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BT’s Science and Technology Heritage recognised


UK UNESCO Memory of the World Register

BT’s research records detailing more than 100 years of cutting-edge technology innovations undertaken by BT scientists and engineers have been successfully nominated to the UK UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

BT’s historic research archives are among just 20 collections to be added to the UK Register, which highlights culturally significant documentary heritage by awarding them with the globally-recognised Memory of the World status.

The following are a few of the ground breaking inventions described in the research records preserved by BT Archives:

• Transatlantic radio telephone service, 1926
• The world’s first Speaking Clock, 1936
• The first hearing aid, The Medresco, available on the NHS, 1948
• World’s first microwave radio relay transmitters, technology used by the BT Tower, 1950s
• First transatlantic submarine telephone cable in 1956
• Computing innovations by Tommy Flowers and the team that built Colossus , the wartime code-breaking computer including the premium bonds computer ERNIE, 1957
• First transmissions of television across the Atlantic, 1962
• World’s first digital exchange in London, 1968
• Optic fibres - BT’s laboratories at Martlesham developed glass fibre that was pure enough for the technology’s potential to be fully realised, 1970s
• BT Prestel was a world first and an important precursor to the Internet as a system delivering information stored on remote computers to users on demand over the telephone network, 1979
• Automatic telephone switching equipment, making calls without the operator, early twentieth century
• Rugby radio station, the world’s largest radio telegraph transmitter.

The manuscript and later printed reports span from 1878 to 1995 and demonstrate how the UK has played a leading part in the development of electrical engineering and communication technology globally.

The earliest reports, dating from 1878, are manuscript reports on investigations in telegraphy, following the Government’s takeover of UK domestic private telegraph companies in 1870. Other early reports reflect the organisation’s early interest in telephony shortly after its introduction to the UK in 1877.

The breadth of the subject extends much further beyond telegraphy and telephony including radio and satellite communications, lasers and masers, data processing and early computer systems, time measurement systems, early optical character recognition, videoconferencing and video phones, and computer generated synthetic speech.

David Hay, head of heritage and corporate memory, said: “This is a unique record of British scientific endeavour and contribution to developing communications and related technologies and we are delighted and proud that the world’s oldest communications company is recognised as part of the Memory of the World.”


About BT Heritage

BT’s commitment to its heritage is published in its Heritage Policy ( adopted in 2004. BT is the only major company to have made such a public commitment to safeguarding its past and future heritage. The key features of our approach are to maintain historical documents and records within the company, under the management of BT Archives (, and to promote access to our physical artefacts online and at museums across the UK through BT’s Connected Earth initiative (

Descriptions of BT’s archives can be searched at and historical images and films can be seen at
Further information: a significant collection with worldwide reputation:
In terms of scientific heritage and as a resource for future study of the history of science and technology the significance of BT Archives collection of Post Office / BT research reports and memoranda is immense. The scope and depth of research reflected in these records earned the Post Office Telecommunications later BT research department a worldwide reputation. The following are only a few of the ground breaking innovative projects described in the research records;

• Early data processing and computer systems. A team of telecommunications research engineers led by Tommy Flowers developed Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer, at Dollis Hill in 1943. As it was built in great secrecy and not revealed for many years after the Second World War, there is no actual report on Colossus itself. However, there are several reports on related subjects by Flowers and members of his team, some of whom went on to build the MOSIAC computer between 1949 and 1954 for the Ministry of Supply, and the first ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) premium bonds computer (designed by Tommy Flowers) in 1957. Both of these and other systems are covered in the reports.

• Pioneering experimental research led by Sir William Henry Preece, Post Office Chief Electrician and Engineer-in Chief (1892-1899) from 1892 in transmitting radio signals. Later research reports (including radio research reports) reflect the huge effort and investigation in VHF and short wave radio transmission, resulting in the transatlantic radio telephone service from 1926 and other intercontinental radio telephony services. The main Post Office radio station at Rugby which transmitted the transatlantic service also operated for many years the world’s largest radio telegraph transmitter, which provided broadcast telegraph press and news services, and time signals from the Royal Observatory, to land stations and ships across the globe.

• The development of automatic telephone switching equipment from the early twentieth century in local and later in trunk and international exchanges, enabling callers to make telephone calls without the intervention of a telephone operator.

• The development and manufacture of long-life thermionic valves for telephone submarine cable repeaters, used in the first transatlantic submarine telephone cable in 1956 (TAT 1) and several later cables. These enabled voice communication by submarine cable over very long distances for the first time, the signal being ‘repeated’ or amplified at regular points along the cable.

• The development and manufacture of high-performance, high reliability silicon-based transistors for submarine cable systems (the replacement of valves by transistors provided many more telephone circuits per cable).

• The work on microwave radio-relay systems that introduced travelling-wave tube amplifiers (a world first in 1952). Research on microwave communications led to a nationwide network of microwave radio relay transmitters for inter-city multi-channel telephony and television transmission from the 1950s, best exemplified in the BT Tower in central London at the heart of that network.

• The pioneering work on satellite communication systems technology that led to the first transmissions of television across the Atlantic in 1962 via BT’s satellite earth station at Goonhilly, and the establishment of the parabolic dish as the standard satellite dish design.

• New pulse-code modulation digital techniques for transmission and exchange switching, leading to the opening of the world’s first digital exchange in London in 1968, and later to today’s digital networks.

• The Prestel viewdata system developed at Martlesham and launched in 1979. Prestel was a world first and an important precursor to the Internet as a system delivering information stored on remote computers to users on demand over the telephone network.

• The development of low-loss optical fibres, solid state lasers and light amplifiers that vastly increased communications capacity and led to today’s broadband and optical fibre networks. Telecommunications research engineers and scientists had undertaken research into optical fibres as early as the 1960s, but it was only groundbreaking work at BT’s laboratories at Martlesham in the late 1970s that developed glass fibre that was pure enough for the technology’s potential to be fully realised.

• The Medresco hearing aid produced from 1948 as the first such device available on from National Health Service. Telecommunications research engineers were asked to contribute because of their leading edge work in semi-conductors - miniature thermionic valves and later solid state transistors.

• Development work in time measurement systems, including early application of quartz crystal controlled oscillators in clocks (also used in radio transmission). The reports also document the successive Speaking Clocks (recorded time announcement service over the telephone) from 1936.

• Development work in optical character recognition technology for application in mail sorting machines.


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