Skip to main content

Pressures to centralise

Telephone Act 1868

The Strategic Motive (1854) : fears in high places

The Crimean War (1854-1856) first brought home to the British Government how important the telegraph had become as a strategic national asset.

By the 1860s the telegraph had become a vital channel of national and international communication serving Government, industry and commerce - particularly the City of London.

Politicians and administrators realised it would have a disastrous effect on Britain and Empire should the telegraph fail for any reason.

This was the prime motive for the Telegraph Acts of 1863-1869. The same motives were reawakened when wireless arrived at the start of the 2Oth century, with Marconi also operating under Post Office licence.

Wartime operators poster

Telecommunications - strategic technologies : the technologies of victory

As the 20th century progressed, so telecommunications became more closely interwoven into the strategy and tactics of war.

In the First World War it was wireless, the telegraph and the field telephone that gave armies their orders and brought fleets to battle.

By the Second World War the technologies of radiotelephone, radar, radio navigation and many others made the difference between success and failure in battle.

For instance, if Britain had not developed television in the 1930s, it would not have had the capacity to manufacture the cathode ray tubes that were at the heart of radar - and might therefore have lost the air battle in 1940.

During the 1930s governments began to see that factories manufacturing valves, resistors, magnetrons and other electronic components would become vital parts of the war effort.

This only reinforced the desire to maintain control over telecommunications - a desire that persisted during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s.

Carpenter Relay Collection

Carpenter high-speed relay

Making the telecommunications system quicker relied on high-speed switches to handle the rapid transfer of data, which were installed as components in equipment as well as in the network itself.

Switching technology was accelerated by the telecommunications industry but during the Second World War the electronic speed generated by super-fast switches was perfect for the science of rocket building.

Germany led the world in weapons development and they chose the Carpenter relay to be used in the devastating V1 'doodlebug' rockets that rained on London during the dark days of the blitz. Apparently the manufacturer kept scrupulous records of all the deck-of-card sized relays used so that the patent royalties could be paid to Carpenter at the end of the war.

Wall telephone, Johnson's transmitter (Sheffield)

The competitive model (1880) : rival telephone companies

When telephones were established in Britain, two rival organisations, The Telephone Company Ltd (Bell's Patents) and the Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd, dominated the London market. They owned the patents for the telephone technologies, which made it hard for anyone else to enter the business.

Other competitors emerged at various times - most notably the London and Globe, which set up a rival business using new technology, cheaper prices and an unorthodox approach that challenged the leaders both financially and competitively. Most of the other companies that emerged in other parts of Britain - were 'franchise' businesses operating under commercial license.

The Telephone Company had the better receiver; Edison the better transmitter. In 1880, the two companies decided to join forces, as the United Telephone Company. By this stage, the UTC was also operating under licence from The Post Office, which had successfully argued in the courts that the telephone was a form of telegraph and therefore fell under its control.

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...