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Britain and empire

Cable and Wireless publicity leaflet

The Imperial imperative : jewel in the crown

Britain's pioneering role in exploiting the electric telegraph coincided with its new Imperial destiny, covering India, Canada, Australasia and much of Africa.

The telegraph was both the embodiment of British technical leadership and one of the sinews of Empire. Then came wireless and the picture became cloudy.

By the late 1920s radio was threatening to make undersea cables obsolete (the security and traffic capacity shortcomings didn't become apparent until later).

The British government was prepared to do anything to prevent the nightmare of its Imperial communications system unravelling with the cable companies.

Its final solution was well judged. By bundling together all the old overseas cable companies with the new wireless operators into a single company - which became known as Cable & Wireless - and taking a controlling stake in the new enterprise, Britain secured its overseas telegraph links - and created a company well equipped to compete in the global telecommunications market after the Second World War.

International radio communications motif - from 'The Post Office and Empire Communications

Marconi and the Beam System (1897) : a network for the Empire

The company that Guglielmo Marconi founded in 1897 did more than build the first radios. It also operated them. After all, the technology was so new there was no one else who could work it. Later, Marconi set up long-range radio services with the vision of providing a network for the Empire.

This culminated in the famous Beam System - short-wave directional transmissions that would provide high capacity connections. The Beam System was set up from 1924 and within four years proved such a threat to the Empire's cable interests that Cable & Wireless was formed to bring together the British-based cable companies and the Beam Radio telegraphs.

Cable and Wireless poster

The birth of Cable & Wireless (1928) : an imperial emergency

The creation of Cable & Wireless was a classic piece of British extemporisation - a quick fix to a looming imperial crisis.

In 1928, with radio competition increasingly damaging the old cable services, the Imperial Wireless & Cable Conference was convened to find a solution.

After many meetings it was proposed that the overseas cable companies should merge with the Marconi and Post Office radio telegraphs to form one system. Initially the merged communications company was called 'Imperial and International Communications Ltd' but in 1934 the name was changed to Cable & Wireless Limited.

From then on, use of radio developed smoothly in tandem with cables. Today both have their place in the telecommunications mix - but with cables becoming ever more important as the amount of traffic grows and radio links increasingly become satellite links.

Post Office Cable and Wireless poster (PRD759) - held by the BT Archives

Cable & Wireless nationalised (1946) : the overseas giant

Although largely an overseas operation, Cable & Wireless had many operations based in Britain. In 1946, despite the company's protests, it was nationalised and its domestic operations were handed over to the Post Office. After that, the split was complete, with the Post Office handling all domestic telecommunications and Cable & Wireless carrying much of Britain's overseas telegraph traffic.

However, Cable & Wireless was more than a provider of links. It also developed and ran the telecommunications networks of many of Britain's colonies - and continued to do so long after the Empire faded away. By the mid-1950s, it was one of the biggest telecommunications carriers in the world, with 150,000 miles of submarine cable and 200,000 miles of wireless circuits.

Cable & Wireless's long history as a private company made it an obvious candidate for privatisation when the first Thatcher government took office in 1979. Cable & Wireless was privatised in 1981 - three years before BT.

Family tree : 1846 to 2001

Family tree : 1846 to 2001

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.

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