The birth of the electric telegraph, often referred to as the ‘Victorian Internet’ is being celebrated this month by BT Heritage. It is 170 years since the first signal was sent by telegraph starting a period of rapid expansion of a communications network in the nineteenth century which can be likened to the twentieth century’s internet boom.
The signal was sent on 25 July 1837 by Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke who sent a message to each other via telegraph between Euston and Camden Town in London alongside the line of the recently built London and Birmingham Railway.
The growth of the telegraph network saw the introduction of a public telegram service as a convenient and speedy means of communication. Telegrams – the messages sent and received over the wires, were as revolutionary in the nineteenth century as the invention of email and text messages became in the twentieth century.
Research commissioned by Connected Earth, part of BT’s heritage initiative, reveals that the internet has had a profound effect on our lives, with almost half (48%) of people in the UK voting it the most useful piece of communications technology ever invented. The telephone followed with a quarter of the vote whilst TV and radio scraped just over 5% each.
Yet the seeds of how we now communicate with each other across long distances instantly were sown back in 1837 with the transmission of that first telegraph message.
David Hay, head of BT Heritage, comments: “The internet has now become embedded into our daily lives in such a way that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. But peer to peer communication has existed for a very long time and email and text messages are basically modern incarnations of the telegram which is why many people refer to the telegraph system as the Victorian Internet.
Businesses and individuals seized the opportunities offered by the new speed of telegraph communication and it quickly developed into a boom industry, just like the early years of the Dot Coms, with businesses lining up to buy named addresses, similar to domain names. This new industry revolutionised the way in which information was accessed by everyone.
By 1874, Britain was connected to 650,000 miles of telegraph wire and 30,000 miles of submarine cable. More than 20,000 towns and villages were part of the UK network. By this time the United Kingdom was linked by the telegraph to the United States, and to its Empire around the world. The World was suddenly a much smaller place.
The significance of the electric telegraph was recognised by Queen Victoria who, in a telegram held by BT Archives, sings the praises of this revolutionary means of communication on its 50th anniversary in 1887.
The First World War marked the peak of the telegraph era with cabled military orders triggering mass mobilisation across Europe. During both world wars the telegram was used to tell family members if their husbands or sons had died or were missing in action. The arrival of the telegram messenger was greeted with dread.
As the telephone rose in popularity during the twentieth century, the telegram started to decline, although the ‘Greetings Telegram’ introduced in 1935 was popular for decades as a way of sharing joyful messages of a birth or a wedding. Ultimately, however, the immediacy and convenience of the telephone won the day and led to the demise of the UK inland telegram service in 1982.
But the telegraph was far from finished. Telex, first introduced in 1932, is a public service that uses telegraphic communication to transmit text messages via teleprinters, a keyboard interface that make the use of telegraphy less dependent on skilled operators. BT today still runs a telex service, and over 1 million users in close to 200 countries depend on Telex for their communication.
David Hay says: “There is no doubt that the telegram was a completely revolutionary piece of communication, which helped to shape the world and bring us all closer together. As the direct descendent of William Cooke’s Electric Telegraph Company, BT is the world’s oldest communications company. This legacy is reflected in the archive collections of early telegraph and telephone company records that BT is proud to safeguard on behalf of the nation under its Heritage Policy.