If you get twitchy when your smartphone search takes more than a second to load, imagine having to wait ten days for a single piece of communication. That’s how long it took for a message to cross the Atlantic by ship from the US to the UK in 1858. But in August of that year, a revolution took place when 2,500 miles of cable were laid from Ireland to Newfoundland, Canada. Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic telegraph, a short missive to US President James Buchanan, congratulating him ‘upon the successful completion of this great international work’. It took a mere 16 hours to arrive.
You can see a wonderfully barnacle-encrusted section of the cable in the Science Museum’s new gallery, where 800 objects take us from that momentous achievement to today’s computer- and satellite-based networks. Homing in on technological breakthroughs that have shaped the way we communicate, ‘Information Age’ includes some cracking artefacts.
You can almost hear the buzz of 100 simultaneous conversations emanating evocatively from the Enfield Exchange (pictured), one of the UK’s last telephone switchboards to be automated. In the first half of the twentieth century, an all-female workforce operated it manually, connecting each call personally. The oral histories of some of the Enfield ‘Hello Girls’ from the 1950s and ’60s also feature in the gallery. One of them, Jean Singleton, recollects: ‘You had to have a nice speaking voice. You couldn’t go there if you were a cockney, speaking in a cockney way, or a northern way. You had to speak the Queen’s English – or King’s English as it was then.’
Radio and television broadcasting are also part of the story, which throws up some interesting firsts. The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ was commissioned for the BBC’s ‘Our World’, the inaugural worldwide live TV link in 1967. In the same year, the Wimbledon Tennis Championships became the first colour broadcast, and in 2011 they provided the action for the first 3D broadcast.
Moving on from TV to online developments, the NeXT Cube, the boxy computer that Tim Berners-Lee used in 1989 to design the World Wide Web is also present. From there it’s but a small leap to the first ever smartphone, the BellSouth IBM Simon, which was launched in 1994 and snappily dubbed ‘The World’s First Cellular Communicator’. Its battery lasted a spectacularly useless single hour in talk mode, which makes those iPhone 6 issues pale into insignificance by comparison. By Natasha Polyviou
The Information Age gallery was opened today by The Queen who sent her very first tweet (the first one ever sent by a reigning British monarch!):
It is a pleasure to open the Information Age exhibition today at the @ScienceMuseum and I hope people will enjoy visiting. Elizabeth R.
— BritishMonarchy (@BritishMonarchy) October 24, 2014
Find out more about the Science Museum.