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The International Writers Magazine:Telecom History

The Regenerator System
James Skinner
A brief history of the world’s first telecommunications company

‘It’s not a liposuction method to take 10 years off your cheeky bones or butt, nor is it the latest John McClain’s New York cop movie busting up yet another gang of ‘scumbags’ out to destroy the USA. It’s a system that in its day and for over 45 years revolutionised international communications that preceded today’s modern world of hyper telecoms gadgetry and networks.

For the benefit of today’s 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 world’s 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 of identification.
The system that came to dominate the XIX century’s 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 telegraph empire.

Back in the USA, the days of the ‘Penny Post’, the swift horse ridden postmen who delivered letters across America were superseded by bespectacled operators that sat at both ends of the piece of copper wire and its devices sending and writing vital information from East to West, North to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 1860’s 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 spider’s 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 man’s 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 today’s 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 prevalent today.

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 transmission.

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 Marconi’s 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 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.

Eve of Destruction, my friend
James Skinner
Man is the only animal that trips over the same stone twice, or a dozen times!

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