CW@50: How networking became the core of IT

Compared with the network, Computer Weekly is but a sprightly youngster. We take a look back not at just 50, but 200 years of British innovation in communications technology

Taken as just another year, 1966 itself was fairly unremarkable – save for the launch of Computer Weekly, the release of The Beatles’ Revolver, and a surely long-forgotten football match at Wembley.

It was not a particularly remarkable year for networking, either, but then, to any centenarian, one year probably seems as unremarkable as the rest.

The network is old, much older than 50. If we date its history to the first working telegraph, built by Francis Ronalds in Hammersmith in 1816 – a full six years before Charles Babbage first proposed his difference engine – we could argue it is exactly 200-years old.

From the first telegrams, to the first transatlantic cables, to the invention of the telephone, and everything that has come since, networking has been instrumental in the development and propagation of technology.

It is without doubt the nexus around which the bulk of IT innovation has occurred. Whether a humble desktop computer, the latest smartphone or even a file server, if it talks to something else along a wire, it’s a networking device.

As for the cloud, well, it literally lives inside the network.

The first communications

Walking through central London, the casual passer-by could be forgiven for walking straight past number 268-270, High Holborn, WC1V, an anonymous grey building, without a second thought.

But for any historian of technology, the Holborn Telephone Exchange represents a treasure trove of documents and information in the form of the BT archive.

BT, it turns out, is almost as old as the network itself. It charts its history back to 1837, when William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the world’s first practical electric telegraph.

It was Cooke, 170 years ago, who helped found the Electric Telegraph Company, which through a series of mergers, takeovers and political manoeuvring, was ultimately to become BT.

Britain took to the telegraph remarkably well in the 19th Century, and the technology was well in use in businesses, particularly in the then flourishing newspaper industry.

The 1874 General Election – a Conservative victory for the first time since 1841 – is notable in networking history for a major network outage that saw the Post Office pilloried by journalists for failing to get election results to them.

Another major application of the telegraph was to link together the far-flung corners of the British Empire.

Had the Department for Culture, Media and Sport existed in November 1871, the digital economy minister might have found himself overseeing the landing of a cable connecting the colony at Darwin in Australia to Batavia – modern day Jakarta – in Indonesia.

This made almost instantaneous communication with London possible. Well, 10 minutes was a big improvement on the 72 days or so it took a clipper ship to travel to Australia.

Four years after the line south from Darwin to Adelaide was completed on 22 August 1872, the first practical telephone was demonstrated in a Boston laboratory by the Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell – although whether or not his Italian rival Antonio Meucci got there first is still a source of controversy.

The telephone came to Britain very quickly. However, on being offered the UK patent rights to Bell’s device in 1877, the Post Office’s chief engineer turned them down, saying “the possible use of the telephone appears to be even more limited than I first supposed.”

It was to take another 30 years for the government to bring all the independent telephone companies that were established as a result of this blunder under monopoly control.

A piece of national history

For BT archivist David Hay, keeping the company’s history alive is a vital exercise. It is also something of a labour of love because of the amount of resources available.

The history of networking and telecommunications is deeply engrained in the past 160 years of British history, and BT holds vast stores of evidence – from every phone book ever printed, to promotional films, to a selection of die-cast toys bearing its logo – which prove it.

Hay produces some of these documents for examination, including a tersely worded telegram informing the family of RAF pilot Derek Rake that their son had been shot down over Europe.

Why this story in particular? Subsequently rescued by Yugoslavian partisans, Rake married after the war and went on to have a son, Michael, who is now chairman of BT.

He also neatly demonstrates the criticality of the network to the rest of IT in the telling of the story of the research teams led by a General Post Office (GPO) engineer named Tommy Flowers.

The teams designed and constructed the world’s first programmable computer, Colossus, a machine which used components from a telephone exchange to crack the Nazis’ Lorenz cipher at Bletchley Park and help win the war. It wouldn’t have worked without the vacuum tube.

Many of Tommy’s team returned to the GPO after the war, where they worked on developing networking technologies, such as electronic switching.

Ringing sixties

By 1966, the national telephone network was a well-established feature of national life, although consumer expenditure surveys taken at the time show many ordinary Brits lacked a home phone line and used the nearest red telephone box if they needed to call someone.

The GPO innovated with a number of services throughout the 1960s, including a mobile radio telephone service.

In 1966, it launched Dial-a-Disc, one of the first on-demand music services, which let you listen to the latest hit records, which were played down the line off a tape recording made by GPO engineers.

Ingenious teenagers soon found ways to hack the system to avoid racking up phone bills, and one service user recalls groups of teens hosting impromptu dances – or “telephone-a-gogos”–  in village phone boxes.

In business, meanwhile, telecoms were well established. But in many ways, the technology had not changed significantly by 1966 from what would have been used in 1956, 1936 or even 1916.

However, to get a picture of what was going on in 1966, it’s necessary to briefly jump back to the war again.

Prior to the outbreak of the conflict in September 1939, the GPO had invested in building up network capacity. But in 1945, after six years of relative neglect, the network had reached full capacity, and Britain was effectively bankrupt.

This was the impetus for a number of developments at this stage, including the introduction of party lines; the phasing out of operators from the late 1950s onwards with the advent of automated switching; and early experiments with microwave transmission, originally for television broadcasting.

Microwave was to prove so important to the GPO that its propagation was the original purpose of the BT Tower – then the GPO Tower – which opened in 1965.

Read more about Computer Weekly at 50

A promotional film produced towards the end of the 1960s forecasts big things for microwave transmission, while briefly noting some early developments around something called fibre, which was dismissed out of hand at first because nobody knew if it could be made to work.

The GPO was also working with data transmission over the telegraph’s successor, the telex network – most famous in the UK for bringing the football scores into the BBC Grandstand studio – and launched its first modem in 1964, the Datel No. 1a, which could manage around 300bps.

Although so slow by modern standards as to be utterly useless, at the time it was taken up with great enthusiasm in the financial services industry, which used it for exchanging financial transaction data between bank branches.

While the 1960s now seem far away, it is clear that some of the users who picked up the first edition of Computer Weekly would have had access what we would now recognise to be business connectivity, with faxes and data communications.

From 1971, users would also have had access to Confravision, the world’s first video-conferencing service, which users could access through Post Office studios in Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, London and Manchester.

What did exist at this time could, however, could be described as a mish-mash of different technologies, with the copper telephone network, the telegraph and telex, microwave radio and early satellite communications all competing to transmit information around the planet.

The politics of British networking

Ironically, it was Labour Party grandee Tony Benn who, as postmaster general under Harold Wilson, began the process that would ultimately see the privatisation of BT in the 1980s.

Benn guided the Post Office Act of 1969 into law, which separated the postal and telecoms operations of the GPO out into two separate businesses.

A year earlier, the soon-to-be-renamed Post Office Telecommunications began the process of going digital with the opening of the first digital telephone exchange, Empress, in West London. The digitisation process was hugely expensive and a drain on its resources.

However, it was vital that it happened. For one thing, the old electro-mechanical system and copper backhaul was no longer fit for purpose and badly needed modernising, and this old, creaking network was putting the organisation under tremendous pressure.

The market was changing rapidly in the 1970s as people began to demand and expect more. Frustrations with a lack of choice and long waiting times to receive a basic telephone service started to boil over.

Meanwhile, in government, the mood was also changing. National monopolies were going out of fashion, and after Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, for better or worse, privatisation beckoned. For the new British Telecom, Thatcher opened the floodgates for massive change.

The biggest change since privatisation has been the creation of network suppliers to compete with BT, and subsequently their evolution away from a fixed-line telephony business to something of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to networking.

Voice now represents a fraction of the sales that BT makes compared with other services, but it still sits at the heart of IT as a provider of network services and a supplier of internet connectivity.

In a way, privatisation of communications and the creation of BT reflects the growth of the network in everyday life.

It is unthinkable, nowadays, to imagine a national network under government control, without also imagining a dictatorship. Could the internet possibly have flourished if the government had owned it? The current controversy over the Investigatory Powers Bill or Snooper’s Charter would seem to suggest not. Things would be very different, for sure.

The internet, of course, represents the last step in the network’s journey to the centre of IT. But its story, and the story of the technology that grew up to make it possible, will have to wait for another time.

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