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Living in a wired world

Telecommunications - along wires or through the airwaves - eliminated the barriers of time and distance in communication. These technologies have progressively transformed our lives, changing the ways in which we live, work and play. But to benefit from each new technology, we've needed to adapt.

A genuine miracle
Our perspective on technology is constantly shifting. What was seen as a 'miracle' by parents becomes taken for granted by their children.

As devices evolve they tend to become easier and simpler to operate and yet provide more functions.

In the end, users stop thinking about the technology altogether - only what they can do with it.
Fulfilling real needs
It's easy to be carried away by technology for its own sake - the gee-whiz factor. Technology alone is all but useless. How much would you pay for a telephone with no connections?

It's the application - what you can do with it - that matters.

Here we examine how people learned to apply the new telecommunications technologies over the decades.
Using the technology
Techno fear is not a myth - getting to grips with new technology can be a struggle. Many highly intelligent people have difficulty programming a video recorder - because their logic is more advanced than a machine's.

Using a normal telephone or fax seems straightforward enough but many people are less confident when it comes to unravelling the mysteries of stored contact lists, text messaging and other functions on highly featured mobiles.

Through the history of telecommunications, from the telegraph onwards, design has focused on making the machine easy to use.

Living in the telegraph age

The arrival of the electric telegraph in 1837 created a new reality: messages transmitted very quickly and reliably over distances farther than a man could see. As the networks grew the distances became greater and greater, linking towns, then countries and finally continents. Within 30 years the telegraph had transformed business, commerce, government and society. But the impact on ordinary lives was subtler.

Using the telegraph
Many developments in Victorian times transformed people's lives directly - train travel, better sanitation and cheaper food.

By comparison, the telegraph had no direct bearing on the average Victorian's life - it was a tool that was unseen and unused by all but the very few for whom it formed part of their work.

For personal communication, most people used the penny post and their information came from newspapers.

Nonetheless the telegraph had a profound indirect effect. It speeded up commerce, encouraged international trade, improved government and diplomatic relations - and thus transformed whole societies.
Fax
Fax is short for Facsimile - the ability to send an image (a replica of a piece of paper) - down a line. It seems like a sophisticated telecommunications technology and people think of it as quite recent - an invention of the 1970s or 1980s.

In fact, it's one of the oldest - an offshoot of the chemical telegraph invented by Alexander Bain in 1843. The reason fax took such a long time to develop is that the machinery to use the technology wasn't really there at first. So the experience of actually sending or receiving a fax has changed most radically of all.

Living with the telephone

The telephone was the telecommunication device that defined the 20th century - one that made the biggest impact on ordinary lives. People's perception of the telephone transformed from an object of mystique to an everyday tool of modern life. In the end, it became impossible to imagine life without one.

First encounters
Promoting the telephone was a real challenge at first - what would people use it for and whom would they call?

The social conventions of the time meant that people were reluctant to call each other at home 'unannounced'.

The equipment was also very expensive, so at first the telephone was adopted mainly for business use. Many of the early telephones were established as point-to-point circuits between business premises and were not connected to the main network.
The telephone becomes universal
In trade and commerce the telephone was universal by the time of the First World War (1914-1918) but private subscribers were still a minority.

During the war, more people came into contact with field telephones in Flanders and elsewhere and so became 'telephone minded'.

After the war, the cost of a telephone at home was still out of reach for many people but the fast-growing number of payphones meant the service was at least available to all in an emergency.
Telephone-impact on everyday life
The telephone had become the stuff of everyday life well before the Second World War - at least for some Britons.

But in 1945 there were about 4 telephone lines per 100 of the population including business lines. That was to change rapidly in the next three decades. The telephone was about to come out of the parlour and into the kitchen...

Living on the network

Using a telephone is only partly shaped by what the instrument itself is like. Much more it's about what happens when you lift the receiver. Who is on the other end - and how do you reach them? That part of the experience has changed out of all recognition since the early days.

Using phone services
There are always at least two layers of telephone conversation. The first is the one you have with the people you're calling - the second is the one you have with the people operating the network.

In the early days all calls went through an operator. Nowadays it is more machine driven, with humans available to help when needed

And it wasn't long before dealing with the network became a more varied affair, as telephone companies worked out that the quickest way to make money was to develop new types of telephone service.
The network expands
The telephone came to people more than they came to the telephone. The initial priority of the GPO in the 19th century was to extend the telegraph to every village. This was the ABC system and took more than 30 years to put in place.

So it wasn't until the 1920s and 1930s that the telephone network began to expand from the metropolitan areas into the suburbs, then the villages and eventually the countryside.
Payphones
For decades the telephone kiosk - or telephone box as it soon became known - was not so much the telephone you used when you were out and about. For people who didn't have their own telephones at home - in other words, most people - the kiosk was their only path to the telephone.

The telephone box, with its distinctive design, soon became as much a symbol of Britain as Big Ben or the red double-decker London bus.

During its long life the telephone box has been loved and hated in more or less equal measure.
Telephones in emergencies
The telephone has been a lifesaver from the outset. For the first time people at risk in homes or offices were able to call for help without having to run out to the street.

Before too long, special networks and services were put in place to ensure that emergency calls could always get through.
Telephones and privacy
Another constant theme of life with the telephone is stopping the thing from ruling your life.

From the outset, people have gone to various lengths to find ways of not answering the telephone.

The only difference between then and now is that modern ways are more sophisticated than just letting it ring or leaving it off the hook.

Living in the wireless age

The arrival of wireless meant the end of isolation for those in remote areas - on land and sea. At first the effect was potential - only seen in cases of real disaster and emergency. But as time went by, wireless began to reach more and more people - in ways that its inventors did not expect.

Initial impact of wireless
The wireless first impacted on the lives of professionals - mainly those whose lives were connected with the sea. It only took a few interventions by Marconi's new device for its potential value and effects to become clear to the whole world.
Wireless
For the vast majority of people, 'wireless' meant broadcasting.

The newfangled box in the living room opened new worlds for millions of families as news, views, drama, music and comedy were for the first time all brought into the home.

The craze for 'listening in' began, starting a revolution in shared experiences that embraced the whole of society...

Living in the satellite age

The Space Age dawned in 1944 when Germany's V-2 rocket reached the edge of the atmosphere. The following year, Arthur C. Clarke envisaged a string of satellites orbiting Earth, allowing television broadcasts and telephone calls to be bounced around the world. Within 20 years the dream became reality, bringing the whole world's information, entertainment and communication within our reach. Telecommunications - along wires or through the airwaves - eliminated the barriers of time and distance in communication.

These technologies have progressively transformed our lives, changing the ways in which we live, work and play. But to benefit from each new technology, we've needed to adapt.

First encounters
The world was startled one day in 1957 when the media reported the launch of the first artificial satellite.

What was even more surprising was that the little beeping object orbiting Earth was not American - but Russian.

Rather lost in the Cold War hysteria was the fact that this was the start of a new age - the Satellite Age.
Satellite broadcasting begins
In 1975 NASA demonstrated that inexpensive satellite television could provide mass education and entertainment in developing countries. Transmissions aimed at India were received by enthusiasts in the UK.

The world's first home satellite receiver was built by hobbyist Steve Birkill, then working at BBC TV's Holme Moss transmitter station. The second was built by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka and the third - not until 1978 - by an American, Bob Cooper.

Living on the move

Wireless, telephone and microchip technology came together in the mid 1980s to make personal radiotelephones technical reality. The cord was cut, people were now contactable anywhere. Soon phones could be personalised, even down to the fascia and ring tone - and begin accessing a whole spectrum of new services. Affordability was the last piece in the puzzle - extending mobiles to every pocket and age range to complete a minor social revolution.

Adapting to mobile phones
The first mobile phones looked like bricks and mainly sold to Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals - the 'yuppies' of the mid eighties who needed to be constantly in touch - or perhaps prentend they wanted to be.

But as more manufacturers entered the market - particularly Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and NEC - prices began to fall. With the move to digital phones (GSM) in the early 1990s, reliability and reach also improved - while the telephones became ever lighter, smaller and sleeker.

Falling prices and 'pay-as-you-go' options brought mobiles within reach of new consumer groups; ordinary people who wanted a mobile for everyday needs - women and, from the late 1990s, teenagers and schoolchildren too - the latter now a huge proportion of an ever growing market.
The mobile in society
The arrival of mobiles has brought telephone conversations into a range of different settings and situations - not always happily.

People can and do make and receive calls from places they would never have dreamed of before: in restaurants, museums, cars, buses, trains, shops and while walking in the street.

Sometimes that has aroused resentment among others upset at having previously quiet spaces invaded by chirruping ring tones and loud one-sided conversations. It has led to some UK railway networks offering its customers' designated quite areas where the use of a mobile phone is not permitted.
Mobile health and safety
There have been fears about the amount of microwave radiation emitted, both by the mobiles themselves and their transmitters. So are mobile phones safe?

Nobody really knows the answer to this question and it has been the subject of fierce debate for many years.

There is currently no definitive scientific evidence to suggest that mobile phones pose a risk to health - although some studies have raised concerns.

A far more proven safety problem with mobiles is that the temptation to make calls on the move can lead people into trouble, particularly when driving.

Living in the information age

The fusion of computers, telephone networks and harmonised data protocols enabled the creation of the World Wide Web. The Internet represents a global information and communication resource for everybody, universally accessible from any point in an infinitely expandable network. It has transformed computers into communications devices and given birth to the Information Economy.

The growth of the Internet
Today the Information Superhighway or Infobahn are no more than rather dated terms used for describing the Internet.

'Dated' in the Internet Age means anything that was said much more than a couple of years ago. Here, it means January 11, 1994, and US Vice-President Al Gore coining the phrase.

Around the time Mr Gore made that speech there were just over 2 million computers connected to the net. Within six years there would be well over 70 million computers with Web addresses.
The Internet becomes accessible
For practical purposes, the 'early days' of the World Wide Web were around the start of the 1990s. It was at that time that the Internet evolved to make it possible for anyone to use it without needing specialised knowledge.

Before that people had still been using their computers to communicate with others - but in ways that seem laughably primitive and cumbersome today.
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.

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