Electrical telegraphy in the United Kingdom

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Motorcycle telegraph messenger from Wood Green Post Office, 1941

Electrical telegraphy in the United Kingdom led the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. Electrical telegraphy is telegraphy over conducting wires. It is distinct from the optical telegraphy that preceded it and the radiotelegraphy that followed it. Francis Ronalds first demonstrated a working telegraph over a substantial distance in 1816, but was unable to put it into use. William Fothergill Cooke, starting in 1836, developed the first commercial telegraph put into operation with the scientific assistance of Charles Wheatstone, the battery invented by John Frederic Daniell, and the relay invented by Edward Davy.

In 1846 the Electric Telegraph Company (the Electric), the world's first telegraph company, was formed by Cooke and financier John Lewis Ricardo. The company initially supplied telegraph systems to railway companies, but soon branched out into other businesses and slowly built a network that could be used by the general public. Many competing companies arose; chief amongst them was the Magnetic Telegraph Company (the Magnetic) formed in 1850. The Magnetic used the telegraph invented by William Thomas Henley which did not require batteries. The Electric and Magnetic companies soon formed a cartel to control the market. The London District Telegraph Company (the District), an offshoot of the Magnetic, provided a cheap telegram service in London with a rooftop to rooftop network. The United Kingdom Telegraph Company did not launch until 1860 and struggled to compete with the big two. Most telegraph companies were unprofitable except for the Electric and Magnetic.

Submarine telegraph cables were made possible by the introduction of gutta-percha in 1843 by Scottish military surgeon William Montgomerie while stationed in Singapore. Gutta-percha was ideal for making underwater cables in an age before synthetic plastics. The Submarine Telegraph Company laid the world's first international submarine cable in 1851 when they connected England with France. Cable cores were made by the Gutta Percha Company who had a monopoly on the supply of the material until about 1863. Completed cables were made by wire rope manufacturers who armoured the cables. The Gutta Percha Company merged with one such wire rope manufacturer, R.S. Newall and Company, to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon) in 1864 at the instigation of John Pender. Pender was the leading entrepreneur responsible for constructing a worldwide telegraph network. The transatlantic telegraph cable was laid by his Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1866 after several failures. Many more Pender companies were formed to lay various cables connecting Britain with its colonies in India and then on to the Far East and Australia. Once the cables were laid, these disparate companies were merged into the Eastern Telegraph Company, first established in 1872. The company was absorbed into Cable & Wireless Ltd in 1934.

The inland telegraph companies were nationalised in 1870 and were then run as part of the General Post Office. Companies operating international submarine cables were left independent. A major mistake made during nationalisation was that the estimated costs failed to take into account the cost of purchasing railway company wayleaves, or even that it would be necessary to do so. The final bill far exceeded the original estimate. The telegraph was never profitable under nationalisation because of government policies. Prices were held low to make it affordable to as many people as possible and the telegraph was extended to every post office issuing money orders, whether or not that office generated enough telegraph business to be profitable. Telegraph usage increased enormously under the Post Office, but it was never as cheap as the postal service and growing competition from the telephone started to eat into its market share.

The telegraph was an important resource in both World War I and World War II which somewhat delayed its decline. Decline was also countered with the introduction of special greetings telegrams (birthdays etc.) in 1935 which proved highly popular. Even so, by 1970 telegram usage had fallen to its lowest ever total under nationalisation. Repeated price rises to control the deficit drove usage down even further. Post Office Telecommunications was separated from the Post Office as British Telecom in 1981 to enable it to be privatised (which occurred in 1984). In 1982 British Telecom ended its inland telegram service. International telegrams could be sent by telephone and were received by ordinary letter post. Some private wire use of telegraph continued after the end of the telegram service, and the telex system continued in use by an ever-diminishing group of private users. Most of these succumbed to alternatives on the internet in the 1990s.

Early development[edit]

Ronalds' eight miles of iron wire strung in his garden

The first demonstration that an electric telegraph could be operated over a substantial distance was conducted by Francis Ronalds in his Hammersmith garden in 1816. Eight miles of iron wire were strung back and forth between wooden frames. His source of power was high-voltage friction machines. Ronalds offered his system to the Admiralty, but they were already using an optical telegraph and saw no need for Ronalds' invention, despite the optical telegraph being frequently unusable due to weather conditions. It was never put to the test, but it is likely that Ronalds' system could not be made to work over very long distances using static electricity generators. Even the relatively short test system only worked well in dry weather.[1]

Nearly all the telegraph systems that were finally successful used batteries of electrochemical cells as their source of power. An important development that made this possible was the invention of the Daniell cell in 1836 by John Frederic Daniell. The earlier voltaic pile suffered from falling voltage if used continuously due to the formation of hydrogen bubbles around the copper electrode which tended to insulate it. The Daniell cell solved this problem by placing the zinc and copper electrodes in separate electrolytes with a porous barrier between them.[2] The hydrogen is consumed by the sulfuric acid electrolyte, oxidizing it to water, before it can reach the copper electrode in the copper sulphate electrolyte.[3] A later improvement by J. F. Fuller in 1853 replaced sulfuric acid with zinc sulfate.[4]

Another important development was the relay, invented by surgeon Edward Davy in 1837 and patented in 1838. The relay allows weak telegraph pulses to be regenerated. The incoming pulse activates an electromagnet which moves an armature to which are attached electrical contacts which close and complete a secondary circuit. A local battery provides the current for a new pulse through the contacts and onwards along the telegraph line. Davy's relay was the first device to use metallic make-and-break contacts.[5] The importance of the relay lies in that it allows telegraph transmissions over long distances that would otherwise require operators at periodic intermediate stations to read and retransmit the message.[6] Davy began experimenting in telegraphy in 1835, demonstrated his telegraph system in Regent's Park in 1837 over a mile of copper wire,[7] and held an exhibition in London, but after his marriage broke down he abandoned telegraphy and emigrated to Australia.[8]

William Fothergill Cooke

The driving force in establishing the telegraph as a business in the United Kingdom was William Fothergill Cooke. Cooke initially made a telegraph with a clockwork detent mechanism operating electromagnets. The first mechanical apparatus was built in 1836.[9] He pitched the telegraph to various railway companies as a means of signalling to control trains but without success.[10] Cooke, who was not scientifically trained, sought advice from Michael Faraday and Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone recommended using a needle telegraph system.[11] Cooke had initially been inspired to build a telegraph after seeing a demonstration of a needle telegraph by Georg Wilhelm Muncke in March 1836, and actually built a prototype shortly afterwards.[12] He had pursued his mechanical designs instead because he believed that the needle telegraph would require multiple wires, each driving a separate needle.[13] After the collaboration with Wheatstone began, only needle telegraphs were pursued. The Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph developed by the two men and patented in May 1837 could have various arrangements of needles, but the one that initially became successful used five needles. They were operated in pairs so that the pair of needles pointed to a letter of the alphabet marked on a board.[14]

Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraph

Cooke proposed the Cooke and Wheatstone system to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway,[15] and a four-needle system was trialled by the London and Birmingham Railway in July 1837.[16] Both applications were for signalling with rope-hauled trains and both railways rejected electrical telegraph signalling in favour of steam-driven whistles.[17] The first success came in 1838 when a five-needle telegraph was installed by the Great Western Railway from Paddington station to West Drayton.[18] This was the first commercial telegraph in the world.[19] The cables were originally laid in underground conduit, but the insulation started to fail.[20] Cooke replaced the instruments with a two-needle system using only the wires that remained intact.[21] The code for the two-needle system could not be read off a board; it had to be learned. The profession of telegraph operator had been created for the first time.[22]

In 1843 the telegraph line was extended to Slough and Cooke converted the whole line to a one-needle system.[23] New wires were run suspended uninsulated from poles on ceramic insulators, a system which Cooke patented,[24] and which rapidly became ubiquitous.[25] This extension was done at Cooke's own expense, the railway company was unwilling to finance a system it still considered experimental. Up to this point, the Great Western had insisted on exclusive use and refused Cooke permission to open public telegraph offices. Cooke's new agreement gave the railway free use of the system in exchange for Cooke's right to open public offices, for the first time establishing a public telegraph service.[26] A flat rate of one shilling was charged regardless of message length, unlike later pricing schemes, but many people paid this just to see the strange equipment.[27]

Telegraph companies[edit]

Development of the telegraph in Britain was distinctly different from other European countries. In Continental Europe, telegraph development was for government purposes and controlled as a state monopoly. For instance, the early telegraph installations by Siemens in Prussia had a distinctly military purpose, and in France it was years before the public was allowed to use the telegraph at all. In Britain, between 1846 and 1870, that is, from the formation of the first telegraph company until nationalisation, the telegraph grew entirely at the instigation of private companies with private capital and without government support.[28]

Between 1846 and 1868 64 telegraph companies were formed. However, 68% of them failed and only a handful of them grew to any significant size.[29]

Electric Telegraph Company[edit]

Cooke and Wheatstone single-needle instrument c. 1872–1873

The Electric Telegraph Company (ETC) was formed in 1846 by Cooke and financier John Lewis Ricardo,[30] and was the first company formed for the purpose of providing a telegraph service to the public.[31] It was formed without Wheatstone. Cooke and Wheatstone had had a serious falling out over who should take credit for the invention. The matter went to arbitration with Marc Isambard Brunel acting for Cooke and Daniell acting for Wheatstone. A compromise was reached with them both taking some credit. Wheatstone was uninterested in commercial enterprises, wishing only to publish scientific results. The ETC bought out Wheatstone's patent interest in exchange for royalties.[32] They also acquired Davy's relay patent.[33] The ETC bought out other telegraph patents when they could, often not because they wanted to use them, but as a means of suppressing competition.[34]

The company at first concentrated on business with the railways but struggled to be profitable.[35] On the other hand, their relationship with the railways gave them a structural advantage over competitors that started up later. By the time competitors came on the scene the ETC had agreements with most railways. The wayleaves gave the ETC exclusive use, shutting out competitors from the most economic way of building a telegraph network.[36]

After 1848 other areas of business started to grow in comparison to the railways.[37] Supply of news to newspapers and stock exchange information to the financial sector were profitable.[38] A major user from the beginning was the insurer Lloyd's of London, and they had telegraph instruments installed directly in their London offices in 1852.[39] General use by the public was slow to grow because prices were high.[40] The telegram business grew after competition drove down prices and this led in 1859 to the company relocating their London central office to bigger premises in Great Bell Alley, Moorgate, the eastern portion of which was later renamed Telegraph Street after the company.[41] The ETC remained by far the largest telegraph company until nationalisation in 1870.[42] Cooke retired from the company after nationalisation. Both he and Wheatstone were knighted for their efforts in telegraphy in, respectively, 1869 and 1868.[43]

The ETC was heavily involved in laying submarine telegraph cables to Europe and Ireland. They operated the first cable ship permanently fitted out for laying cables, CS Monarch. In 1853 they created the International Telegraph Company to overcome Dutch objections to a British company laying telegraph cables on their soil. This company was merged back with the ETC in 1854, the name of the new company becoming the Electric and International Telegraph Company.[44] Other subsidiaries created which laid submarine cables were the Channel Islands Telegraph Company (1857) and the Isle of Man Telegraph Company (1859).[45]

Magnetic Telegraph Company[edit]

Henley-Foster two-needle telegraph

The English and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company (Magnetic Telegraph Company, or just Magnetic for short) was established by John Brett in 1850,[46] initially to connect Britain and Ireland with a submarine telegraph cable.[47] The first attempt at this failed, as did several other attempts by rival companies. The Magnetic finally succeeded in 1853, allowing Ireland telegraphic connection for the first time to Britain and on to mainland Europe.[48] This was the deepest submarine cable laid to date.[49]

The Magnetic was the largest competitor to the ETC, the two of them forming a virtual duopoly, and in this context the ETC was commonly referred to as the Electric to counterpose it to the Magnetic.[50] It was not, however, the first competitor. That was the British Electric Telegraph Company (BETC, later to change its name to the British Telegraph Company to avoid confusion with the ETC[51]) founded in 1849.[52] The BETC failed because they were founded on the mistaken assumption that they would be able to obtain railway wayleaves. They wrongly believed that Parliament would force the railway companies to allow them to have lines. In the event, they obtained very few wayleaves; the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway was one of the few exceptions.[53] They were taken over by the Magnetic in 1857 under the new name of the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company.[54]

The Magnetic avoided the pitfalls encountered by the BETC. From the start, they planned their system based on underground cables along highways.[55] Not only did the ETC have the railway wayleaves, but the United Kingdom Telegraph Company had the wayleaves for canals and the BETC had the wayleaves for overground cables along highways.[56] This asset of the BETC was the attraction for the Magnetic in its takeover of them.[57] The Magnetic used a telegraph system not covered by the ETC patents.[58] It used the needle telegraph of William Thomas Henley and George Foster which did not require batteries. Movement of the machine handles while the operator was sending a message generated the electricity electromagnetically. This was the meaning of magnetic in the company name.[59]

The Magnetic not only laid the first cable to Ireland, they also had an exclusive agreement with the Submarine Telegraph Company which controlled the cables to Europe.[60] For a short period, the Magnetic had control of all international traffic, shutting out the ETC.[61] In Ireland, the Magnetic acquired most of the railway wayleaves forcing the ETC to use roads and canals, the exact reverse of the situation in Great Britain.[62]

London District Telegraph Company[edit]

London District Telegraph Company (the District), formed in 1859 in London, was a company closely associated with the Magnetic. John Watkins Brett and Charles Kemp Dyer were directors of both companies and E. B. Bright was secretary of both. Their telegraph operators were trained at the Magnetic's headquarters in the Strand.[63] The Magnetic installed the telegraph lines for the District and leased them back to the District for a peppercorn rent in exchange for the District passing on the Magnetic's messages to and from outside London.[64] The business model of the District was to provide cheap telegrams within London and not install expensive links between cities. Prices were fourpence for ten words and sixpence for fifteen words.[65] By comparison, a long distance telegram on the Electric cost four shillings.[66] The area of the District was to be within four miles of Charing Cross, with possible later expansion to twenty miles. The District avoided the expense of erecting telegraph poles or burying cables by stringing the wires from building to building, a technique that could only be used in heavily built-up areas.[67]

Rooftop telegraphs may have been cheap to install, but obtaining the wayleaves could be troublesome. Thousands of individual permissions had to be sought and some unusual conditions were sometimes imposed. One householder insisted that the installers enter her property only once (after wiping their feet) to access the roof. Meals were hoisted up to the workmen on the roof until they had finished.[68] In all, around seven thousand interviews and negotiations were conducted, many of them equally troublesome, to erect only 280 miles of wire.[69]

The cheap prices of the District stimulated a much more casual use of the telegraph. In 1862 the company transmitted a quarter of a million messages.[70]

United Kingdom Telegraph Company[edit]

The UKTC, founded by Thomas Allan, was the last major telegraph company to be formed. It was registered in 1850, but did not raise sufficient capital to launch until 1860.[71] The business model was to provide a flat rate of one shilling for twenty words within 100 miles and two shillings beyond 100 miles, thus undercutting the established companies.[72] The Electric, with the Magnetic's support, put a great deal of effort into obstructing the UKTC. They challenged UKTC's right to use highways in Parliament, and this was not resolved until Parliament passed an Act in 1862 allowing the UKTC to erect trunk lines along highways. The Electric used their exclusive agreements with the railways to demand that they cut down UKTC lines crossing railway property, which for the most part the railway companies complied. The Electric also petitioned other landowners to exclude the UKTC, and in some cases UKTC lines were cut illegally. All this activity made it extremely difficult for the UKTC to establish trunk routes between cities. The UKTC did have one good option; they had exclusive rights along canals, but they could not reach Scotland or Ireland this way.[73]

The UKTC got their first trunk line up in 1863 connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. In 1864, they completed a second trunk along the route London, Northampton, Leicester, Sheffield, Barnsley, Wakefield, and Hull. The northern end of this line was then linked to Manchester and Liverpool, thus connecting the two trunks together at both ends. Later, the trunk network was extended into Scotland reaching Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1865 the network was extended west, reaching Swansea and Plymouth. In 1866, traffic on the UKTC network was nearly three-quarters of a million messages.[74]

The UKTC used the printing telegraph of David Edward Hughes. This was an early form of teleprinter in which the message is directly printed without the operator needing to decode it. Transmission was from a piano-like keyboard marked with the letters of the alphabet. The Electric had tested the Hughes printing telegraph in 1858 but decided against using it.[75] The operation of the printing telegraph was mechanical, a spinning wheel with the character types, similar to a modern daisy wheel printer, was pressed against the paper at the appropriate time. The wheel in the receiving machine had to be kept in exact synchrony with the sending machine, otherwise garbage would be printed. The Hughes machine did this by sending synchronisation pulses down the line. This was a marked improvement on earlier machines which were slow and temperamental.[76]

Universal Private Telegraph Company[edit]

An ABC telegraph instrument from the General Post Office era

The Universal Private Telegraph Company (UPTC) was established in 1861 for the purpose of providing private telegraph links for companies and institutions. The telegraph system they used was the ABC telegraph, also known as Wheatstone's universal telegraph. This was an instrument patented by Charles Wheatstone in 1858. It was designed to be used by unskilled operators with no knowledge of telegraph codes. Letters were marked around a dial with a button for each. The operator pressed the desired button and then turned a handle which generated pulses of current. The pulses moved a pointer through successive positions until it reached the button that had been pressed at which point the current was cut off. A receiving dial indicated the position that had been reached at both ends of the circuit. Although much slower than other telegraph systems, it ws possible to reach 25 wpm with practice.[77]

The company proved to be highly profitable. It charged £4 per mile of wire per annum, and had few overheads. Unlike the public companies, it did not have to staff telegraph offices or employ operators to send and receive messages.[78]

Profitability[edit]

Of the inland public companies, only the ETC and the Magnetic were profitable. The District, with low prices and a troublesome rooftop system to maintain showed a loss every year of its existence except 1865. The UKTC had come late to the party and hoped to take business away from the big two with low prices, but they were handicapped by an inability to obtain wayleaves on the best routes.[79] The resulting price war ended with them joining the ETC/Magnetic cartel and agreeing a common price structure, thus destroying their original business model.[80]

Competition from the District and UKTC, together with economies of scale as the network grew, steadily drove down prices. In 1851 ETC charged ten shillings for a twenty-word inland telegram over 100 miles. This fell to four shillings in 1855.[81] Further reductions occurred in the early 1860s with both the ETC and the Magnetic attempting to compete with the UKTC's flat one shilling rate. The ETC stopped charging for the address as part of the message, effectively reducing the cost further. In 1865, the ETC, Magnetic and UKTC fixed a common scale of charges for all three companies. The flat rate was to be dropped and a twenty-word message would now cost 1s up to 100 miles, 1/6d up to 200 miles, and 2s up to 300 miles. Local messages within London and large towns were 6d.[82]

The falling prices stimulated more traffic as the public started to use the telegraph for mundane everyday messages. This in turn generated a steep increase in profits. Between 1861 and 1866 the combined net profits of the ETC and Magnetic rose from £99,000 to £178,000. This was not solely due to the increasing size of the network, the gross income per mile of wire was also increasing.[83]

News service[edit]

The telegraph companies offered a news service which was particularly useful to regional newspapers who would otherwise have received the information some time after the event. The ETC had a staff of journalists for news gathering and by 1854 had 120 newspaper customers. News items included political news from parliament, stock exchange prices, and sports news, especially horse racing where race results were wanted quickly. Until telegraph offices were opened directly at the racetrack (Newmarket did not get one until 1860) the results were taken to the nearest telegraph office by a fast rider. In places where the office was in line of sight, the results could be signalled to an observer with a telescope at the office, but only in clear weather.[84]

In 1859 the ETC and Magnetic entered into an exclusive agreement with Reuters for the supply of foreign news. Reuters retained the right to directly supply shipping and commercial news to private subscribers in the London region. In 1865 the ETC, Magnetic, and UKTC formed a combined news service. There was now only one source of news by telegraph. This monopoly irritated the newspapers, some of whom campaigned vigorously against the telegraph companies. This control of the news became an argument for nationalisation of the telegraph system.[85]

Submarine cables[edit]

To connect the telegraph to anywhere outside of Britain submarine telegraph cables were needed. Development of these was held back for want of a good insulator. Rubber was tried, but was found to degrade in sea water. The solution came with gutta-percha, a natural latex from certain trees in the Far East. Gutta-percha sets harder than rubber when exposed to the air, but will become plastic, and hence mouldable, in hot water. On cooling, gutta-percha hardens again.[86] The material was brought to attention after William Montgomerie, the head of the medical department in Singapore, sent samples to the Royal Society in 1843.[87] Montgomerie had in mind using the material to make medical equipment. In the damp conditions of the tropics rubber deteriorated rapidly. However, Michael Faraday recognised its potential for underwater cables after testing some samples.[88]

Wheatstone had put plans to the House of Commons for submarine cables as early as 1840. In 1844–5 he tested, probably short lengths, of cable in Swansea Bay. He tried various insulations, including gutta-percha, but he could not find a suitable way of applying it to long runs of cable.[89]

Cable manufacturing companies[edit]

Telcon cable works at Greenwich

The Gutta Percha Company was founded in 1845 to exploit the new material. They initially made bottle stoppers, but soon expanded to a very wide range of products.[90] In 1848, on hearing of the potential use for telegraph cables, they modified a machine for extruding gutta-percha tubing into one capable of continuously applying gutta-percha to a copper conductor.[91] Up to 1865, nearly all the cores for submarine cables in the UK were made by the Gutta Percha Company which had a monopoly on the supply of gutta-percha.[92] The rival India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company was founded in 1864 as an offshoot of S. W. Silver and Co. of Silvertown.[93]

Some early submarine cables were laid with just their insulation for protection. These were not very successful, they were easily damaged and some attempts to lay cables failed because they would not sink.[94] The construction found to work well was to twist the cable cores together, bind with tarred hemp, wind tarred cord around the whole group of cores, and then protect the assembled cores with iron wires twisted around them.[95] The Gutta Percha Company never made completed cables of this sort. Instead they were sent to another company for completion. These companies were specialists in the manufacturing of wire rope. The principal companies involved in this early work were R.S. Newall and Company in Tyne and Wear, Glass, Elliot & Company, and W. T. Henley in London.[96] In 1864, the Gutta Percha Company merged with Glass, Elliot to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon).[97] This was done at the instigation of John Pender with Pender as chairman.[98]

By 1880, cable production was centred on the banks of the Thames in East London. The major supplier by far was Telcon, with some work subcontracted to W. T. Henley at North Woolwich who themselves had become a major manufacturer of electrical equipment with a 16.5 acre site. Gutta-percha production was near-monopolised by the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company, by then a subsidiary of Telcon, at their 15-acre site in Silvertown. The company operated a number of cable ships, of which the Silvertown was the largest in the world at that time. Siemens also had a cable manufacturing facility at Woolwich. Exports were a large part of the business, well over £2 million in 1873, 1% of total British manufactured exports.[99]

Ocean cable companies[edit]

The first ocean cable anywhere in the world was laid across the English Channel. Jacob and John Watkins Brett had been planning such a cable since 1847.[100] In 1849, the South Eastern Railway Company conducted a trial of two miles of cable made by the Gutta Percha Company from the ship Princess Clementine anchored off Folkestone. The ship was able to send telegraph messages directly to London via a connection to the South Eastern's overhead telegraph line.[101] After several failed attempts, the Brett's company, the Submarine Telegraph Company (STC), succeeded in connecting to France in 1851. The company went on to lay numerous other cables to European countries.[102]

The Magnetic had a close relationship with the STC. From about 1857 the Magnetic had an agreement with them that all their submarine cables were to be used only with the landlines of the Magnetic.[103] The Magnetic also had control of the first cable to Ireland. This control of international traffic gave them a significant advantage in the domestic market.[104] Both Newall and Glass, Elliot laid cables as subcontractors to the inland telegraph companies. Newall was prone to fall out with his customers and was often involved in litigation. The company slowly moved away from the telegraph cable business.[105] UKTC laid a cable from Newbiggin to Jutland, Denmark in 1868, and from there extended through to Russia.[106]

The British government took a strong interest in the provision of international telegraph connections. Their assistance included the provision of Royal Navy ships to assist with cable laying and monetary guarantees. Two major failures gave them cause for concern; the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858, and the Red Sea to India cable in 1859 laid by the Red Sea & India Company. Getting a telegraph connection to India had become a priority for the government after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the guarantees provided by the government had caused them a financial loss. In response, a government committee was formed in 1859 to investigate the issue. In their final report in 1861, the committee concluded that future failures of this kind were avoidable now that the technology was better understood. They recommended specifications for future cable construction, installation, and maintenance. After the Red Sea failure, the government no longer provided subsidies or guarantees and left it to private companies to entirely take on the risk of new ventures.[107] A connection to India was achieved in 1864 after the Indian government laid a new cable made by W. T. Henley from Karachi to Fao, Iraq and thence by overland routes. This route was a shorter distance in ocean than the Red Sea route and in shallower water, but still 1,450 miles. This was the first really long submarine cable to be a permanent success.[108]

The nondescript hut where the Porthcurno cables were landed
The equipment inside the Porthcurno hut

Pender's motivation in creating Telcon from the merger of Glass, Elliot and the Gutta Percha companies was to create a company that could make and maintain the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable for the Atlantic Telegraph Company, formed in 1856.[109] With great difficulty, this was achieved in 1866. The transatlantic connection was the last major link in an international network. London could now communicate with almost any other telegraph office in the world. In 1862, a new submarine cable had been laid from Queenstown in southern Ireland to St David's Head in Wales. When this was connected to the transatlantic landing point at Valentia Bay (opposite Valentia Island) it dramatically reduced the distance transatlantic messages had to travel from Ireland to London from 750 miles to 285 miles[110]

The success of the transatlantic cable triggered the formation of a multiplicity of new companies to lay more submarine cables around the world. Most of these companies were founded by Pender. Pender's first project was to lay a new cable to India that went most of the distance in international waters where it would remain in British control and avoid the political and other risks of an overland route. Telcon manufactured the cable and converted the SS Great Eastern into a cable ship to lay it. To limit the risk, Pender founded three companies, each tasked with laying one section of the cable. The Anglo-Mediterranean Company (founded 1868) laid a cable from Malta to Alexandria in Egypt. From there a short overland cable via Cairo connected to Suez. The Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company (founded 1869) connected Malta, to Porthcurno, Cornwall with landings at Gibraltar and Carcavelos, Portugal. Falmouth was originally intended as the landing site in England, but in the event, the tiny village of Porthcurno became the largest submarine cable station in the world after numerous other cables were landed there. The final link was provided by the British-Indian Submarine Company (founded 1869) from Suez via Aden to Bombay in 1870. Once the connection was complete, all three companies were merged as the Eastern Telegraph Company in 1872. James Anderson, the captain of the Great Eastern was made managing director.[111]

A cable going east from India was laid by the British-Indian Submarine Extension Company in 1871. This ran from Madras, which was connected overland to Bombay, to Singapore via Penang and Malacca. This met a cable in Singapore laid by the China Submarine Telegraph Company (founded 1869) running to Hong Kong. The British-Australian Telegraph Company (founded 1870) then connected Hong Kong to Port Darwin, Australia via Java. This was the end point of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, running 2,000 miles to Port Augusta in South Australia. The three companies were merged as the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company in 1873. This company connected Australia to New Zealand in 1876. Other Pender companies included the Western and Brazilian Telegraph Company (1873), the Brazilian Submarine Telegraph Company (1873), Marseilles, Algiers and Malta Telegraph Company (1870), Eastern & South African Telegraph Company (1879), and the African Direct Telegraph Company (1885). All these companies were merged into the Eastern Telegraph Company, which became the Eastern and Associated Cable Company and the largest multinational of the 19th century.[112]

British telegraph global network in 1902

The development of the undersea telegraph cable network began in the late nineteenth century. In October 1902 a worldwide network of cables and relay stations – including some 100,000 miles of undersea cables – was inaugurated. This was called the “All-Red Line” and carried long distance telecommunications to all parts of the British Empire. It was so called because at that time British territories and colonies were usually coloured red or pink.[113]

In 1928 the British submarine cables still dominated world telecommunications, but they were increasingly under threat from radiotelegraphy. A particular concern was RCA in the US, but they were also losing business due to the Imperial Wireless Chain set up by the British government to connect the empire together. The transmitters for the Imperial Chain were supplied by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company which was also a competitor outside the Empire.[114] The Electra House Group, an informal alliance of British telecommunication companies, decided that they could best compete worldwide by merging the cable and radio companies into a single entity. Thus, the Eastern Telegraph Company and the Marconi Wireless Company were merged into Imperial and International Communications Ltd, which in 1934 changed its name to Cable & Wireless Ltd.[115] The Porthcurno station stayed open for exactly one hundred years, closing in 1970 when the last cable was taken out of service.[116] Submarine coaxial cables with repeaters had been in use for some time which carried multiple telephone channels by frequency division multiplexing.[117] There was no real need for distinct telegraph cables any more. Telegraph was declining and multiple telegraph channels could be multiplexed into a single telephone channel since the 1920s.[118] The building is now the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and historic archive of Cable & Wireless.[119]

Maintenance and technical problems[edit]

Maintenance costs of submarine cables were high. They were frequently damaged by ships' anchors and the insulation deteriorated over time. They were most at risk in shallow water near the coast, but very deep water was also avoided because it was difficult to retrieve cables for repair. In 1868, the expected life of a cable was fifteen years, and most laid to that date had not even lasted that long.[120] A similar problem of deteriorating insulation plagued inland buried cables, the Magnetic suffering the most from this.[121]

Lord Kelvin, gave the first mathematical description of retardation

A recurring problem on buried cables, and most especially submarine cables, was the phenomenon of dispersion, which produces the effect called retardation. Dispersion, as it relates to transmission lines, is different frequency components of a signal travelling along a line at different speeds. Frequency analysis of this sort was not understood by early telegraph engineers.[122] The effect of dispersion on a telegraph pulse is to spread it out in time. This is because a rectangular pulse (as used in telegraphy) has multiple frequency components. At the receiving end it appears as if part of the pulse has been retarded, hence the term. The problem this causes for telegraphy is that adjacent pulses smear into each other, and if severe enough the message cannot be read. It forces the operator to slow the speed of sending so that there is again separation between the pulses.[123] The problem was so bad on the first transatlantic cable in 1858 that transmission speeds were in minutes per word rather than words per minute. Thinking he could solve the problem by using a higher voltage, telegraph engineer Wildman Whitehouse only succeeded in permanently damaging the cable making it unusable.[124]

Retardation is worse in insulated cables because the electromagnetic wave is travelling mostly in the insulation material. Uninsulated wires on overhead poles, the most common system on overland routes, are little effected, even over large distances. This solution is not open to submarine cables and the very long distances maximise the problem.[125] The problem of retardation was not fully solved until the introduction of long-distance telephony made it essential to do so.[126] However, various mitigating actions were taken. The Magnetic, who operated a large number of buried cables, had an instrument which sent a delayed pulse of opposite polarity to the main pulse, cancelling the worst of the retarded signal.[127] The mirror galvanometer of Lord Kelvin made it easier to read weak signals,[128] and larger cables with thicker insulation had less retardation.[129]

In 1854, Kelvin produced a mathematical description of retardation by analogy with heat flow after the fiasco with first the transatlantic cable. In 1881, Oliver Heaviside gave the full analysis of transmission lines which showed how the problem arose and in 1887 suggested how it could be resolved.[130] Heaviside believed that adding the right amount of inductance to the line would completely remove the dispersion effect. He tried to persuade the General Post Office to take up the idea, but he was a maverick outsider and was ignored.[131] It was left to George Ashley Campbell in the US to implement the idea when he added loading coils to a telephone line for the first time in 1900.[132]

Employment of women[edit]

The telegraph companies began employing women as telegraph operators early on. The Magnetic was one of the first to do so[133] and the ETC started employing them from 1855. It was a popular, keenly sought job with unmarried women, who had few other good options. It was a well paid job in nice surroundings. The ETC paid between 10s and 30s per week[134] and the Magnetic paid a starting rate of 10s.[135] The District also heavily employed women when it started up in 1859. New recruits were unpaid until they completed training (typically six weeks) at the end of which they were expected to achieve a minimum transmission speed (10 wpm at the Magnetic[136] and 8 wpm at the ETC). Failure to achieve this minimum speed resulted in dismissal.[137]

These wages compared very well with other common occupations for women. A seamstress working at home, for instance, earned about 3d day. The pay was still less than a male operator could expect. Holding down pay and the fact that women were not organised into unions were the primary reasons the companies preferred to employ them. Adolescent boys were also employed, but only men ever worked the night shifts.[138]

Public take up[edit]

The ability of the telegraph was first brought to the attention of a wider public on 6 August 1844 when the birth of Alfred Ernest Albert to Queen Victoria was reported in The Times only 40 minutes after it was announced. A second event was even more sensational when John Tawell murdered a woman in Salt Hill and tried to escape by train. His description was telegraphed to Paddington and he was arrested shortly after arriving. The event was widely reported in the newspapers.[139]

The 1851 channel cable caused a major boost in the reputation of the telegraph. Prices in Paris could be relayed to the London Stock Exchange the same day during opeing hours. This was an unprecedented ability in international communications. Likewise, news stories in France could be reported promptly to London newspapers. Also in 1851, the Great Exhibition featured many telegraph instruments which greatly enhanced the public awareness of the telegraph.[140]

The biggest driver of public take up was the fall in prices; firstly, through competition under the companies, especially competition with the District,[141] and later price control under nationalisation.[142]

Nationalisation[edit]

An early advocate of nationalisation was Thomas Allan in 1854. Allan believed that a flat rate of one shilling for 20 words regardless of distance would encourage wider use of the telegraph, which in turn would lead to more intensive usage of lines and the economic case for building new lines. This could only come about, according to Allan, if the Post Office ran the network as a unified whole, comparing his proposal to the effect of the introduction of the Penny Post. Allan later tried to bring about cheaper telegrams through private enterprise by founding the UKTC.[143] A more surprising, and more influential, advocate was John Ricardo, free trade campaigning Member of Parliament, railway entrepreneur, banker, and cofounder of the ETC. In 1861 he wrote a memorandum to William Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, setting out the case for nationalisation. Ricardo's argument was that the telegraph was an important government tool for diplomatic, military, and administrative purposes. He pointed out that in all European countries state control had been in place from the beginning.[144]

The first sign of government disquiet came in 1862 when the Act enabling the UKTC was passed. Provisions were made to prevent the UKTC selling assets to other companies without permission. This was to discourage the UKTC from joining the emerging cartel in the telegraph industry. A further cause for concern came in 1865 when the companies, including the UKTC, set common tariffs and dropped the one shilling/20-word flat rate.[145] In 1863, a Telegraph Act gave the Board of Trade the power to regulate the telegraph companies on the same basis as other utilities.[146] In 1865, Lord Stanley the Postmaster General, came out in favour of nationalisation with Frank Ives Scudamore leading the campaign.[147] Scudamore pointed out that telegraph offices were often located inconveniently at railway stations outside town, some towns were not served at all, and some had multiple offices from rival companies next to each other. State control in continental countries, according to Scudamore, ensured a more rational and convenient distribution of offices and cheaper rates led to greater telegraph use. His opponents pointed to the United States where rates where also cheaper, but with a great profusion of private companies.[148] Many newspapers campaigned for nationalisation. They were generally dissatisfied with the news service they got from the companies, and they especially resented not being able to choose their own news provider. They wanted the telegraph merely to deliver the product from their chosen supplier.[149]

Telegraph Act 1868[edit]

By 1866 it was clear that the government intended to nationalise the inland telegraph. This had the effect of inhibiting growth of the network. In fact, in that year growth temporarily went backwards due to a great snowstorm in January. Every above ground line within a 50-mile radius of London was damaged and the rooftop system of the District was put entirely out of action. Across the country, the Electric had 450 miles of line damaged. In May, the Panic of 1866 put a further brake on growth.[150] The financial turmoil and the resultant change of government caused a delay, but did not change the policy.[151] In the following year, much parliamentary time was taken up with the Reform Bill and Scudamore's Bill did not come before parliament until 1868.[152] The Bill did not mandate nationalisation or give the Post Office a legal monopoly. It merely gave the Post Office the right to set up telegraph services on the same basis as private companies and the ability to purchase private companies or their assets through normal commercial negotiation.[153]

The resulting opposition from the telegraph companies had been expected.[154] What had not been expected was that the railway companies were going to be a problem. Scudamore had made no allowance in costing the scheme for purchasing railway wayleaves. The railway companies started to vociferously oppose the Telegraph Bill. Many railway telegraph systems were run by the telegraph company that had the wayleave. If the Post Office were to take over the telegraph company, the railway company would, or so they claimed, have the additional expense of running their own telegraph. This difficulty came as a great surprise to the new Chancellor, George Ward Hunt.[155] The problem for the Post Office was that they could not take over on the same terms as private companies, effectively becoming servants of the railway companies. They wanted the lines, but not the terms that came with them.[156]

The government was determined to reach a decision quickly so that future planning was not left in limbo, and rising company share prices meant that delay would likely add to the costs. In June, the companies started to negotiate, fearing that if they did not, a disadvantageous arrangement would be imposed on them. A select committee under Hunt reached deals with the telegraph companies based on the last twenty years net profits, and compensation for the railway companies. By July, opposition had largely disappeared.[157] It was not originally planned to nationalise the UPTC because they had no lines for general public use; all its lines were private wires in which the Post Office had no interest. However, the UPTC complained that the planned Post Office uniform rate would so damage their business that they would become unprofitable. This persuaded Hunt that private wires should be nationalised as well. Another problem area was the cables to continental Europe. The Magnetic was obliged to send all continental traffic through STC's cables. The ETC was obliged to use Reuter's Nordeney cable. It would be impossible for a unified nationalised organisation to simultaneously meet both contractual obligations. The solution arrived at, in a great hurry and afterwards admitted to be not ideal, was to purchase Reuter's cables and lease them back to the STC, together with other continental cables acquired by the Post Office. Reuters and STC were to remain un-nationalised. The Bill was passed into law as the Telegraph Act 1868, to take effect July 1869.[158]

The government did not immediately authorise expenditure under the Act. They had become concerned that entrepreneurs who had been bought out would set up in business again undercutting the Post Office flat rate of one shilling in lucrative city areas (6d had been charged in London by the District) with no obligation to serve unremunerative outlying areas. Consequently, nationalisation was delayed until The Telegraph Act of 1869 was passed. This amended the 1868 Act to create a Post Office monopoly,[159] with the actual transfer taking effect on 1 January 1870.[160] Companies operating submarine cables with no landlines were excluded from nationalisation.[161] Any company that had not, so far, been taken over by the Post Office could demand this happen under the Act for the same 20-year net profit basis as before. Several small companies that the Post Office considered virtually defunct and not worth buying took advantage of this.[162] The Telegraph Acts Extension Act 1870 extended the monopoly to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man resulting in the purchase of the Jersey and Guernsey Telegraph Company and the Isle of Man Electric Telegraph Company. The Orkneys & Shetland Telegraph Company was purchased in 1876–77 and the Scilly Islands Telegraph Company in 1879–80.[163]

Aftermath[edit]

There was some criticism of the government handling of the nationalisation. The total price paid for nationalising the telegraph was £5.9 million, compared to Scudamore's original estimate of £2.5 million.[164] By 1876, the total cost of acquisitions and extensions exceeded £10 million.[165] The price paid for most of the telegraph companies far exceeded their capital value due to the 20-year profit calculation.[166] In comparison, the cost of the telegraph across the whole of continental Europe was only £4 million.[167] It was alleged in parliament, somewhat speculatively, that a new UK telegraph system could have been built from scratch for £2 million.[168] The discrepancy was largely due to the unbudgeted payments to the railways, but compounded by paying them on the basis of 20 years net profit. Most of the railway leases had far less than 20 years to run so the Post Office was not going to get 20 years profit from the purchase. However, it was difficult to avoid once the principle had been established; Reuters went to arbitration over the issue when the government offered them a lesser deal and won.[169]

Further criticism concerned the purchase of the reversionary rights of the railway wayleaves, which had been another unforeseen expense. Without these purchases, when the lease expired, the railway company would then have the right to use the line for public telegraphy on its own account unless a new lease was taken out. Another issue concerned the railways free use of the telegraph on their property. This was part of the leasing arrangement with the private companies and was inherited by the Post Office. In most cases, the railway company was also entitled to send free messages to stations not on its own line. The purpose of this facility was supposed to be for the control of trains, but it was heavily abused; in 1891 1.6 million free messages were sent, compared to 97,000 in 1871.[170] The contractual arrangements with the railway companies were so complex that arbitration cases concerning them were still being heard ten years after nationalisation.[171]

Post Office Telegraphs[edit]

Post Office Telegraphs placed their head office in Telegraph Street in the old ETC building.[172] "The ever open door" was their slogan above the entrance.[173] Immediately after nationalisation, they set about extending the telegraph from outlying railway stations to town centres. It was their policy to provide telegraph facilities at every office from which money orders could be sent, a great increase on the existing number. For instance, the number of telegraph offices in London increased from 95 in 1869 to 334 in 1870. By the end of 1870, over 90% of telegrams were sent from post offices.[174] By 1872, the Post Office had 5,000 offices and traffic had increased 50% over pre-nationalisation, to some 12 million messages per year.[175] More offices meant installing more lines, plus the lines handed over to the railways for operating their own internal telegraphs had to be replaced.[176] In 1872 there was 22,000 miles of line, 83,000 miles of wire, and over 6.000 instruments.[177] By 1875, the Telegraph Street central office was the largest telegraph centre in the world with 450 instruments on three floors working connections both domestically in the UK and worldwide on the Imperial telegraph network.[178]

Hugh Childers

The Post Office decided to standardise on the Morse telegraph system,[179] which had been the international standard since 1865.[180] A great variety of different equipments had been used by the companies. The largest company, ETC, used the Cooke and Wheatstone needle telegraph. It is possible to send Morse code on a needle telegraph system but this is slower than using Morse sounders.[181] This standardisation could not be immediately implemented everywhere, not least because the Franco-Prussian War prevented imports of German-made instruments.[182] Some needle telegraphs continued in use, mostly on the railways, well in to the 20th century.[183]

In 1873 Scudamore left the Post Office under a cloud. He had been taking money out of other Post Office budgets to pay for the unforeseen costs of telegraph expansion, anticipating that Parliament would soon approve more money. He went to Turkey where he was employed to modernise the post and telegraph of the Ottoman Empire.[184] The losses of Post Office Telegraphs steadily grew till 1914. Interest on the capital overspend was not the only problem. Although Scudamore's estimate of the increase in traffic from expansion proved largely accurate, the operating costs were badly underestimated. As a result, net revenue was not sufficient to cover the interest on loans and year on year the debt was growing.[185] On the other hand, the Post Office overall remained profitable throughout.[186]

The government attempted to stop the rot with a change in policy in 1873. No longer was it policy to open a telegraph facility at every office issuing money orders in outlying areas. It would now have to be shown first that the office was likely to be profitable. There was no proposal to disconnect already connected unprofitable offices. However, the number of these declined with increasing traffic.[187] The situation was not helped when in 1883, against the wishes of the government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Childers, parliament, under pressure from business groups, called for the minimum charge on inland telegrams to be reduced to 6d.[188] In 1885 Postmaster General George Shaw-Lefevre introduced a Bill to implement the 6d rate, which was passed into law. Shaw-Lefevre tried to mitigate the adverse effects by limiting 6d telegrams to only 12 words, including the address. Addresses had previously been free, but would now be charged for on all telegrams. £500,000 was spent on new wires and training additional staff in anticipation of the increased traffic. Traffic did indeed increase enormously, from 33 million messages in 1884–85 to 50 million in 1886–87 and reaching its peak by 1900 at over 90 million. At the same time, there was a large increase in the deficit, mainly due to the cost of the increased staff.[189] Despite the losses, the telegraph was retained in national ownership as it was considered a public service.[190]

Unionisation[edit]

In 1871 the Telegraphers' Association was formed amongst the telegraph clerks at Manchester with the aim of agitating for higher wages. This was the first active union in the public service. Scudamore demanded that the clerks resign from the association and then dismissed those that refused. There followed a strike to demand their reinstatement. Scudamore blocked the telegraphic transmission of news of the strike to national newspapers. The resulting protests from the press got him officially censured. Wages were increased in 1872 and a formal staff structure introduced. Their pay was still less than the pay in cable and maintenance companies; more than 2,300 out of 6,000 clerks left the Post Office between 1872 and 1880.[191]

In 1868 Charles Monk got a private member's bill through parliament extending the vote to Post Office workers and other civil servants. It became law despite opposition from the Benjamin Disraeli government and lack of support from Gladstone, the leader of the opposition. There was concern that organised workers could have undue influence on Members of Parliament, but this fear never materialised.[192]

Exchange Telegraph Company[edit]

The Exchange Telegraph Company (later known as Extel) was, like Reuters, a news distribution service. It was founded in 1862, but was a very minor player until 1872 when the Post Office granted it a license to provide London Stock Exchange prices and other financial news to its customers in London. Their license limited their operation to within 900 yards of the stock exchange. Similar licenses were later granted for local stock exchanges in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dublin. These were all linked to a central office from where news could be distributed. Extel also provided a service for calling the police, or raising a fire alarm.[193]

Competition from the telephone[edit]

William Preece, 1904

Usage of the telegraph never developed to the extent predicted by Scudamore. Despite the introduction of the 6d rate, it was still too expensive to compete on price with the letter post and, from its introduction at the end of the 19th century, the telephone.[194] Telephones were first introduced to Britain when William Preece, Post Office Chief Electrician (chief engineer),[195] exhibited a pair he had brought from America in 1877. In 1878 the Post Office entered into an agreement with Bell Telephone Company for the supply of telephones. It was initially only intended that telephone instruments would be hired out as alternatives to the Wheatstone ABC telegraph on private wires.[196]

There then followed the founding of a string of private telephone companies; the Telephone Company had the rights to Alexander Graham Bell's patent and the Edison Telephone Company had the rival patents of Thomas Edison, the two later merging as the United Telephone Company (UTC). Additionally, a number of companies were founded to set up telephone exchanges, starting with the Lancashire Telephone Exchange Company in Manchester in 1879. Telephones on private wires were not a threat, but if exchanges were allowed to connect people over more than a very limited distance, or even worse, connect between exchanges nationally, serious damage could be done to the telegraph business.[197] Parliament had declined to give the Post Office a monopoly of telephones. However, telephone messages, the Post Office argued, counted as telegraph messages under the Telegraph Act 1869, so telephone exchanges could not be set up by private companies without a license from the Post Office.[198]

The Post Office announced that they would issue licenses similar to the license granted to Extel in 1872, with a limit of half a mile to the distance an exchange could connect. The companies challenged the Post Office monopoly in court, but lost the case in 1880.[199] The same year, a new Postmaster General, the blind Henry Fawcett, started setting up telephone exchanges on the Post Office's own account by modifying the ABC telegraph private wire network, and using telephones made by the Gower Bell Telephone Company.[200] The telephone companies launched an appeal against the court decision. The UTC, which held all the telephone instrument patents, further claimed that Gower-Bell, by selling to the Post Office, were in breach of their license which forbade them to set up their own exchanges. However, an agreement was reached before it came to court. The companies were given licenses on more liberal terms and in exchange they dropped their appeal and recognised the Post Office monopoly.[201]

The Post Office now accepted that the telegraph service was going to decline. Financially, they were in a better position as the telephone business was very lucrative for them. Not only was there a fixed charge for the licenses, but the Post Office also took 10% of company gross receipts as a royalty payment. The cost to the Post Office of maintaining the telephone system was insignificant compared to the cost of the telegram system. The Post Office was careful not to allow the companies to grow into a national system. They refused the companies permission to install trunk lines in 1881, preferring to provide them themselves and rent to the companies. Licenses were limited to one year so that only the Post Office had long term control.[202] In response to complaints that the Post Office was hindering the development of the telephone in the UK, Fawcett, in 1884, allowed the companies to build trunk lines. Nevertheless, telephone development in the UK still lagged behind other countries.[203]

In 1889, the three main companies, UTC, National, and Lancashire & Cheshire amalgamated as the National Telephone Company (NTC).[204] In 1891 the NTC patents ran out and nationalisation was mooted but the Post Office was not ready to do so.[205] The NTC was accused of inefficiency, high prices, and, especially in London, of disfiguring the landscape with haphazard overhead wires.[206] When the NTC's license expired in 1911 they were nationalised under the Post Office.[207] After 1911, telegraph usage declined rapidly.[208] At the same time, telephone use grew, especially after 1960; by 1970 there were nearly 14 million telephones in the UK, nearly double the 1960 figure.[209]

Specialist uses[edit]

Railway block signalling[edit]

From the beginning, Cooke promoted the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph to the railways as a safer way of working, particularly on single lines, with the first installations in the 1840s. Previously, separation of trains had relied on strict timetabling. Block working, controlled by the telegraph, ensured that only one train at a time could be on a section of line.[210] The benefits of block working were not generally appreciated until the late 1860s. The number of block instruments on the London and North Western Railway, for instance, increased from 311 in 1869 to 3,000 in 1879.[211]

News service[edit]

Lord Rothermere, 1914

Prior to World War I, the telegraph rates charged to news services was much discussed. There was an extremely preferential rate granted for news providers. They were charged 1s for 75 or 100 words (depending whether it was inside or out of office hours respectively) and then 2d for each additional 75/100 words, including repeat messages to different addresses. Thus, a journalist could send 100 messages and 99 of them would cost only 2d. This was not profitable for the Post Office, but the government was reluctant to act because they did not want to antagonise the newspapers.[212] The issue was put on hold when war broke out, but in 1915 the minimum price of ordinary inland telegrams was raised from 6d to 9d. The Postmaster General, Herbert Samuel, commented "If 6d for 12 words is unremunerative, 1s for 100 words is far more so", let alone the 2d copy rate for subsequent messages.[213] Samuel proposed a new press scale of 1s for 60/80 words and a copy rate of 3d.[214] This was first delayed to 1917 because of the war, and then to 1920 when it was finally implemented.[215]

Some of the London press, notably Harold Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere), proprietor of the Daily Mirror and cofounder of the Daily Mail, supported increased charges, which would tend to discourage new rivals. In 1926 Harmsworth tried to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, but the Postmaster General, William Mitchell-Thomson was against charging an economic rate. Provincial papers would stop using the telegraph, or be driven out of business altogether, with little saving to the Post Office. The fixed costs of maintaining and operating the telegraph system would still have to be paid.[216] The press rate was not increased until 1940 when it went up to 1/3d when there was a general increase in all charges. The copy rate remained at 3d until 1955 when it was abolished. By that time, with increasing use of the telephone, income from press telegrams had become insignificant.[217]

Military[edit]

The first military use of the telegraph in action was during the Crimean War (1853–1856). A submarine cable was laid across the Black Sea from Varna to Balaklava.[218] The army found the use of civilian volunteer telegraphists problematic because of their lack of military training. From 1870, the War Office arranged with the Post Office for the training of military telegraphists. Royal Engineers from the Telegraph Battalion were employed on state telegraphs and withdrawn for overseas duties in time of war.[219]

In World War I, the telegraph was recognised as being of crucial importance. Both sides tried to damage the international telegraph lines of the other. Post Office cable ships were involved in the action.[220] Just a few hours after the declaration of war on 4 August 1914, CS Alert cut the German cables in the English Channel, almost completely isolating Germany from the rest of the world.[221] In 1915, CS Monarch was sunk by a German mine off Folkstone.[222]

Meteorology[edit]

The science of meteorology was greatly assisted by the rapid weather reports made possible by the telegraph. In 1860 the Magnetic was contracted by the Board of Trade to pass weather data between London and Paris. Lighthouses, lightships, and islands got telegraph connections and became weather stations. There were even attempts to place weather ships far out into the Atlantic. The first attempt was in 1870 with the old Corvette The Brick 50 miles off Lands End. £15,000 was spent on the project, but ultimately it failed. In 1881, there was a proposal for a weather ship in the mid-Atlantic, but it came to nothing.[223] Deep-ocean weather ships had to await the commencement of radio telegraphy.[224]

Emergency services[edit]

The provision of telegraph connections to lightships gave a means of calling for assistance to a ship in difficulties. Prior to having a telegraph connection, there had been cases of ships wrecked on rocks after being seen to be struggling by a lightship for as long as twelve hours. For instance, the SS Agnes Jack sunk with the loss of all hands in January 1883 in view of a lightship off the coast of Wales.[225]

Installation of street call-points to raise a fire alarm by electric telegraph had been installed in Europe as early as 1849 in Berlin. Siemens Brothers had proposed a system in Manchester using the now ubiquitous break glass call-points around 1861. The town council rejected the scheme through fear of hooliganism. The first system was not installed in Britain until the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in London took it up in 1880, installing 40 call points. Other towns soon followed and there was a dramatic reduction in serious fires as a result.[226]

The police were an early user of telegraph private wires. In 1850 Scotland Yard had a line to Charing Cross railway station. In 1860 the police stations of the City of London were connected together using the Wheatstone ABC system. Church steeples were used to keep the wires high and out of reach of vandals and criminals. In 1872–73 the Metropolitan Police connected numerous points in their district to police stations.[227]

Automation[edit]

Punched paper tape with Baudot code messages

The teleprinter was invented in the United States in 1915, but was not taken up by the Post Office until 1922, after a British company, Creed & Company, started producing a similar machine in 1921. From then on, teleprinters started to replace the Morse system,[228] and Morse was completely eliminated from Post Office landlines and submarine lines in 1932, but continued in use in radiotelegraphy.[229] A teleprinter has a typewriter-like keyboard for sending messages, which are automatically printed at both the sending and receiving end. The system had great cost savings for the Post Office. The operators did not need to be trained in Morse and the receiving operator did not need to be attending the machine during receipt of the message. It was only necessary to fix the printed message to the telegram form for delivery. Thus, one operator could work several telegraph lines simultaneously.[230]

Post Office telegram messenger motorcycle c. 1957

On busy lines, multiplexing was used to avoid the cost of erecting additional wires. The Post Office used a system that could simultaneously send four messages in each direction (eight simultaneous messages in all). These systems were usually used in conjunction with high speed paper punched tape readers to maximise the usage of the line. Messages were first typed on to punched tape before sending to the line. The code used was the Baudot code, invented by Émile Baudot. Early keyboards used were Baudot's five-key "piano" keyboards (each key corresponding to one of the bits of the code, and hence to one hole in each column of holes on the tape), but later keyboards were typewriter-like.[231]

Because traffic was declining in the 1920s, it was not worthwhile to automate many less busy lines. Wherever possible, the Post Office closed direct lines and diverted traffic on to the main automated lines by a more circuitous route. about eighty such circuits were closed.[232] Between 1929 and 1935, on the recommendation of a committee set up by Postmaster General William Mitchell-Thomson in 1927,[233] the old Morse and Baudot equipments were replaced with Creed teleprinters without waiting for the apparatus to reach end of life. The War Office expressed concern at this change; they would no longer have a pool of trained Morse operators to call upon. Another innovation in this period was the use of motorcycle messengers to speed up delivery.[234]

Automation, closing uneconomic lines, and staff rationalisation reduced, but did not eliminate, the deficit on the telegraph service. Between 1930 and 1934 the deficit fell from over £1 million to £650,000.[235] Towards the end of the 1930s, teleprinter automatic switching in exchanges was introduced, eliminating the need for manual exchange operators. The possibility of direct dialling between customers' teleprinters was investigated in 1939,[236] but nothing was done until after World War II.[237]

Decline and recovery[edit]

Female telegram messenger during World War I

The pre-war decline was briefly halted during World War I, but usage started falling again in 1920 when the minimum charge for inland telegrams doubled to one shilling. By 1935, with the country in the grip of economic depression, inland telegram messages had fallen to 35 million, less than half the pre-war figure, and just over one third of the 1900 peak.[238] At the same time, telephone usage rapidly increased as the number of subscribers grew. Telephone calls grew from 716 million in 1919 to over 2.2 billion in 1939. Even the number of telephone trunk calls alone, 112 million in 1939, exceeded the number of telegrams.[239] In some cases telegrams were sent or received by telephone (phonograms), making it increasingly difficult to treat the two services separately.[240] By 1939, 40% of telegrams were phonograms.[241]

Another issue that encouraged decline was the introduction in 1921 of telegram delivery by "walks" similar to the way mail was delivered. That is, a group of telegrams were all delivered by one messenger on the same outing over a predefined route. Previously, a messenger was sent out from the receiving office as soon as the telegram was received. This eroded the speed advantage of the telegraph over the post, although the time between walks was still usually very short; the postal service was cheaper and could guarantee next-day delivery almost anywhere in the British Isles, which for most purposes was good enough. Around 800 fewer messengers were required as a result of the introduction of this system.[242]

In 1935 Postmaster General Kingsley Wood took steps to increase the usage of the telegraph service. The 6d rate was restored, but for only nine words. A priority service was introduced for an additional 6d, delivered in a red envelope. Special envelopes were also introduced for greetings telegrams, coloured gold with a red and blue border, and a dove logo. This service was heavily publicised to overcome a widespread belief that telegrams usually meant bad news. The message was hand written rather than printed tape, and the Post Office provided a free diary service for recurring events like birthdays and anniversaries. In 1939, over 4 million greetings telegrams were delivered and the total number of telegrams got back up to 50 million.[243] Another service introduced around this time was facsimile by telegraphy. This was heavily used by newspapers to receive photographs.[244]

World War II[edit]

Telegraph messengers collecting telephone messages for bombed-out telephone subscribers at an emergency telephone bureau

World War II saw an increase in telegraph traffic. Usage peaked in 1945 with 63 million messages. Children evacuated overseas were given one free telegram per month to stay in touch with their parents.[245] Telegraph operators trained in Morse were considered important enough to make them a reserved occupation.[246]

Enemy action caused disruption to the British telegraph system both domestically and in the imperial network worldwide, but communication was largely maintained. The Central Telegraph Office in Telegraph Street was destroyed in a bombing raid in December 1940.[247] Service was maintained by emergency centres in London set up to cover just such an eventuality. In 1941, in the City of London (the financial centre), messengers were stationed in the street to collect telegrams.[248] Italy entered the war on the Axis side in June 1940 immediately after the Fall of France to the Germans. The Italian navy then cut the five British telegraph cables from Gibraltar to Malta and two of the five going on from Malta to Alexandria. This was the most direct route of communication with the British forces in Egypt and East Africa. The resistance of the British Egyptian forces to Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps played an important part in winning the war, and it was vital to maintain a telegraph connection. Malta was important too because of the threat it posed to Rommel's line of communication. The telegraph system was resilient enough to do this, but only by a very roundabout route going all round the continent of Africa on submarine cables.[249]

End of the telegraph era[edit]

Telegrams[edit]

After the war, telegram usage went back into decline and the deficit was back in the millions of pounds. Telegram numbers were 42 million in 1950, under 14 million in 1960, and only 7.7 million in 1970, the lowest it had ever been under nationalisation.[250] Repeated price rises by successive Postmasters General Ness Edwards and Ernest Marples to try to keep the deficit under control only made the situation worse by driving traffic down even further.[251] Other measures were the ending or reduction of special prices for certain categories. These included the end of free messages for the railways in 1967, increase of the press rate, and increase of the surcharge for telegrams to the Republic of Ireland, which had not been part of the United Kingdom since 1922, and officially a republic since 1949.[252]

Valentine's Day greeting telegram, 1935

One area that continued to grow was greetings telegrams. More special occasion categories were added and premium "de luxe" telegrams were introduced for some categories in 1961.[253] Business use of public telegrams, once the major user of the service, was now minimal.[254]

In 1969 Post Office Telecommunications, of which the telegraph service formed a part, was made a distinct department of the Post Office,[255] and in 1981 it was separated entirely from the Post Office as British Telecom as a first step to its privatisation in 1984.[256] British Telecom ended their inland telegram service in 1982. International telegrams were still handled, of which there were 13.7 million in 1970.[257] However, incoming international telegrams were no longer delivered by messenger, they were instead delivered by ordinary post.[258]

The telegram service was replaced with the telemessage service in which the message is dictated over the phone to an operator and delivered by post in a yellow envelope similar to the old telegram envelope. British Telecom discontinued this service in 2003 and sold the business to Telegrams Online.[259]

Telex and private wires[edit]

While the telegram service was declining post-war, in the same period business use of telegraph private wires and telex was growing.[260] Most press traffic was also now on telex or private wires so the increase in the press rate on the public telegram system was of little concern to them.[261] Telex was a switched network of teleprinters using automatic exchanges. The address of the recipient was contained in the header of the message which the automatic exchanges could read. Telex, standing for "telegraphy exchange", was originally a trademark of Western Union who set up a telex system in the United States in 1962, but soon became a generic name for the worldwide teleprinter switched network that developed from 1970 onwards. In Britain, the Post Office moved to automatic switching in 1947, sowing the seed of the international telex network. The advantages of telex over telephone were that an operator was not required to permanently staff the station to receive messages, and that a printed message provided a permanent record.[262]

As office computers became commonplace in the 1980s, telex switched to a new telegraph code, ASCII, to aid integration with computers. ASCII is a 7-bit code, compared to the Baudot 5-bit code, which means it has enough codes to represent both upper and lower case whereas Baudot machines printed in upper case only. Teleprinters could then be used in conjunction with word processor programs for instance.[263] Telex was mostly superseded by e-mail and the internet in the 1990s. The number of subscribers in the UK fell from 115,000 in 1988 to 18,000 in 1997.[264] One of the last groups using the telex service was solicitors, who used it for exchange of contracts in conveyancing amongst other things. Conveyancing can be done by post or telephone, but telex has an immediacy that the former does not, and provides a written record that the latter does not. Conveyancing can also be done over the internet, but in the 1990s there was some concern over its security.[265]

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