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Private enterprise

For forerunners in private enterprise of communications see the biographies of Edison, Sharples and Tasker.

Seal of the Electric Telegraph Company, formed June 1846

The telegraph companies : the telegraph scramble

The first telegraph enterprises were set up by William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in Britain in 1837 and by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail in America the following year.

It was hard going at first. None of the early lines made any profit and it took several years before business and governments began to see how useful the telegraph could be. But once the idea caught on, growth was explosive.

The 1850s saw a frantic scramble to build telegraph lines, with many new companies entering the business on both sides of the Atlantic.

The main factor fuelling the growth of the telegraph was customer demand - wealthy men and powerful organisations who were prepared to invest in the lines that would enable them to send messages further and faster.

So most of the early telegraph services were private ones - the idea of a public service accessible to all took much longer to develop.

Drawings contained in Bell's key patent, of March 7, 1876

Bell's winning hand (March 7, 1876) : US patent 174,465

Bell's patent, granted on March 7, 1876, has been called the most valuable in history. It shaped the fortunes of the early telephone businesses. Bell had patented the principles of the telephone - but with a transmitter that hardly worked.

Thomas Edison, backed by the Western Union Telegraph company, had developed a carbon-based transmitter that worked much better. But otherwise, his telephone was just like Bell's.

In America, the disputed patent was resolved in court and the Bell Telephone Company emerged victorious.

In Britain, the rival companies settled their differences to face a far more powerful threat - the Postmaster-General and his intention to bring all telephony under state licence.

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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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...