International Writers Magazine:Telecom History
brief history of the worlds first telecommunications company
not a liposuction method to take 10 years off your cheeky bones
or butt, nor is it the latest John McClains New York cop movie
busting up yet another gang of scumbags out to destroy
the USA. Its a system that in its day and for over 45 years
revolutionised international communications that preceded todays
modern world of hyper telecoms gadgetry and networks.
For the benefit
of todays young generations that are deeply immersed in video
games and messaging over mobile phones it is worth noting that long
before the Internet and e-mail, years prior to the fax or telex, the
worlds method of communicating was by transmitting electrical
impulse signals over copper wires connected at either end by complicated
mechanical gadgets that sent out and received coded message. The universally
known arrangement of dots and dashes equivalent
to the reversal of polarity of DC (direct current) electricity, differing
for each letter and number was designed by a man called Samuel Morse.
Hence the name Morse Code; given to this ingenious method
The system that came to dominate the XIX centurys method of linking
different regions of the world and society was called the telegraph,
and thanks to the speed of transmission of written messages called telegrams
and cablegrams, the industrial revolution was given the
green light to take off and expand internationally to all
corners of the globe. Britain was soon to capitalise on this invention
thanks to a young Scottish business entrepreneur and cotton merchant
by trade called John Pender. He realised as early as 1850 the importance
of swift communications with the colonies and started the ball rolling
in expansion towards the East. India was his final goal. His business
skills and cunning plans brought about the building of the first worldwide
Back in the USA, the days of the Penny Post, the swift horse
ridden postmen who delivered letters across America were superseded
by bespectacled operators that sat at both ends of the piece of copper
wire and its devices sending and writing vital information from East
to West, North to South within the states of the country. The breakthrough
of laying undersea cables in the mid 1860s eventually brought
together Europe and America and was later followed with further installations
across other oceans growing into a vast and complex network that spread
like a spiders web of cables and overland landlines transforming
the globe into a vast international telegraph business.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, a Scottish-American called Alexander Graham
Bell was busily experimenting with an instrument that could reproduce
the sound of mans voice. By 1876 he had successfully invented
the telephone and by using the same method of transmission as the telegraph
was able to connect two persons miles apart in an intelligible conversation.
Rather than competition and similar to todays means, telephony
became a compliment to the sending of written messages. Cable networks,
able to carry both speech and telegrams began to spread throughout the
world. More and more companies were formed and competed to offer swift
and rapid communications to the ever growing industrial explosion overtaking
the world. But man could not keep still without exploring even deeper
into the unknown world of telecommunications science. Physical connections
were not only cumbersome but required manufacturing schemes and massive
installation programs to produce sufficient cable networks to keep the
systems going. Somehow there must be a way of conquering the ether
and be able to blast into the air millions of waves that could carry
intelligence without the use of cables! thought a young Italian
upstart called Guglielmo Marconi. At the turn of the century Marconi
successfully invented a machine that could send telegraph messages through
the air. Thus the radio was introduced into the 20th century and
so began a new era of telecommunications advancement that is still
The many telegraph companies now operating worldwide were quick to incorporate
this new method of transmission, some as backup to their cables and
others to open up new inaccessible areas of untapped commercial wealth.
Again, the radio and the cable became partners in telecommunications
expansions; both had their advantages and their limitations. Radio signals
were subjected to atmospheric and other abnormal interferences whilst
cables suffered sudden interruptions due to physical failure including
breakages. Nevertheless, whilst international trade grew more and more
demands were placed on the telegraph companies to improve and expand
their offer of services. Radio connections became stronger and could
reach further afield whilst new sophisticated methods of maintenance
kept cable systems at the forefront of quality. Yet speed was now turning
into a major part of the competition puzzle between radio and cable
By the first quarter of the XX century the method of handling telegrams
had not changed. Messages had to be relayed on a point to
point basis as they travelled across the globe. Messages
sent from London to Cairo, for example would need several telegraph
operators at the end of the links in a chain of cables to
take down and re-transmit each one en route to their final destination.
This was due to the limitations in transmission power of
the signals within each leg of the chain. The dots and dashes
could turn into gibberish if the distance of a link was too long. Meanwhile,
radio communications were improving to such an extent that for the first
time world cable network administrators began to feel threatened of
becoming obsolete and that Marconis invention could eventually
take over the business.
By chance, a young engineer that worked for one of the branches of the
cable companies had proposed a method of automatically retransmitting
the received signals at the end of the link by boosting the power onto
the next leg without loosing the intelligence of the message. Despite
all the intricate details of his scheme which still required development,
the principle was sound. Each dot and dash,
instead of being punched electrically by hand for the next
stage, a synchronised electromagnetic relay would receive the signal
and automatically re-click it with an entirely new power supply into
the next cable. Thus the automatic system of regeneration of cable signalling
was born and baptised as the Regenerator System.
By 1927 all the British international telegraph companies adopted the
new system that continued in existence for over 40 years. It was eventually
superseded by electronic coaxial cable systems as well as radio-microwave
and satellite earth station technology that took over the original message
handling and telephony and allowed the growth of what is today a plethora
of news services of telecommunications that include text, voice and
video all backed by computer based systems.
Ironically, the Regenerator System is not dead! On the extreme
West Coast of Cornwall lies a small village called Porthcurno with a
beautiful sandy beach and a famous open air theatre called the Minack.
Tucked away in the cliffs along the other side of the beach from the
theatre is a wartime installation commonly known by the locals and retired
telegraph operators as The Tunnel. It was built in 1944
to protect the then most important cable terminal in Britain during
WWII including the massive regenerator system that connected the country
with the outside world. It was eventually shut down but thanks to a
group of old timers who rescued and restored some of the
old equipment soon turned the site into a museum with a full running
back-to-back Regenerator System.
On the 10th of May, the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, as it is known
celebrated its 10th anniversary with special events and new exhibitions.
A special website
www.porthcurno.org.uk gives ample details of this small but important
part of British telecommunications history which unfortunately, like
so many other eras are soon forgotten.
© James G. Skinner. May 2008.
of Destruction, my friend
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