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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  • 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

  • Take it lying down poster

    One consequence of the Post Office running the UK's phone system as a monopoly was that choice was severely limited.

    In the early 1970s, you had a choice of a couple of phone models in six colours, and that was it. It was illegal to fit a phone extension yourself — indeed, to connect anything to the phone network that you didn't rent from the PO.

    Extension phones were seen as rather exciting luxury items — although professionals such as doctors or vicars who might expect to be rung at home during the night qualified for a free extension. Sometimes, even more innovatively, they got a phone that could unplug from the wall.

    Image credit: BT

  • Viewdata

    In the 1970s, home computers were rare and modems rarer still, but the Post Office decided to bring digital communications into the home and office using a text delivery service called Viewdata.

    Run on GEC 4000 minicomputers with 374kB of memory and around 800MB spread across 70MB hard disks, the service went live in 1979 under the name of Prestel. The original terminals were modified television sets that cost a small fortune: at 1200bps/75bp, the phone bills were astronomical too, and the service failed to catch on, peaking at around 90,000 subscribers.

    In the mid-80s, it hosted the UK's first online technology journal, Micronet 800, which gave the editor of ZDNet UK his first job in journalism — but wisely sacked him shortly after hiring him.

    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?