Skip to main content
   

About the collection at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Sculpture outside Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum tells a story of British international telegraph cable communications from the 1850s to the 1950s. It shows how the Victorian Internet was created and how Britain's international links were protected during World War II. Housed in an underground building built during the Second World War it also includes displays on the history of radio and the social history of Porthcurno.

The museum has received a large number of historic exhibits from the BT collection as part of the Connected Earth initiative. 

You can see some amazing examples below which are already on display.

 News from Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Borkum underwater cable

Borkum underwater cable (1914) : acts of war

Today one of the crucial elements of any war is the battle of electronic warfare. This focuses on disrupting the enemies radio messages and communication systems. This can include radio jamming, delivering misinformation and disrupting guided missile signals. But the roots of today's sophisticated technology, began with the telegraph.

This section of cable was spliced off when the British deliberately cut a German cable, which linked Borkum with Tenerife, on 4th August 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. This meant that the Germans lost an essential communications link to their outpost on the Atlantic island.

In fact, as soon as war was declared, the British cut all German cables running down the English channel and even managed to divert some of them to be used by the Allies.

Portable field telegraph

Portable field telegraph (1917) : ready for battle

The telegraph opened up new opportunities to control and direct the flow of battle. Commanders in the field could keep in touch with their soldiers in the front lines and, with the static nature of trench warfare, an effective telegraph network was a realistic options.

This portable, self-contained mini telegraph station was undoubtedly designed for military use in the First World War, in 1917 by Siemens Brothers of London. It had an automatic receiver that printed out messages by feeding paper from a drawer through an inking device. A wind-up clockwork device drove the paper through the mechanism.

Sending messages was much more simply done with a Morse key housed inside the sturdy wooden case.

1850 cross-channel submarine cable

Cross-channel submarine cable : a European communication barrier

Linking Britain to the European continent was essential for the British before they could secure effective telegraphic communications to the rest of the world, particularly the Empire, but it wasn't easy.

This cable section is from the first attempt to cross the English Channel with a telegraph cable. Laid in 1850, it was flimsy and had to be weighted down with lead blocks every hundred metres or so. Although it was laid successfully the engineers found that the messages sent were garbled and undecipherable, as soon as they started to test it. By the following morning the cable was completely dead.

The following year a new design of armoured cable was laid which was much more successful. It opened in late 1851 to become the UK's first international telecommunications link.

3D objects from Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Place the mouse over the Flash image. Left-click and drag either left or right to rotate the animation.
   
Wheatstone auto-transmitter, late 19th century

A Wheatstone transmitter used for sending high speed Morse from pre-punched paper tape. Levers called 'peckers' below the little wheel at the front detected the holes in the paper tape and sent the signal into the line. Holes were punched in the tape using a separate machine with a keyboard.

   
Section of Dover to Calais cable, 1851

A section of the first ever international telegraph cable to actually work, laid in 1851. This was a major milestone in the development of world communications and this achievement led to longer and longer cables being laid under the seas of the world.

   
Section of deep sea cable

This section of German telegraph cable shows the cut made by the British on the 4th August 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. This was common practice at the beginning of the world wars as cutting cables immediately compromised the communications of the enemy.

   
Radio Coherer-Detector c.1901

The earliest form of wireless signal detector which even pre-dates crystal sets. The glass tube contains iron and nickel filings which group together in a certain way to allow current to flow. This type of detector could not receive voice but only Morse code, in other words only on/off signals.

   
Grapnel

Grapnels were used to pick up telegraph cables from the seabed. Different shapes were used depending on the surface of the seabed, which could be sandy and smooth or rocky and uneven. They were dropped to the bottom on the end of a long rope and dragged from side to side across the path of the cable until it was hooked and could be lifted to the surface for repair on board a cable ship.

   
Globe Ashtray

In 1929 the Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies were merged with Marconis radio network to form a new company which was named Imperial and International Communications Limited. The globe shows the cable routes around the world.

   
Crystal Detector

Part of an early crystal set. The detector changes the radio wave into sound by changing the vibration of radio waves into a one-way sound signal. Crystals such as galena and pyrite were used as detectors when radio first started. A crystal radio gets all of its power from the radio wave itself so does not need batteries or wires.

   
Cable code key

Undersea telegraph cables used a version of Morse code called Cablecode. Instead of long and short bursts of electricity (dots and dashes), signals of equal length but different polarity were sent from two keys mounted side by side. This meant that signalling was quicker than Morse code as both the dots and dashes were short.

   
Baby Turtle

This baby turtle was collected by a member of telegraph staff on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. As well as being an important cable station en route from Europe to South America, the island is well-known as a turtle breeding ground as well as a sanctuary for many migrating birds.

Visitor information

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum location map

Situated in beautiful Porthcurno bay the main museum exhibits are located in historic tunnels hewn out of solid granite rock. Porthcurno was a major cable station and the hub of the Eastern Telegraph Company's international links. As such it was an obvious enemy target during wartime. The sandy beech of Porthcurno Bay is just five minutes walk away.

Telephone: +44 (0) 1736 810966
Email: caroline.seats@porthcurno.org.uk
Website: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/

Postal Address:
Porthcurno Telegraph Museum
Eastern House
Porthcurno
Cornwall
TR19 6JX
England

Directions

Porthcurno is situated just three miles away from Land's End, the most south-westerly point of Cornwall, England.

By Car:
If you are driving from Penzance, follow the signs to Land's End on the A30. Turn left at the sign for St Buryan, "Wartime Telegraph Museum" (that's us!) and "Minack Theatre". Keep going straight through St Buryan village and after about 2 miles of narrow lanes, take the left turn to Porthcurno.

By Train:
Take bus number 1, 1a or 345 from Penzance bus station which is next to the train station. The buses stop at the main Porthcurno car park, 2 minutes walk from the museum which is clearly signposted.

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

"A treasure trove of UK history", a new BT Archives feature launched on bt.com. Find out more...

BT Archives goes social media with twitter and facebook.

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...