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Family and personal communications

The Telegraph' - oil painting by T Roberts, 1860

A bad news medium : 'we regret to announce ...'

The telegram became known as a bad news medium, because for the majority of people the only time they received one was to let them know of the death of a close member of family.

During the two World Wars the telegram was used to tell family members if their husbands or sons had died or were missing in action. The arrival of the messenger was greeted with dread.

The telegram was also used to make historic announcements, but again these were often death-related. It was first used in this way to bring the news of the death of Prince Albert in 1861. A telegram was also sent to the current Queen Elizabeth to let her know about the death of her father when she was on tour in Kenya, although the message couldn't be decoded immediately and the news was "confirmed" via a hasty telephone call to England.

Trades in Manchester: page from phone directory, 1930s

The impact of the telephone : look in the book


At first, the telephone was primarily a resource for businesses, as the high costs otherwise excluded all but the richest members of society from subscribing. It was regarded primarily as a business tool rather than for private chit-chat.

As a result, a flick through telephone books of the time provides an interesting account of the nature of business in the late 19th century.

The National Telephone Company's directory of 1894 shows the businesses that were flourishing during the time. It includes professionals such as lawyers, doctors and Members of Parliament; and businesses such as bottle makers, importers, horse dealers, stables, brewers, distillers, hotels and gas companies. However there were few tradesmen who could afford to be on the phone - although some shops are included, and at least one vicar is connected.

For a small payment entrants could include a line describing their company to solicit extra business - a foretaste of the Yellow Pages to come.

Make a fourth' promoting bridge playing via the phone, 1935

Reinforcing class barriers : 'hello Nurse, bring baby down, please.'

 The early telephone reinforced the class divide, with servants and staff expected to answer the telephone on behalf of the master or mistress of the house - and receiving their orders through an internal "house" telephone such as the Metaphone.

By the 1920s, though, the old rigid divide either side of the telephone began to break down in the aftermath of the First World War. Upper class families began to get used to the idea that they might have to answer the telephone for themselves - and so another social barrier came down. 

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...