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Strategic implications of telecommunications

The All Red Route

Sinews of empire (1857) : ruling down the line

Britain's preeminence in telegraph construction was fuelled by a need to provide direct communication throughout its vast empire. Once the links were in place, central government in London could exercise greater control and rule over distant countries and the British could influence the hearts and minds of colonial subjects by providing up to date news, information and propaganda through local newspapers.

Each country's internal system provided the local commissioners and military commanders with a tool to quickly control local disturbances and subdue any dissent. Nowhere was this made more clear than during the 1857 Sepoy (Indian) Mutiny. Rapid communication by telegraph contributed to the successful British containment of the rebellion to a relatively small area of the subcontinent. John Lawrence, the Commissioner of the Punjab, pronounced 'the telegraph saved India'.

The Telephone on the Farm' GPO

Impact on rural communities : changing the rural perspective

The telegraph expanded along with the railway system, so if there wasn't a train station nearby, there wouldn't be a telegraph. However, following nationalisation of the telegraph in 1870, every Post Office in the country was linked to the network.

This put the new communication into the heart of thousands of local communities. Of course, not everyone had a post office near them, but for those who did, it provided a hotline to the urban centres. This was useful for summoning a doctor or fire engine - although realistically they might have been too far away to do anything useful by the time they arrived.

It would also have provided a steady drip of national information into areas which, until then, had only been interested in local communities. This would help change the nature of national identity forever.

Rugby Radio Station, Hillmorton, 1930

Hillmorton - Rugby Radio Station (1926) : connecting the empire

In the first part of the 20th century, the government had shown a lot of interest in developing a series of powerful radio transmitters that would link the empire together via radio links.

Some of this work was completed by the Marconi company but the government decided to build its own Post Office-run communication station to avoid being reliant on a private company.

Hillmorton, near Rugby, together with Leafield in Oxfordshire, were chosen as excellent sites for transmitting. Both were located in central England with large areas of flat land where the huge masts were built. The original Rugby station boasted twelve 820 feet masts each weighing 200 tons, with a three-man lift in the centre, supporting 27 miles of copper cable.

The station has been upgraded several times since its opening but is due to close soon as satellites have all but replaced long-distance terrestrial radio communication.

CAT 10 radio transmitter valve

CAT 10 transmitter valve (circa 1926) : I've got the power

In the world of valves this model is the 'daddy'. Looking like a primitive light sabre, it sat in the heart of a radio transmitter, generating some of the massive power needed to push a radio signal out of the aerial to bounce around the world.

Valves sat at the heart of every radio, TV and record player and it was their job to amplify the signals needed for the machine to work. They came in a variety of sizes but this model, the CAT 10, was one of the biggest.

Its home was the GPO Rugby Radio Station in Hillmorton, which was created so that Britain could communicate with the rest of the world. The valve was one of 54 needed in the high-power transmitter - each one built with its own water-cooling system. The transmitter that used these started life in 1926 and continued in use until the 1950s.

Leafield, Oxfordshire

Leafield, Oxfordshire (1922) : the centre of the empire

At the end of the First World War Britain opened the first link in an ambitious scheme to provide wireless communication between all the nations of its empire. Leafield, in Oxfordshire, was chosen as the home for this 'Imperial Wireless Chain'.

After 1945, despite the gradual disappearance of the empire, Leafield remained an important telecommunications centre handling most of Reuters' press transmissions as well as government and maritime radio messages.

In 1961 the site was re-developed at a cost of £1 million, taking on an entirely new look with large modern buildings surrounded by a maze of wires supported on masts 55 metres high. The new station was officially opened in 1966 and was acclaimed as one of the most advanced in the world.

But not for long... by the 1980s satellite communications had made Leafield obsolete. In June 1986 the station was closed, with its remaining workload of transmissions transferred to the Rugby Radio Station at Hillmorton.

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.

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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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