Metropolitan Floor of the CTO, passed from there by tube to 'Provincial', transmitted by inter-city telegraph to Manchester, passed by tube to the destination branch office and finally delivered by messenger. The whole process could take as little as 20 minutes.

Charles Wheatstone's ABC system

The private telegraph (1858) : as easy as ABC

Charles Wheatstone's ABC system, patented in 1858, was one form of telegraph that needed no real training to operate. Sending a message just meant pressing a button next to each letter, then turning a handle until it hit the stop. Another dial on the machine would show letters of the message being sent to you.

It wasn't particularly fast (about 15 words per minute) but it was simple. The ABC telegraph or 'Communicator' was used on private lines where the owner or his servant would operate the machine. It also formed the basis for telegram services to many village post offices.

Hughes Telegraph - Connected Earth artefact, now at Amberley Working Museum

Hughes type-printing telegraph (1890s) : spelling out the news from abroad

The Hughes telegraph revolutionised telegraphy when it allowed messages to be sent as text rather than Morse Code, in 1855.

This is a model from later in the 19th century, which was used extensively by the Post Office. It was a complex system that demanded a high degree of skill from its operators to function properly. It wasn't used so much within the internal British network, but was widely employed for communicating with continental Europe.

Double needle telegraph - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester

Double needle telegraph (1840s) : two for the price of one

Timely warning of train movements was essential for the safe operation of a railway and this double needle telegraph was designed to fulfill these needs on a Lancashire railway during the mid 1840s

Stamped across the face of the instrument are a range of letters and names. The names list the four stations on the railway line and were used to notify train movements. The letters spelt out important messages.

The double needle machines needed more skill to operate than the five-needle, so one member of staff would be specially appointed to master its operation.

Reuters radio, news transmission, 85 Fleet St, London, c1959

Reuters (1851) : the early bird catches the worm

Reuters was created by founder Paul Reuter in 1851 to deliver news and information, specialising in financial data, using the fastest available means, ranging from pigeon post to express trains.

The company rose to prominence by making use of the telegraph system, particularly bringing news into London via the Dover-Calais submarine telegraph cable. The company sealed its reputation by being the first to deliver the news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Since then Reuters has developed a reputation of being first with the news. This was consistently proved with notable 'scoops', which included the details of the Armistice agreement that ended the First World War in 1918, Khrushchev denouncing Stalin in 1956, and both the construction and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Reuters has also pioneered new technology to deliver stories rapidly including the use of computers, video screens, television, wireless and the Internet.

The different ABC telegraphs : keeping in contact more simply

The Different ABC telegraphs
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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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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.

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Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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