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BT's archive: Pictures from the vault

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

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Topic: 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.

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2 of 8 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Teleprinter

Teleprinters, one of the last gasps of the pre-computer digital network, took a long time to die.

Although they were limited in speed and scope — basically, electric typewriters that could talk to each other at around 10 characters a second — messages passed on the public Telex teleprinter network were legally considered to have their source and destination verified. This kept the network going as an important business tool long past the point where it was technologically obsolete.

Teleprinters live on in virtual form in shortwave radio, where radioteletype — RTTY — is still used by radio amateurs, for no particularly good reason.

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Buzby in a car

In the run-up to privatisation, Post Office Telecommunications adopted a yellow cartoon bird called Buzby as part of a marketing campaign, which was carried on when the company was renamed British Telecom in 1980.

Shown here performing what is now an illegal act, Buzby stirred up strong feelings, especially among those who bore an animus against BT. These included pirate radio operators, who nicknamed the radio detection agents that tracked them down 'Buzbies'. Buzby was retired in 1985, but is set to be re-employed in 2012 by BT as an Olympic brand ambassador.

As a teenager, the editor of ZDNet UK created an experimental Prestel page in 1983 with an animated block graphic of the blessed bird and a cordial invitation to join the Buck Fusby Fan Club. He was thrown off the system about a week later, the event that led to his employment at Micronet 800 by the equally mischievous editor David Babsky. One travel agent who had to use Prestel in her work said it was the only thing she'd ever seen on the system that gave her pleasure.


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