Tag Archives: telegraphy

HMS Agamemnon and friends

As part of my recent work on the BPMA lantern slide collection, I have been looking further into some of the slides to help make an informed decision as to whether they should be formally accepted into the collections.

In many cases, it is possible to draw on the knowledge and expertise of my colleagues to provide a starting point, in addition to our online catalogue or Archive holdings. In others, additional expertise is required, such as in the case of several lantern slides of ships. Although lovely images in themselves, it was difficult to determine the slides’ relevance to the collection without any further information to go on, so I approached the National Maritime Museum (NMM) for help with identification.

HMS Agamemnon shown embarking on the English portion of the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/01)

HMS Agamemnon shown embarking on the English portion of the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/01)

The curatorial staff at the NMM were very helpful, providing several identifications of vessels and other points of interest. For example, HMS Agamemnon (shown above) was involved in the first attempt by the Atlantic Telegraph Company to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable in 1857. The initial attempt failed, but HMS Agamemnon and its counterpart, USS Niagara were successful in laying the cable the following year. One of the slides shows the two ships embarking cable, in an image that originally appeared in the Illustrated London News in May 1858.

USS Niagra, which participated with HMS Agamemnon in the 1857 and 1858 attempts to lay the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/02)

USS Niagra, which participated with HMS Agamemnon in the 1857 and 1858 attempts to lay the Atlantic telegraph cable (2012-0172/02)

The positive identification of several of these ships and their involvement in the laying of early telegraph cables has meant that our curators have been able to make an informed decision about the slides’ place within our collections. The slides – along with many others – have now been catalogued and scanned and will be appearing in our online catalogue soon, so do keep an eye open for them!

Sarah Jenkins – Assistant Cataloguer

Visit our Flickr site to see a selection of lantern slides showing transatlantic cable ships.

Telegraphs and mass communication

Barely a day goes by when we do not see more evidence of the way in which mass communications can quickly bring together a group of like-minded people for a common purpose. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Movember and Talk Like a Pirate Day all have Facebook, Twitter and other communications networks to thank for their success.

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explained how businesses and individuals in the Victorian era benefited from the telegraph. But the speed with which information could be distributed by this early form of mass communication may surprise you.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

In early December 1871 The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) contracted typhoid whilst staying at Londesborough Lodge, Yorkshire, and there was considerable public concern about the heir apparent’s welfare. A friend of the Prince’s, Lord Chesterfield, who had also been staying at Londesborough Lodge, succumbed to the disease, and the Prince’s plight brought to mind Prince Albert, his father, who had died of typhoid a decade earlier.

The Privy Council asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to prepare prayers for the Prince’s recovery for distribution to churches and chapels throughout England and Wales. These were printed on Saturday 9th December, and the Post Office was asked to deliver them by the following morning. Unfortunately, this was not possible by “ordinary channels”.

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

It was only thanks to the quick action of the telegraph department that they were distributed in time.

… great credit is due to a gentleman of the name of Irvine of the telegraph department of the Post Office for his thoughtfulness in suggesting that the physical difficulties in the way of the distribution of the prayers in time for use on Sunday might be obviated by the use of the telegraph, and for the zeal and energy with which, after personal communications with this office twice during the evening of Saturday, he collected all the addresses of the Clergy, and aided in supplying them by telegraph with copies of the Prayers…
(POST 30/213c)

This example of speedy mass distribution of information was important for the Post Office, who had taken over the privately-owned telegraph network the year before. As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, nationalisation of this network was controversial and expensive, but this example and many others like it were a feather in the Post Office’s cap.

Indeed, this proof of concept laid the groundwork for future successes. Within 30 years messages were being transmitted over the Atlantic using wireless telegraphy, thanks not only to Marconi but also the Post Office. News of the sinking of the Titanic, for example, was spread quickly thanks to the wireless, saving many lives.

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster General at the time of the Titanic disaster, said:

Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.

Later, wireless telegraphy was refined further enabling mass broadcasting, which has provided information, prompted mass action and allowed you to listen to The Peoples Post today.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Telegraph. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The Post Office and British Broadcasting

The Royal Mail Archive isn’t just about letters and stamps; recently catalogued records in the series POST 89 illustrate the part played by the Post Office in the history of British broadcasting.

The Post Office regarded telegrams as electronic letters.

Not many people would associate the Post Office with broadcasting, but until 1922 it held a monopoly on electronic mass communication. When telegraphy, and later, the telephone were developed, the Post Office argued that it controlled anything which involved delivery from a sender to a receiver. Telegraph and telephone switching stations were defined as electrical post offices, with the messages or calls regarded as electronic letters. Wireless telegraphy, originally used to send short coded messages, was also viewed in this manner, but later, when the technology started to be used for audio broadcasts, the medium, now known as radio, no longer fitted the sender/receiver definition.

In 1920 a number of commercial companies were granted licences by the Post Office to make experimental broadcasts. These were halted when the Armed Forces complained of interference with their communication systems, but as more and more radio services were beginning in many other countries, the Post Office came under pressure to reverse this decision and open up broadcasting to commercial interests.

In 1922 the Post Office was involved in the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company, a commercial radio broadcaster financed by six large electronics manufacturers. The Company began transmissions on 14 November 1922 (more details of this can be found in POST 33), but the Post Office continued its involvement in broadcasting for many years to come.

POST 89 includes the minutes and papers of some of the broadcasting committees which the Post Office contributed to – the Sykes, Crawford, Selsdon, Ullswater and Beveridge committees. These provide an insight into the development of British broadcasting and the introduction of the licence fee system. The papers cover issues such as the impact broadcasting may have on traditional newspapers, whether broadcasting sporting events would affect attendance at such events, and the benefits and drawbacks to commercial broadcasting (especially appropriate given the recent discussion of product placement).

A 1967 poster recommending the purchase of licences for televisions and radios, designed by Kenneth Bromfield

The Sykes and Crawford committees (which sat in 1923 and 1925-1926 respectively) considered the development of the British Broadcasting Company. The Crawford committee (whose members included the author Rudyard Kipling) ultimately recommended that the British Broadcasting Company be replaced by a non-commercial, Crown chartered organisation – the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

The Selsdon committee (1934-1935) and Ullswater committee (1935) were concerned with the introduction of television and how this would be financed, while the Beveridge committee (1949-1950) conducted a review of broadcasting in the United Kingdom and recommended regional devolution, broadcasting of minority views, more political broadcasting and trade union recognition.

Another contribution made by the Post Office to broadcasting was that it was responsible for administering the licence fee system, and POST 89 includes various papers on this subject. These include reports on planned publicity campaigns and evasion statistics (for more on this topic see our previous blog on TV detector vans).

So the next time you think about The Royal Mail Archive remember that it is about more than letters and stamps – although we do have some very interesting stamps!

Four stamps issued in 1972 to celebrate 50 years of the BBC

Guglielmo Marconi and the Post Office

Previously on this blog we wrote about the connection between the Post Office aboard the Titanic, and the telegrams held in our collection concerning the sunken ship. Also on the Titanic was wireless equipment and two operators supplied by the Marconi company, which proved important in getting word to nearby vessels – and beyond – that the ship was sinking. The Post Office was a pioneer of telegraphic technology and had become interested in Marconi’s experimentation at a key point in the development of wireless telegraphy, so it could be argued that thanks to the Post Office many of the Titanic’s passengers were saved.

Guglielmo Marconi, who died on this day in 1937, was born near Bologna in 1874 of an Italian father and Irish mother. He did not do well at school, but nevertheless had an interest in science and was fortunate to have as a neighbour Augusto Righi, a physicist who had worked with Heinrich Hertz, discoverer of radio waves.

A stamp commemorating Marconis first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

A stamp commemorating Marconi's first wireless telegraph transmission in 1895

At the age of 20, Marconi began experimenting with radio waves, hoping to create a wireless telegraphy system. By 1895 he had achieved a range of two kilometres, but needed investment to continue development. When the Italian Ministry of Posts & Telegraphs showed no interest in the system, Marconi travelled to London and through his mother’s family connections received a letter of introduction to William Preece, Engineer-in-Chief to the Post Office.

Preece was impressed by Marconi and provided him with an assistant, George Kemp. On 27th July 1896 Marconi and Kemp successfully demonstrated the wireless telegraphy system between two Post Office buildings. A transmitter was placed on the roof of the Central Telegraph Office (located on Newgate Street/St Martin’s Le Grand, where the BT Centre now stands) and a receiver on the roof of GPO South (Carter Lane). The distance between the two buildings was 300 metres. Later that year the Post Office provided funding for Marconi to conduct further experiments on Salisbury Plain.

But despite the potential of the system and Marconi’s growing international reputation, the Post Office did not make any formal arrangements with Marconi, leaving him free to establish a private company, The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd, in London in 1897. Marconi and his company went from strength to strength, transmitting across the English Channel in 1899 and across the Atlantic in 1901.

Marconi’s company also provided wireless equipment and operators for shipping lines, enabling them to communicate with ports and each other for the first time. As a thank you for supplying this equipment for the Titanic, Marconi and his family were invited to sail on the ship’s maiden voyage. Fortunately they were unable to take the fated journey.

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

A stamp commemorating the role of wireless telegraphy in the Titanic disaster

The wireless operators aboard the Titanic were Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. 25 minutes after the ship struck an iceberg, Captain Smith instructed Phillips to send an all stations distress call. Phillips then continued to communicate with ships in the area even after Smith had ordered that he and Bride stand down and save themselves. Phillips eventually went down with the ship, although Bride survived and was picked-up by the SS Carpathia. Together with the Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam, Bride transmitted the names of the survivors to shore.

Following the disaster, enquiries were held and Marconi was called as an expert witness. New safety procedures were put in place such as sufficient lifeboats for all passengers, lifeboat drills aboard ships and 24 hour wireless cover. An iceberg patrol was set up too, and began to patrol the North Atlantic in early 1913 with Marconi equipment on board.

Herbert Samuel, Postmaster General at the time, said of the Titanic disaster “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.”

Two stamps released by Royal Mail in 1995 as part of the Pioneers of Communication series commemorate Marconi, his invention, and its role in the Titanic disaster.

Bibliography
BT Archive – Events in Telecommunications History
Connected Earth – The Origins of Radio
Marconi Calling
Wikipedia: Guglielmo Marconi

Walking Tours of GPO London

Anyone walking through the City of London will note weird and wonderful street names such as Cheapside, Poultry and Undershaft, or the more mundane Milk Street, Bread Street and Oat Lane, and get a sense of the Square Mile’s past history as part over-crowded slum, part burgeoning centre of trade. But the history of postal communication can also be seen in the City, with Postman’s Park and Post Office Court being merely the most obvious examples. These and other sites will be explored as part of the BPMA’s programme of GPO London walking tours.

In 1643 the first General Post Office was established in the City, with the site most likely to have been in Cloak Lane, near Dowgate Hill. This came just eight years after Charles I made the Royal Mail available to his subjects, although it was Oliver Cromwell who formally established the Post Office in 1657.

At this time Coffee Houses were considered more reliable mail providers than the newly formalised Post Office. Many Coffee House owners collected letters and made arrangements with ship masters for their delivery overseas. This practice was illegal for it infringed the Post Office monopoly, but the service continued to be popular. It is not coincidental that so many early Post Offices were also established in the City of London.

The site of the Garraways Coffee House (rebuilt 1874) and Lloyds Coffee House (1691-1785) will be visited on the tour, along with the sites of the former GPO Headquarters at Lombard Street and St Martin’s-le-Grand.

Other notable sites visited on the tour are King Edward Building (the former Chief Post Office now occupied by Merrill Lynch), and GPO North. Also in the vicinity was the Central Telegraph Office where Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated wireless telegraphy to William Preece, Engineer to the GPO.

There will also be an opportunity to explore a range of operational GPO street furniture from many eras, including manhole covers, telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The tours last around 3 hours and are conducted by BPMA Curators. For more information and booking details please see our website.

BPMA Walking Tours, 2009
GPO London – Tuesday 30th June 2009, 1.00-4.00pm
GPO London – Saturday 19th July 2009, 2.00-5.00pm
GPO London – Tuesday 26th September 2009, 1.00-4.00pm