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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  • 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

  • Dollis Hill research station

    Britain's first speaking clock (shown) was tested at the Post Office's Dollis Hill Research Station in 1935. Dollis Hill subsequently worked with Bletchley Park on Colossus, the world's first full electronic computer.

    After World War II, the Speaking Clock network was also used as a key component in HANDEL, the country's nuclear attack warning network. If you called the clock at just the right time — nine o'clock in the morning, precisely — you could hear the pips change frequency: this was part of the automatic testing of the system. HANDEL was turned off in 1992.

    Image credit: BT

  • The London Telephonist poster

    Despite automatic dialling and digital exchanges, the telephone operator is still with us. When the public phone system started, the operator's job was practically the first socially acceptable employment for young single women. At first, boys were hired, but they were found to be very unreliable and consistently rude to callers.

    In 1948, two years before this poster was printed, there were still around 2,200 manual exchanges in the UK, compared with 3,840 automatic ones. The last manual exchange in the UK, at Portree in the Isle of Skye, closed in 1976, but humans can still be found in the telephone network.

    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?