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Law and order

Two Needle Telegraph - Connected Earth artefact, now at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.

First arrest by telegraph (1845) : the case of the 'kwaker' killer

On New Year's Day 1845, John Tawell travelled to Slough - to murder his mistress. They met and he emptied the contents of a phial of poison into her drink. When she started screaming, Tawell panicked and ran.

Neighbours saw him hurrying up the road towards the station, where a train was about to depart for London. Settling back in his seat as the train pulled out of Slough, Tawell must have thought he had escaped and that once in London he could disappear. He had forgotten that now the message could travel faster than the train.

The stationmaster at Slough spotted the man in the long Quaker coat seen boarding the train - and then heard about the murder. He telegraphed ahead to London to watch out for the 'kwaker' (there was no Q in the needle telegraph) riding in the rearmost second class carriage. Detectives were waiting for Tawell at Paddington, shadowed him back to his lodgings and arrested him there.

He was later found guilty of murder and hanged.

Diagram of the Five Needle Telegraph

West Drayton, Middlesex (1839) : London, Paris, New York ...West Drayton?

West Drayton isn't usually thought of as a centre of intrigue and innovation but in 1839 this minor town West of London had its moment of glory.

The place was chosen as one of the two terminals of the first commercial, electric telegraph service in the world. Handily situated 13.5 miles from London's Paddington station on the Great Western Railway line, it was chosen as the best location for a full-scale test of Cooke and Wheatstone's five-needle telegraph system.

The telegraph station building was a very unimpressive wooden cabin, with a maze of seemingly jumbled cables fed through the roof. However, the test proved a great success and the railway agreed to extend the complete operation a further five miles to Slough.

It was nonetheless, ahead of its time and the service was shut down in 1848 being considered unimportant and unprofitable!

Constable giving first-aid, by police box, 1950s

Police boxes : keeping in touch with the station

The police telephone box was made famous by the TV programme 'Doctor Who'. The Doctor used one, called the 'Tardis', as a ship to travel through space and time. In the programme the box was much larger on the inside than the outside, but in reality it provided just enough space for a policeman to make a call in bad weather, or lock up a criminal while waiting for transport.

Smaller police telephone pillars gave the bobby on the beat a more compact direct line to the local police station. The station could also call up a policeman in the street by flashing a light on the top of the device to attract his attention; this method was also used on the boxes.

Police boxes and pillars were phased out in the 1970s as the police became increasingly reliant on hand-held radios instead.

Policeman - using the telephone (1960s) : Alan Burt

Alan Burt, a retired CID officer, was born in 1946. In his early life he travelled around the country with his family, before his father retired from the services and they settled in Weymouth.

He joined the Dorset Police force aged eighteen and as a cadet, one of his tasks was to answer the switchboard dealing sometimes with 999 calls.

Once he became an officer he travelled around the district, keeping in touch with the station using public call boxes. He explains how this method worked.

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When I left the police training school I went to Ferndown ... and was allocated a bike, being a youngster. The youngsters had to have the bikes and the more experienced chaps had the cars so I used to go off on patrol in my uniform on a bike. I had to cycle between set areas and set telephone boxes and stand outside a telephone box on the hour (or) on the half hour and if anybody needed me they could dial that number, and of course I would answer the phone. I would get my directions from my deployment and off I'd go. I recall as a youngster I could never understand it. When I was nineteen, bearing in mind we never had any radios, you'd cycle off on night duty. So Ferndown village, as it was then, and you could cycle up to Trickets Cross and then ride down to Colehill to the outskirts of Wimborne, checking factory estates and all the rest of it with no communication whatsoever, apart from standing outside of a telephone kiosk. Parley Cross at three o'clock in the morning, you may or may not get somebody phone you or you may or may not see another policeman for eight hours.

Policeman - phones for investigations : Alan Burt

Alan Burt, a retired CID officer, was born in 1946. In his early life he travelled around the country with his family, before his father retired from the services and they settled in Weymouth.

He joined the Dorset Police force aged eighteen as a cadet and before long became a constable.

He remembers how the phone helped improve making police enquiries, particularly chasing dangerous criminals who had fled the country.

audio clip


I do remember an incident where we had three guys go through Weymouth and out of Weymouth on through the port to France and they were wanted for a murder in Hampshire. I remember communicating with officers in France and speaking to them, and explaining what had happened, and how important it was to detain these men. But there was no doubt that without that phone I just can't imagine how we would have dealt with it. Those people would have gone into France and disappeared, and that would have been a very difficult enquiry, whereas we were able to speak to them straight away and they were apprehended and subsequently bought back to England. In the old days, if you had a fingerprint that you wanted checked quickly it was a case of sticking it on the train at Weymouth railway station or wherever (and) sending it up to Scotland Yard in order to get somebody to identify the fingerprint. Now of course all that nonsense (has) stopped and providing you get a good image you can transmit that and you can quickly identify the guy you've got in custody who won't tell you his name.

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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