Researcher looks at the history of telecommunications in the South West

August 24, 2011 by
Filed under: News 

The submarine telegraph cable is one of the iconic technologies of the 19th century, enabling the British Empire to expand its business interests, communicate and manage its colonies around the globe.

Dr Richard Noakes, a historian at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus is researching the role of commercial telegraphic firms, such as the Eastern Telegraph and Associated Companies (ETAC), whose long-distance underwater cable went out from Porthcurno, Cornwall, to countries around the world.

Dr Noakes’ current research re-evaluates the British industrial approach to research and development in the Victorian period. He looks at how companies like the ETAC were involved in developing technical solutions to telegraphic problems.

The late 19th and early 20th century submarine telegraph business is often seen as being largely resistant to radical technological change. Historians generally believe that operators and manufacturers of cables saw improvement to cable design as being unnecessary and undesirable because of the longevity and cost of cables. The telegraph business was dominated by the ETAC, which faced weak competition and so had little incentive to develop new ways of delivering its service.

Through research at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Dr Noakes has found that the ETAC developed a form of research and development which was more extensive than previously assumed. Even though its scale was dwarfed by that in American electrical firms, it established an in-house laboratory in 1902 and hired a strong team of scientific consultants from and electrical staff who worked on complex problems of cable signalling.

“The case of ETAC demonstrates the need for a more nuanced understanding of British industrial resesarch and development,” said Noakes. “The ETAC focused on incremental improvements to existing technologies which was appropriate for a large service sector firms. It also sought to minimise the costs and risks associated with technological change.”

The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) has also launched an online Travel Guide for places with ties to the history of science, technology and medicine including places like the Porthcurno Telegraph station.

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