BT image of dial

18 July 2013

A £1 million project to digitise BT's historical collection of photos and documents has today brought 165 years of UK telecoms heritage to the public's fingertips, with the launch of an interactive online archive.

Jisc, who provide digital services for UK education and research, funded Coventry University and partners, BT and The National Archives, to digitise over 500,000 photographs, reports and correspondence preserved by BT since 1846 - and create a searchable online catalogue.

For the first time this remarkable collection - which is recognised by UNESCO and Arts Council England as being of international importance - will be accessible to a global audience. Users from around the world will be able to log on to and explore 50 terabytes worth of images and documents showcasing Britain's pioneering role in the development of telecommunications and the impact of the technology on society.

The records detail how Britain laid the foundations for global telecommunications, from the first telephone exchange in 1879 to the Queen making the first automatic long distance telephone call in the fifties.

Highlights from the BT digital archives include:

  • a letter from 1877 from Alexander Graham Bell's agent offering Bell's telephone to the British government - who turned it down
  • photos of Britain's first telephone kiosks with concept drawings and correspondence detailing their design and public reaction to their introduction
  • an image of Central Telegraph Office staff dealing with telegrams about the birth in 1948 of Prince Charles
  • notes from Winston Churchill and an image of him working next to an early 'golfball' candlestick telephone in 1915 - the telephone handset had incorrectly been replaced upside down after a call
  • documents illustrating the role of British telecommunications workers in the war effort during both world wars
  • an image of Jane Cain, the telephone operator and actress recording Speaking Clock messages in 1935

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