Connecting Cornwall: Telecommunications, Locality and Work in West Britain 1870-1918

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History

Abstract

We are accustomed to think of Cornwall as an economically backward part of the UK and of British industry as relatively bad at 'high-tech' activities. However, the county has been the focal point of generations of very sophisticated telecommunications technology from the middle of the nineteenth century, with its major telegraph stations at Porthcurno, Poldhu and the Lizard, to mid-twentieth century and the operation of the Satellite Earth Station at Goonhilly Down. These activities are commemorated in a small number of museums in Cornwall, but the telecommunications heritage is too little known and some of the locations are already falling into disrepair. This project seeks to make Cornwall's telecommunications history more visible. At the core of the project is a major new exhibition for the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, which was the training station for the Eastern Telegraph Company and successor companies. The museum already has an outstanding display of working telegraph machinery and technology but lacks major exhibits on the nineteenth century and the lives of the workers in this industry. The basic materials for such an exhibition are available in the museum's archive in the form of employment and work records, operating reports, maps and plans of various overseas telegraph stations and an extensive collection of images of both the telegraph school at Porthcurno and out-stations.

This project will support research in the Porthcurno archive (and in the BT archive in London) that will uncover the story of the life at the telegraph training school at Porthcurno and how this prepared workers for life in the often very harsh conditions of out-stations in the Empire. We will examine how recruitment worked in this sector, how workers were trained and retrained as technology changed and work practices were modified. Although we tend to think of the telegraphist's work as relatively easy, for those in the out-stations life was very uncomfortable and prone to physical and stress-related illness. The new exhibition will explore all these issues. Porthcurno itself is a very isolated location, and the research will explore the effect of this location on the culture of telegraph workers. There is ample evidence of a very masculine work culture overlain with imperial sentiments.

Supporting the new exhibition will be a major website that will display the results of the research in different ways for different users. For academic historians of technology, business and work there will be a searchable database of the cultural, economic, social and technological aspects of work and training at Porthcurno. The website will also contain virtual tours of other Cornish communications sites and downloadable podcasts for those visiting the other sites where little tourist and historical information is available. For schools, the team will bring its experience of creating an educational resource that meets the needs of key stages in the history, science and geography curricula, as well as providing for academic researchers information about materials held at the Porthcurno archive.

Underpinning these museum materials will be scholarly publications and presentations. This will include conference papers for the Society for the History of Technology, the annual conference of the Business History Society and related organisations. The team will prepare a series of articles for leading academic journals in the history of work, technology and business and will use this material for a monograph on the telecommunications industry in Cornwall from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the First World War. This will be a completely different approach to the history of telecommunications, which has hitherto been dominated by the publications of technical enthusiasts and commissioned company histories. In essence, we will produce for this critical phase in its development a history of the industry from the bottom up.

Publications


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McVeigh, Stephen; Cooper, Nicola (2013) Men After War
Richard Noakes (Author) Spratt Diaries
Richard Noakes (Author) PK Symposium
Richard Noakes (Author) Connecting Cornwall: Behind the Scenes
 
Title Nerve Centre of Empire: Connecting Cornwall, Expanding Frontiers, 1870-1918 
Description Museum exhibition, comprising large panels illustrated with pictures and text, interactive displays for children, and computer access to online materials. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2010 
Impact This exhibition proved important in the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum's successful bid for HLF and other major grants for development. 
URL http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/nerve-centre/
 
Description Cable telegraphy impacted on life in far west Cornwall much more significantly than hitherto assumed.

The British cable industry was much more innovative in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than historians have claimed.

During the First World War, male employees of cable companies suffered anxieties about 'heroism' owing to their distance from the Western Front and sites of military conflict.
Exploitation Route Other historical researchers might explore the later development of telecommunications in Cornwall, or explore in more detail the way that men were recruited and trained for the global cable service.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
URL http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/nerve-centre/
 
Description Our findings were used at a major new exhibition at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, in education packs for secondary schools teachers, in academic publications, and in television and radio documentaries.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal
 
Title Datasets of the Eastern Telegraph Company's operation between 1872 and 1918 
Description Staff records of employees of the firm; diary of George Oscar Spratt 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Informed Nerve Centre of Empire exhibition at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum 
URL http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/nerve-centre/
 
Description Connecting Cornwall: Telecommunications, Work and Locality in West Britain, 1870-1914 
Form Of Engagement Activity Scientific meeting (conference/symposium etc.)
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research or patient groups
Results and Impact Conference Paper, for 'Global Communication Electric: Social, Cultural, and Political Aspects of Telegraphy', Free University, Berlin and Museum of Communication, Berlin, 19 February 2011.

The conference explored the cultural, economic and social meanings of different telecommunication technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Noakes's paper analysed the cultures of research and development at the Eastern Telegraph Company fr
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Genius of Invention 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Noakes discussed his research on patents in an interview during this programme.

The programme explored some of the major concepts, practices and individuals involved in the development of telecommunication technologies. Noakes was interviewed about the fraught business of invention in telecommunications, topics with which Connecting
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Submarine Telegraphy and Aspects of Gender 
Form Of Engagement Activity Scientific meeting (conference/symposium etc.)
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research or patient groups
Results and Impact Conference paper for 'Global Communication Electric: Social, Cultural, and Political Aspects of Telegraphy', Free University, Berlin and the Museum of Communication, Berlin, 18-19 February 2011.

The conference explored the cultural, economic and social meanings of telecommunication technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gagen's paper analysed the question of masculine identities in the lives and careers of cable men in the decad
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011