The National Health Service turns 70 years old on July 5, and we're celebrating an anniversary of our own: BT and its forebears raced to design and build a freely available hearing aid in time for the launch of Britain’s most cherished institution.
Here’s the story of the hearing aid and some more of our favourite BT innovations that helped power forward global communications.
1. The first hearing aid available on the NHS
Post Office scientists were integral in creating Medresco, the first hearing aid available, free of charge, on the newly instituted National Health Service. William Gordon Radley, director of the Post Office engineering department, chaired the Electric-Acoustic Committee charged with creating a solution that would benefit the most people.
The master devices were built at the GPO Research Station, with the final design choice entering production in time for the NHS launch in July of 1948. By the end of 1949, the NHS was issuing over 1,000 hearing aids a week to people who previously couldn’t afford them. 320,000 were issued by 1953.
2. Tommy Flowers’ Colossal invention
The Colossus was the first fully programmable electronic computer and enabled the Bletchley Park codebreakers to decipher messages sent by Hitler to his high command using the Lorenz cipher. It was designed – and often personally funded – by senior GPO engineer Tommy Flowers, at the behest of Alan Turing, and built by a team at the GPO Research Station in Dollis Hill. Messages decrypted by Colossus informed the allies – among other things – of Hitler’s decision not to move more troops to Normandy due to a belief that the D-Day landings would take place elsewhere. The contribution of Colossus was crucial in bringing the war to an end, but the machine was kept secret until 1975.
3. A digital dawn in an analogue world
In 1968, the GPO installed the world’s first live digital telephone exchange near Earl’s Court in London. It was the first example of switching pulse-code-modulation (PCM) signals carrying live traffic and required many technological breakthroughs from GPO scientists. British scientist Alec Reeves had patented the idea – which enabled voices to be coded electronically and returned to speech at the other end of the line – in France 30 years earlier. The installation meant speech could be carried over longer distances without distortion, while opening the door to fax and data transmission over the phone lines.
4. Signalling the start of electronic communications
The journey to the modern British Telecom began in 1837. William Fothergill Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone patented the first electric telegraph and went on to form the Electric Telegraph Company, which ultimately became BT. The pair’s invention was initially used for railway signalling, but would go on to become the world’s most important communications tool, prior to the transmission of speech.
5. Paving the way for fibre broadband
GPO researchers began conceiving and developing glass pure enough to produce fibre optic cables way back in 1966. Today BT Ultrafast Fibre broadband customers can enjoy guaranteed download speeds of 100Mbps, which are fast enough to download a HD movie in less than three minutes. This journey began in earnest in 1984, when BT brought into service the first 140Mbps commercial optical fibre link using single mode transmission. This, quite literally, laid the groundwork for today’s superfast fibre optic broadband networks.
6. ‘999, What’s your emergency?’
999 is the world’s oldest emergency phone number and was also the first to bring all of the major emergency services together. It dates all the way back to 1937 and was established in response to a fire at a London surgery that caused five deaths.
GPO engineers had suggested a three-digit number that would trigger a signal and cause flashing lights at the exchange. 111 was rejected because it could be triggered by faulty equipment or lines rubbing together, 222 was already in use and 000 would have called the operator first.
A total of 1,336 calls were made to 999 in the first week, the BBC reports. One of the first documented calls was from a Mrs Beard of Hampstead, whose husband was chasing a burglar. The first mobile 999 call was made in 1986.
7. Carrying voice across an ocean
The GPO teamed with Bell Laboratories in the United States to establish the first two-way transatlantic telephone conversation in 1926, emanating from the GPO wireless station in Rugby. The proof of concept call was followed by the Post Office launching commercial service, less than a year later. On January 7, 1927, the first call was made between Sir Evelyn Murray, Secretary of the Post Office, and AT&T President, Walter S Gifford.
Speaking from London, Murray said: “The opening of a public telephone service across the Atlantic between London and New York is a conspicuous milestone on the road of telephone progress, and marks the beginning of a new epoch in the development of communication between our two counties.”
8. The Marconi Miracle
Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of wireless telegraphy had not been greeted enthusiastically in his native Italy. So, sponsored by the Post Office, he moved to Britain to continue his work.
On July 27, 1896, the-then 22-year-old Marconi staged the first public demonstration of his invention with a wireless transmission between two post office buildings 300 metres apart in London. One of those buildings, the former Central Telegraph Office (now the BT Centre), houses a plaque commemorating the achievement.
The GPO would continue to fund Marconi’s work, but neglected to come to a formal agreement with the genial Italian. He went on to found his own company, The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Ltd, the following year.
9. The internet before the internet
Prestel was the world’s first public viewdata service and a precursor to the modern internet we enjoy today. Launched in London in 1979, it enabled subscribers to connect their computer to a network called Micronet (a bit like Teletext) by dialling in and flicking a switch on a modem.
Once online, Prestel users could access electronic mail and look up information by typing numbers (instead of URL letters) into the computer. Prestel reached a maximum of 90,000 subscribers before being sold off in 1994.
10. Innovation today…
Today, BT continues the legacy of nearly 200 years of innovation at the BT Labs research facility at Adastral Park near Ipswich. In 2016, BT demonstrated speeds of 5.6Tbps (that's 5,600Gbps) over a single fibre optic cable between Adastral Park and the BT Tower in London.
More recently, a 100Gbps home fibre connection (with enough capacity to stream 4,000 HD movies simultaneously) was demonstrated. The company continues to work with mobile industry players like Huawei and Nokia towards the roll-out of 5G mobile services in the UK.