BT's archive: Pictures from the vault

BT's archive: Pictures from the vault

Summary: As BT gets going on a project to digitise half a million pictures from its archives, ZDNet UK has selected some already online that illustrate the ups and downs of the UK communications over the years

TOPICS: Networking

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  • Cable laying in 1905

    Although now an ordinary company, BT has more than a century of history as the UK's state telecommunications provider, first as the Post Office, then as Post Office Telecommunications, and finally British Telecom. Its company archives are of national and international importance, with the vast majority counting as public records — to which the British public have a legal right of access.

    Over the next 18 months, the University of Coventry, together with BT and the National Archives, is digitising around half a million photographs and many other items for public access in a million-pound project called New Connections. As a taster of treats to come, here is a small selection of photographs already available in the BT Archive.

    Pictured above is how it all began, with men in class-defining headgear pushing thick cable into a suburban hole. Replace the horse-drawn cart with a Ford van, add some high-visibility tabards and a small fence around the excavation, and remove the hats, and the scene is still being repeated today.

    The picture was taken in 1905, 15 years after the first cable was laid between London and Birmingham and seven years before the first automatic telephone exchange in the UK was installed in Epsom in Surrey.

    Image credit: BT

  • Pacific cable network

    Before the internet, the telegraph was the first international digital network. The first round-the-world message was sent by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903; it took nine minutes.

    This map from around 1930 shows just a small part of the network, the All Red Line, that linked the British Empire and only landed on Empire soil. For this to work, Britain had to acquire Fanning Island, an uninhabited atoll in the mid-Pacific: it did this in 1888 by landing a man with a flag. International landing rights are somewhat more involved these days.

    Image credit: BT

Topic: Networking

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • My father-in-law managed the cable station at Fanning Island in the late Fifties, it was operated by Cable & Wireless who shipped tech- staff around the world.
    Sue Schofield
  • Thanks for that, Sue - there are lots of untold tales from the far-flung bits of the Imperial network, when gutta percha and directly-heated triodes were the staple of comms (rather than the staple of my spare room, which they are today). The fact that the early years of telecommunications coincided with the last flowering of Empire had a subtle but very deep impact on the politico-economics of the Cold War: the Americans spotted that "wherever you want to build a station, the Brits have a speck of land" and rolled out their espionage, military and security global network on the back of it.

    Definitely a story to be written, even if some of the best bits (like closing Hong Kong) are still well and truly sekrit.
  • The article does not mention that ..... the British public have a legal right of access ... appears to mean the right to pay £8 in order to download a high res image for personal use. Or have I got that wrong?