140 years ago on the Isle of Wight Queen Victoria got her first glimpse of a technology which would transform the world
A major anniversary of a landmark event in the development of UK telecommunications, which took place on the Isle of Wight in the 19th century, is celebrated today.
On January 14, 1878, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone for the first time to Queen Victoria at her rural retreat at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.
He made the UK’s first publically witnessed long-distance calls, calling Cowes, Southampton and London. Queen Victoria liked the telephone so much she wanted to buy it.
David Hay, BT’s head of heritage and archives, said: “This first demonstration of the phone to the Queen by Alexander Graham Bell is a significant moment in telecommunications history. Her approval and enthusiasm would have been an important step forward for a service which was still in its infancy.”
Bell had made history less than two years before on March 10, 1876 with the first successful speech telephone call to his assistant Thomas Watson with the words: “Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you.” From then, development of the technology was swift.
“The UK’s first long-distance trunk line was opened between Brighton and London a few years later, on December 17, 1884,” said David Hay. “The line was built by the General Post Office, from which today’s BT is descended, and licensed to the United Telephone Company to connect their exchanges and customers.”
Previously the range of a telephone exchange was limited to five miles from the centre of a town, but on August 7, 1884, the Postmaster General withdrew the restriction. This meant telephone companies could apply for licences to work in the UK and create exchange areas, allowing more people access to the telephone.
This ‘liberalisation’ meant any member of the public could make calls from the public call offices that started to spring up in places like shops and railway stations. In 1896 the trunk network was nationalised and brought under control of the Post Office.
Today there are more than 26 million residential phone lines in the UK and billions of phone calls are made every year.
The first cross-Channel subsea telephone cable linking two countries was opened between England and France on April 1, 1891. The French first proposed establishing telephone communications between the two nations. BT’s predecessor, the GPO, handled the operation in the Channel. The crew of GPO cable ship HMTS Monarch braved snowstorms and high seas to lay the cable from St Margaret’s Bay, Dover, to Sangatte, Calais. The French and British governments had already ensured landlines on each side of the Channel were laid. The subsea cable provided the final link.
Successful experiments using radio transmission in telephone calls began in 1902. In October 1915 AT&T successfully made a call from Arlington, Virginia to the Eiffel Tower - the first time speech had crossed the Atlantic – when engineer B.B. Web’s words ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ were heard in Paris.
Another significant event was the completion of the Rugby Transmitter in January 1926, resulting in a ‘satisfactory’ conversation being held between Rugby and Rocking Point in Long Island, New York, just a month later. The next step was to create a sustainable commercial service. This was launched on January 7, 1927, when the inaugural call was made between Walter S Gifford, President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in New York, and Sir Evelyn Murray, Secretary of the Post Office in London.
Walter S Gifford, said: “No one can foresee the ultimate significance of this last achievement of science and organisation. It will certainly facilitate business; it will be a social convenience and a comfort; and, through the closer bond which it establishes, it will promote better understanding and strengthen the ties of the friendship.”
From London, Sir Evelyn Murray answered: “The opening of a public telephone service across the Atlantic between London and New York is a conspicuous milestone on the road of telephone progress, and marks the beginning of a new epoch in the development of communication between our two counties”.
Although it wasn’t cheap, at around £15 for a three minute call, the service proved popular. After a few weeks it was extended to all of England and Wales in the UK, and to Maine, New Hampshire, Indiana, Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey in the US.
The next milestone in long-distance communication was the opening of TAT1, the first transatlantic telephone cable in 1956. Stretching 2,240 miles from Gallanach Bay near Oban in Scotland to Clarenville, Canada – the submarine cable trebled the amount of calls that could be made between Britain and North America.
When it went live at 6pm on 25 September 1956, it allowed for 36 simultaneous transatlantic conversations.In its first year of service, it carried almost 300,000 calls at a cost of £3 for three minutes.
Radio calls had often been plagued by interference and fading, with people waiting hours to be connected. TAT1 offered a much better quality service, was able to sustain a far greater number of calls at any one time – and most calls could be placed within ten minutes of a request to the operator.
The advent of the first transatlantic cable – which was nicknamed TAT1 – was hailed as a major breakthrough in telecoms and heralded the age of reliable and cost-effective mass communication across the Atlantic. Using technologies developed during and after the Second World War, including new techniques for placing cable and booster stations on the sea bed two miles under the ocean, it cost £12.5 million and took three years to complete. By any standards this was a historically significant engineering achievement.