A Brief History of Telecoms in the UK

letter from Queen to Graham Bell

1870: Special Acts of Parliament in 1868 and 1869 allowed for the Post Office to take over the UK Telegraph Service. That year, 7 million telegrams were sent. It cost 5p for 20 words. To put that into perspective, we reached a peak of 150.83 billion SMS messages sent in 2012! The number of messages sent now would be impossible to calculate as most messages are sent via encrypted methods such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

1875: Alexander Graham Bell, from Scotland, built his first test phone in Boston, USA in 1875. Bell’s experiments were helped by Thomas A. Watson.

1876: In July, Mr. W. H. Preece (1834–1913), who later became Sir William Preece, FRS and Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office, brought the first pair of useful telephones to Great Britain.

1878: Bell showed Queen Victoria how to use the phone on January 14, 1878, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. He made calls to London, Cowes, and Southampton. These were the first calls made from the UK to another country.

1881: The government gave the Post Office permission to offer both telegraph and telephone service to the public. Swansea, which opened on March 23, was the first place to have public phones. Next came Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bradford, and Middlesbrough.

1891: The HMTS Monarch (No. 1) laid the first submarine telephone cable between England and France. This made it possible for people in London and Paris to talk on the phone with each other.

Old photo of The HMTS Monarch 1
Source: Atlantic-Cable

1915: A submarine cable called “Archangel” was put in place between Great Britain and Russia.

1920: The Post Office started sending radio messages to ships over long distances.

1923: Western Electric, Marconi, General Electric, British Thomson-Houston, Radio Communication, and Metropolitan Vickers formed the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in 1923.

1926: The New York Wall Street stock market crashed. People selling their shares quickly over the phone may have caused and sped up the crash.

1927: Long-wave radio transmission on a wavelength of 5,000 metres (60kHz) was used to start a regular public phone service from London to New York on January 7. The original price for three minutes was £15; the next year, it went down to £9. The Teleprinter 7B, made by Creed, was the first teleprinter that could print pages.

1936: The talking clock comes out. At first, it can only be used at Holborn Exchange in London. The Post Office held a contest to choose the voice that would be recorded. People who called TIM would hear the “golden voice” of Miss Jane Cain, a London telephone operator, who would tell them the Greenwich time to the nearest tenth of a second.

1937: On June 30, the 999 emergency phone service was made available to people in London. It was later made available to people all over the country. When someone called 999, a buzzer went off in the exchange and a red light flashed to get the attention of an operator right away.

1942: For the first time, frequency modulation was used to change a VHF radio multi-channel telephone link.

1943: Colossus, which was built by a team led by T H Flowers at the Post Office Research Branch, is “thought” to have been the world’s first programmable electronic computer (until the full story about Alan Turing’s Enigma Machine was revealed in the 1990’s to have been developed in 1942).

1945: Arthur C. Clarke, who was actually an expert in space research, wrote an article called “Wireless World” in which he proposed using synchronous satellites to send and receive messages. This was the first time that this idea was put forward.

1956: Between Oban, Scotland, and Clarenville, Newfoundland, a distance of 2,240 miles, the first transatlantic telephone cable (TAT1) was laid.

1970: In January, the Post Office made the world’s first phone books using a computer printing process that was fully integrated.

1980: The Post Office’s telephone business was given the name British Telecom to make it stand out.

1985: British Telecom tested its first Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN).

1990’s – Extremely fast development in digital and phone services including dial-up-broadband for the public and phone services such as call barring, caller ID, 3-way calling, call diversions, call return and more. This is when advanced telephone systems and massive research and development into the Internet for public use started.

Here’s something which may come as a bit of a shock to you (I can still remember it like it was yesterday!) The “It’s Good to Talk” campaign was launched in 1994, featuring the late Bob Hoskins and the famous phrase, “It’s Good to Talk”. Directed by Hollywood’s Ridley Scott, Hoskins appeared in 51 TV commercials, five voice-overs and 13 radio commercials until 1996.