Telecommunication is something most of us take for granted these days. Looking back on the innovations that have got us to where we are today, it’s hard to believe technology has become so advanced, so quickly.

Back on September 29, 1915, the first transcontinental radio telephone demonstration was carried out – 101 years ago! To celebrate this landmark event, we look back on the biggest events in telecommunication history:


On 25 July Cook and Wheatstone demonstrated their telegraph to the directors of the London and Birmingham Railway between Euston and Camden Town.

Their machine consisted of needles pivoted on a dial on which the letters of the alphabet arranged. By sending electric current over conducting wires, any two of the needles could be pointed to a letter. In this way, words were slowly built up to form complete messages which were then transmitted between two points by wire.


The network of private telegraph companies was nationalised and operations were taken over by the Post Office.

The Telephone poster


Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first words on the telephone to his assistant in a next door room: “Mr Watson, come here, I want you”.


Bell’s representative offered to demonstrate the telephone to the British Government. The Post Office Engineer in Chief Richard Culley comments his department had full details of the invention and that “the possible of the telephone appears to be even more limited than I first supposed it”.


The Telephone Company was set up and offers country’s first telephones.  In late 1879 its first public telephone exchange opens with just eight subscribers.


A link between London and Paris marked the birth of the international telephone service.

National Telephone Company Phone Book, Yorkshire District. January 1888.


The principal private telephone companies amalgamate as the National Telephone Company.


Telegraphy without wires, the brainchild of Guglielmo Marconi, was demonstrated in London on the site where BT now has its London headquarters. By the following year wireless signals were being sent over distances of up to nine miles.

The telephone dial was invented.

The Government took over all the country’s trunk lines in an effort to counteract the NTC’s monopoly and invested a further £5 million in development.


Parliament agreed to local councils setting up their own telephone systems. Only six out of 1,300 councils took advantage of this opportunity.


Marconi sends the first wireless signal across the Atlantic.

Post Office Telephones poster


The Post Office takes over the NTC, effectively nationalising the telephone system in Britain. Only two systems remained outside of the Post Office’s control - those in Portsmouth which closed in 1913 and the Hull Corporation system which still operates today.

Britain’s first public automatic exchange opens in Epsom, Surrey. For the first time customers could make calls without going through the operator – the first step towards automation.


On September 29, 1915, the first transcontinental radio telephone demonstration took place between a naval radio station at Arlington, Virginia and San Francisco, California. This may not have happened in the UK, but it set a precedent for communication across the world.


Telephone service grew quickly after the end of the first world war - the number of telephones grew quickly as prices fell and more and more people began to realise the full benefit of Bell’s invention.


The Post Office selects an automatic system – a British-made version of the system invented by Kansas City undertaker, Almon Strowger in 1888.

[Related story: 8 phones we have loved and lost]


New styles of phones and cuts in rental and call charges created a boom in what was otherwise largely a period of recession: regular radio telephone service began between Britain and the United States; a radio telephone service was opened in Australia, Argentina and South Africa; trunk telephone service on demand was introduced (previously long distance calls had to be booked); and the world’s first coaxial telephone cable was laid between London and Birmingham, making it possible for several hundred conversations to be sent at the same time over one pair of wires.

Jane Cain, first voice of the Speaking Clock, recording. 1935.


The speaking clock made its debut. Jane Cain, first voice of the Speaking Clock, pictured above in 1935.


The 999 emergency service was introduced in London, followed by Glasgow in 1938 and other major towns and cities in 1946.

Tommy Flowers with thermionic valves used in Colossus and its modern equivalent. 1985.


A Post Office research team led by telecommunications research engineer Tommy Flowers designed and constructed Colossus – the world’s first programmable electronic computer. It contained 1,500 electronic valves and played a crucial part in cracking German codes during the second world war. Tommy Flowers pictured above in 1985 with thermionic valves used in Colossus and its modern equivalent.


The first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT I, was laid between Scotland and Newfoundland, Canada.

HM Queen dialling the first UK public automatic long distance call, Bristol. 1958.


Queen Elizabeth II makes the first telephone call using Subscriber Trunk Dialling. STD enables customers to make their own long distance calls for the first time without the help of the operator.

[Related story: “Mr Watson, come here - I want to see you" - the amazing history of the telephone]


International Direct Dialling was introduced between London and Paris.


Mobile communications took to the road when operator-controlled carphone service opened in London.


International Direct Dialling was introduced between London and New York.


The British Telecommunications Act separated the postal and telecommunications businesses of the Post Office and established BT as a separate public corporation. In 1984 the Telecommunications Act changed BT into a public limited company.


1983 saw the arrival of the first mobile phone, Motorola’s DynaTAC. The handset took about 10 hours to charge fully, which was enough for up to 30 minutes of talk time.


Photo credit Wikki Comms


Now in 2016, we’ve become a smartphone society. 71% of us now own a smartphone according to Ofcom, and around 39.5 million of us use 4G.

Gone are the days of calls and texts only – data, apps and cameras form a big part what we do on our phones, making them more of an everyday life accessory than a phone.

Take the Samsung Galaxy S7 for example – it’s water resistant and features a dual 12-megapixel camera, which nobody even dreamed of back in 1983 with the first mobile.

Galaxy S7