Category Archives: Information Age

Sending messages across the Atlantic: 156 years on from the first transatlantic cable

Chloe Vince, Science Museum Volunteer, tells the dramatic story of the laying of the first transatlantic cable, one of the highlights of our new Information Age gallery, which opens in October.

If you needed to send a message to North America, you wouldn’t think twice about drafting an e-mail, hitting ‘send’ and your message arriving in the recipient’s inbox almost instantly.

In 1858, however, communications were much slower. In those days, a message would take up to 10 days to arrive. This was the time it took for a ship to travel across the Atlantic.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Specimens of the first Atlantic submarine cable, 1858. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Things changed in the August of 1858, when the first message was sent via a transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran from the east coast of North America to the West Coast of Ireland. Messages could now be sent in a matter of minutes, dramatically changing the history of transatlantic communication.

A section of the original transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum.

A section of transatlantic cable, encrusted with marine growth. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Experimenters had been investigating batteries and electromagnetism to develop a communication system since the early 19th century. The first practical system was executed successfully in the UK by the partnership of Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. They used an electrical current to deflect magnetic needles which could be made to point to letters on a backboard. By the time of the 1858 transatlantic cable, their system had been developed and widely adopted for railway signalling across Britain.

Cooke and Wheatstone's Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Cooke and Wheatstone’s Double Needle Telegraph, 1844. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

American experimenter Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame), was also working on developing telegraphy. His system used a single circuit to send an electric signal along a wire to a receiver at the other end. Instead of using needles indicating letters of the alphabet, Morse’s system used a code of dots and dashes to spell out words. Morse received funding to use this technology to set up a telegraph system between Washington and Maryland in the USA. The telegraph became an instant success. People relished the ability to send and receive information much more quickly than before, and as a result the telegraph system expanded across America and Europe.

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Morse key, c 1850-1870. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Soon after, in 1856, the Atlantic Telegraph Company was set-up with the objective of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting America with Europe. Luckily, opinions of the technology were high, which meant shares in the company sold quickly. As soon as enough money was raised, the first transatlantic cable, consisting of seven copper wires and recorded as weighing one ton per nautical mile, was laid from America to Ireland.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson's mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

(Lord Kelvin) Thomson’s mirror galvanometer (land type) used at Valentia Island end of the original Atlantic cable in 1858. Made by White & Barr, Glasgow. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL.

Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic telegram. She sent a message to US president James Buchanan congratulating him ‘upon the successful completion of this great international work.’  The message travelled through 2,500 miles of cable and took 16 hours, a dramatic improvement on the 10 days it would have taken beforehand. The same message was repeated back to Valencia in Ireland in only 67 minutes.

Unfortunately, the success enjoyed by this first transatlantic cable did not last. There were problems with the cable, and within a month it had failed completely. However, the desire for speedy transatlantic communication was great enough to attract more funds to try again.  A further attempt in 1866 was successful.

The consequence of this new form of communication was huge. By the end of the 19th century, new technologies began to emerge. The telegraph was replaced by telephony and these days we rely on the internet for high speed communication. However, the telegraph was the first technology that allowed us to communicate quickly and reliably over long distances, and acted as a turning point in communication history.

You can explore more about the laying of the first transatlantic cable in our Information Age gallery, which opens on 25 October.

 

Simon Says… “be smart”

Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer, blogs about the IBM Simon, the first smartphone to go on public sale.

Twenty years ago, on 16 August 1994, the Bellsouth IBM Simon hit the American market. Weighing in at a hefty half a kilogram, and looking rather like a grey brick, the Simon was advertised with a not-so-snappy slogan declaring it to be “The World’s First Cellular Communicator”.

Although the slogan was a bit of a mouthful, the Simon really did break new ground. It took some of the best technology that the handheld computing world had to offer – personal digital assistants (PDAs) were all the rage in the early 1990s – and combined it with a mobile phone. 

With a stylus and touch screen, Simon’s users had all sorts of software applications, or apps, at their fingertips. They might sketch a drawing, update their calendar, write notes on a document, or send or receive a fax.

The Simon was, in effect, the world’s first smartphone; a device that could make calls and be programmed to do a wide range of other things. The built-in features could even be expanded by plugging in memory cards – not quite an app store, but long similar lines.

The Science Museum’s Simon was owned by a project manager for a construction company in the United States. He found the Simon invaluable because his office could fax him site plans to review. He could check them wherever he was and fax them back saving hours of shuttling plans physically around the country.

Despite having some loyal users, and after selling around 50,000 units, the Simon was withdrawn from sale after only 6 months. There were still some key pieces of the puzzle missing to enable a device like the Simon to become really successful. In 1994 the web was in its infancy, so the idea of downloading apps was not practical.

The mobile internet, accessible through mobile phones, was virtually non existent – explaining why fax was a key feature of the Simon. The hardware was also limited. With a battery that only lasted an hour in ‘talk mode’ it wasn’t practical to rely on the Simon to keep you in touch all day long. To top it all off, at $899 the Simon was simply too expensive for most people to justify.

Despite its imitations and brief foray in the marketplace, the Simon brought together many of the key things that underpin today’s smartphones. The next big splash in the market came over a decade later. By then, 3G mobile phone networks were available, online app stores were a genuine possibility and microprocessor technology had advanced enough to pack a really powerful computer into a small handheld device.

The launch of the iPhone 3G marked a turning point, and mobile phone companies saw the amount of data being used spike almost over night. (Source: Science Museum)

The IBM Simon will go on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery which opens on 25 October 2014.

The Historic Heart of our Information Age Gallery

Dan Green, Content Developer, reflects on the incredible story of the Rugby Tuning Coil, one of the star objects of the Science Museum’s brand new Information Age gallery which opens in October.

The aerial inductance coil from Rugby Radio Station will soon have a new home at the Science Museum – see it being installed in the video below.

Measuring 6 metres high and resembling a series of giant spiders’ webs, this monumental coil is a powerful reminder of the invisible infrastructure which supports our desire to communicate.

Based at Rugby Radio Station, where it was housed in a huge cathedral-like room, the coil played a vital role in tuning a huge radio transmitter that sent out very low frequency signals. It was part of a huge system that linked the transmitter to the aerial masts, enabling messages to be sent and telegrams to be transmitted. During its long life, Rugby Radio held a huge personal resonance for many individuals, connecting people to each other, to the world and to home.

The enormous Rugby Tuning Coil being installed inside the Information Age gallery. Image credits: Science Museum

The enormous Rugby Tuning Coil being installed inside the Information Age gallery. Image credits: Science Museum

Rugby Radio Station began transmitting very low frequency signals on 1 January 1926 using the call sign GBR. Once the world’s most powerful radio transmitter, its very low frequency waves could follow the curvature of the Earth to travel very long distances, enabling one-way communication to Britain’s Empire. It transmitted wireless telegraph messages from the British Foreign Office, standard time signals from Greenwich, news bulletins, personal telegrams and Christmas greetings.

Although first hailed as a matter of national pride, in later years Rugby Radio Station was a hidden secret that played an important role in the Cold War, as its very low frequency signals could be picked up by submarines.

Archive image of the Rugby Tuning Coil. Image credits: Cable & Wireless Communications 2014.  By kind permission of the Telegraph Museum Porthcurno.

Archive image of the Rugby Tuning Coil. Image credits: Cable & Wireless Communications 2014. By kind permission of the Telegraph Museum Porthcurno.

Godfery Dykes, one of many submarine communication operators, sat in a claustrophobic communications cabin, hunched over the radio, headphones on, sick bucket between his legs, receiving the Morse code signals. His role was to write down in pencil the dots and dashes coming through at the incredible speed of 30 words a minute, a rate that was undecipherable to the untrained ear. The dots and dashes would then be decoded and the messages delivered:

‘GBR meant a lot to us and we used the letters GBR in many ways. At the start of our patrol I used to think Goodbye BeRyl (my wife) …simply to hear Rugby’s call sign meant to me all those I loved back in the UK were still safe. I well remember moments of excitement on coming shallow to periscope depth after many hours down deep, watching the depth gauge creep slowly past 150 feet, 125, feet, 100 feet and then 75 feet, faint at first, that most lovely sound started to fill my ears – God Bless Rugby, GBR’

On 31 March 2003, 77 years after it transmitted its first Morse message, Rugby Radio station ceased broadcasting its very low frequency signals around the world. A year later, the twelve 250m high masts that radiated out Rugby’s signals were demolished, marking the end of an era. Former station manager Malcolm Hancock was invited to detonate the first explosion:

 “They had been there for so long and the red lights (on top of the masts) had always been there whenever you came home. That is what all the local people in Rugby say, ‘Oh yeah, the thing we’re going to miss is not seeing the red lights saying – oh we’re nearly home now’”.

The coil was donated to the Science Museum by BT Heritage and Archives soon after the decommissioning of Rugby Radio Station. From 25 October, you can see the Rugby Tuning Coil displayed in public for the first time at the centre of the Information Age gallery, as reflected in this artist’s impression.

An artist's impression of the Information Age gallery. Image credits: Science Museum / Universal Design Studio

An artist’s impression of the Information Age gallery. Image credits: Science Museum / Universal Design Studio

To discover more visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/informationage or follow the conversation online via #smInfoAge

How the 1967 Wimbledon Championships made Broadcasting History

Chloe Vince, a volunteer working on our new Information Age gallery, looks back at the first colour TV broadcast.

Chances are that if you haven’t got tickets to the Wimbledon finals this weekend (and lucky you if you have!) you will instead be watching the match on a colour television. This may not seem particularly momentous, but it actually has real historic significance. It was 47 years ago, in 1967 that the Wimbledon Tennis Championships became the first ever UK television programme to be broadcast in colour.

The Championships were broadcast on BBC 2, which initially became the only channel to broadcast in colour, showing just five hours of colour TV a week. This transition from black and white to colour was a huge step-forward in broadcasting technology; however it was only appreciated by a few as there were less than 5,000 colour TV sets in circulation at the time. One of these was the Sony Trinitron TV, and this one (shown below) is part of the Science Museum collection.

The Sony Trinitron TV was one of the first TV sets to broadcast in colour. This model will be on display in the ‘Information Age’ gallery opening later this year.

The Sony Trinitron TV was one of the first TV sets to broadcast in colour. This model will be on display in the ‘Information Age’ gallery opening later this year. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The Sony Trinitron TV displayed colour by use of a ‘single-gun three-cathode picture tube’, capable of broadcasting separate red, green and blue signals (RGB) in succession. This technology was first developed by John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer well-known as the inventor of the world’s first television. He demonstrated the first colour television publicly in 1928, but due to the war suspending the BBC television service, and ultimately ending his research, the development of this technology for broadcasting was delayed.

When the Wimbledon Championships did eventually become the first colour broadcast in 1967, the interest in colour TV quickly gained momentum. Viewers cited a greater feeling of realism when watching in colour and the broadcasts aim to exploit this interest by seeking more programmes that would benefit in colour, such as the snooker programme Pot Black, and children’s TV programme Thunderbirds. Shortly after Birds Eye Peas became the first colour advertisement. By mid-1968 nearly every BBC2 programme was in colour. BBC1 and ITV quickly followed and were also regularly broadcasting in colour by 1969.

However, broadcasters still made programmes in black and white for some time, due to the large expense of the TV sets, as well as the increased cost of a colour TV license (£10 in comparison to £5 for a black and white license) which made the demand for colour TV sets increase more slowly. By 1969 there were still only 100,000 in circulation but viewers soon caught up and by 1972 there were over 1.6 million in the UK.

The Wimbledon Championships are still acting as a landmark televised event today, as in 2011 it became the first TV programme to be broadcast in 3D. However, history repeated itself, as only a few viewers could appreciate the new technology due to the small number of 3D TV sets owned in the UK. So how long do you think it will be until we are all watching the Wimbledon Championships in 3D?

You can discover more about the history of communication technologies in a new Science Museum gallery, Information Age, which opens later this year.