Tag Archives: Communication

Message received: collecting telegrams across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new gallery about the history of information and communication opening in Autumn 2014.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the telegram collecting project which has been taking place to support the Information Age gallery development. This project is now nearing an end, with over 350 telegrams collected as digital scans by our amazing group of community collectors from across the UK.

These telegrams will now be narrowed down to a short list of highlights, spanning a range of subject areas and covering stories and people from across the UK. The final selection will be displayed on a screen in the new gallery, allowing our visitors to get a sense of why telegrams were sent over the decades and what messages they contained.

For now, here is a sneak preview of one of them. This telegram was sent by Mr Ross to his wife in November 1902, having just found out he’d been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1916

Telegram from Mr Ross to his wife, 1902

I wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to the volunteers who worked with us on the project across the Science Museum and our five partner museums (The Cardiff StoryNational Museums ScotlandThe Riverside Museum in GlasgowPorthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum). I also wanted to provide them with the opportunity to share their thoughts on what they learned from the project. Here are some thoughts from three of the community collectors.

 “What I enjoyed the most about the project was organising the collecting event and getting to hear all the participants’ stories. It was great to work with Heather at Riverside too, I learnt so much relating to Glasgow Museums’ collection. Overall it was an amazing experience, getting to know people from all over the UK and being able to visit the Science Museum.” Elena, Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

 “The most surprising thing I learned from the telegram collecting project was that about 100 years ago people used telegrams as we do use Email today: to let people know if they will be late, to order things, to make sure you get picked up from a train etc. It’s amazing how special and dear the telegrams are to the people who own them today, be it that they wrote or received them or inherited them, telegrams are a little treasure to the owners. I really enjoyed engaging in the people’s stories and lives, getting more curious and pulled into the story behind the telegram was my favourite part of the work on the project.” Maja, Science Museum, London.

“The highs have been the excitement of the discoveries through the sheer colour and design of telegrams, the discoveries of stories which have touched the heart and which have international, national and local historical impacts. This has been an incredible journey. It has been a privilege to share in the life stories of others and be part of that sharing of these with a wider audience. I have taken away from this project the pleasure and privilege of being part of a Team. The project has given me the opportunity to develop my research skills and has reinforced for me the advantages gained from networking and collaborative work.” John, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Cornwall.

Message received: telegram collecting across the UK

Jen Kavanagh is the Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, a new communications gallery opening in 2014. Jen has been working on a project to collect and photograph old telegrams.  

Long before we could send a text message, email our contacts, use a landline telephone, or hear the news on the radio, we communicated important information and messages of goodwill via telegrams. This amazing system was introduced as early the 1830s, and continued to be used in the UK until its end in 1982.

For a lot of people, sending or receiving a telegram was predominantly confined to matters of urgency, such as notifying the illness or death of relatives. As such, the telegram came to be associated with bad news, and was often dreaded by the receiver. But as other forms of communication became more mainstream and efficient, telegrams became more of a novelty, being used to send messages of congratulations for weddings and births, and have since been kept as keepsakes.

To support the development of a section of the Information Age gallery that’s all about telegraphy, the team thought that it would be great to have a selection of telegrams on display. However, with few telegrams in our collection, the challenge was set to identify examples which show the range of messages sent over the telegram’s long history, and which could be displayed in the new gallery. To overcome this, we invited members of the public to share their telegrams and the stories behind them with us.

Community collector volunteers Alastair and Maja scanning some telegrams. (Source: Science Museum)

To ensure that we collected stories from across the UK, we invited partner museums to work with us, allowing them to also acquire telegrams for their own collections, and to make new connections within their local communities. To help with the search, each museum recruited community collector volunteers who spread the word, identified potential donors and organised collecting days at their local museums. These events took place throughout July, with dozens of fantastic telegrams being collected. Digital scans of these telegrams, along with supporting images and the stories behind the messages will go on display in Information Age, as well as few physical paper telegrams too.

The project has been a great trial for working with volunteers to collect material, and to ensure that the Museum reaches beyond its London base. We will be running sessions with all of the community collectors in the next few weeks to hear their views on the project and to share our lessons learned with each other.

The partner museums who took part are The Cardiff Story, National Museums Scotland, The Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and the National Railway Museum. Massive thanks to them all for their support and hard work throughout the project.

Examples of some of the great telegrams shared by the public. (Source: Science Museum)

“Love to Soph”, hidden Morse messages from the SS Great Eastern

Jennifer Bainbridge, Conservator on the new Information Age gallery, writes about the conservation of Morse code tapes from the SS Great Eastern, 1865, a ship which undertook the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable. John Liffen, Curator of Communication, provides details of transcription.

As one of the conservators working on the new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014, I handle, document and carry out treatments on objects destined for display.  Working so closely with artifacts means I am often in the lucky position of discovering new quirks or secrets, as I was recently reminded when undertaking conservation of some Morse code tapes from the S.S Great Eastern voyage of 1865.

Morse code tapes before treatment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Looking at the tapes on a shelf in our Telecommunications Store, sitting alongside larger and grander objects, they appeared deceptively small and manageable, while at the same time they held the promise of untold stories.  Curator of Communication, John Liffen, informed me that within living memory at the museum the tapes had never been unravelled and no transcription of the message existed. It was now my job to enable this task! Firstly, I had to determine the object’s condition. Wound round an old paper envelope core the tapes were overlapping as they were coiled round and round.

While providing a compact means of storage, the tapes looked under stress.  They were, however strong enough for unravelling to take place.  The unwinding was quite a slow process as it turned out there were nine tapes wound together, with some being very lengthy.

You can see why the tapes were wrapped around an old envelope, they’re a little unwieldy when unwrapped. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

Once unravelled, the tapes were lightly cleaned with Smoke Sponge, a natural vulcanised rubber which gently picked up dust and dirt.  The tapes then needed to be humidified to relax the bends and creases caused by having been rolled.  Direct moisture causes cockling of paper and potential running of inks, so instead the paper was rested on a one-way permeable membrane to allow vapour, rather than water though.  Once lying flat the tears were repaired using heat set tissue, activated with a heated spatula.

With the tape repaired John then stepped in to commence the transcription. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

The main problem encountered at the transcription stage was that the dots and dashes inked on the tape can at times be ambiguous, with a dot often looking like a dash and vice versa.  As John says,

“To a twenty-first century researcher much of the Morse on the tapes translates as random letters. However, in places recognisable words can be read. On piece 1, the phrases ‘still in Vienna have red red’ and ‘none from Paris’ can be seen. Piece 6 was indecipherable, but when the tape was inverted the phrase ‘concludes lead iron cable’ was found within a string of Morse letters. This is more promising as part of a possible message. Most intriguingly, on piece 4 can be found ‘love to Sophbin’. Presumably ‘Sophie’ is the intended word but the Morse clearly shows a ‘b’ after the letter h. Whoever Sophie was, how did she come to be on board the Great Eastern during its cable-laying voyage?”.