This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library Image from the history picture library

Subject: ‘Communications’

All of these articles and images are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.

The first airmail service began during the Siege of Paris

Posted in Aviation, Communications, Historical articles, History, Transport, War on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about communications first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

First airmail service 1870,  picture, image, illustration
The world's first regular airmail service was established in 1870 when manned balloons were used to carry sacks of letters from the besieged city of Paris to the outside world

Air-mail letters led a somewhat adventurous life in the pioneer days of flight. Balloons tended to get blown off course and land in out of the way places and the early aircraft, even if they took-off safely, could never be relied upon to land in one piece.

In the besieged city of Paris in 1870 it seemed as though the struggle against the encircling Prussian armies was hopeless. The tight ring of steel around the sprawling capital of France was complete and the sound of gunfire could be heard throughout the city. The last trickle of refugees had stopped and food supplies were already running short.

Yet for all their mastery of the land the Prussians could not cut off Paris completely from the rest of the world. Every two or three days a huge manned balloon would rise up from the centre of the city, rapidly gaining height until the stronger air currents could carry it safely over the Prussian lines. With the pilots in the gondola of these frail machines were bags of letters, keeping the world informed of their plight and maintaining the morale of defenders by linking them with their relatives in the safety of provincial France.

This was the world’s first regular air-mail letter service and despite the apparent calm and peace once the balloon was airborne, it was a dangerous and exciting business. First came the breathtaking view of Paris with the Seine running through it like a silver ribbon. There was little time to admire the view, however, for any loss of height might put them within range of the enemy sharpshooters below. Then, for all their skill, the pilots were likely to be at the mercy of the winds.

One balloon had the misfortune to strike some very contrary winds and landed in Bavaria, 470 miles away and in the heart of the enemy’s territory. Another had an incredible 14 hour journey during which hurricane force winds swept it over 1,000 miles to Lifjeld in Norway and at speeds exceeding 100 mph.

Read the rest of this article »

Pony Express riders carried the U.S. Mail across a continent

Posted in America, Animals, Communications, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 593 published on 26 May 1973.

Pony Express,  picture, image, illustration
Pony Express

“Wanted – young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages 25 dollars a week. . . .”

This advertisement appeared in a San Francisco newspaper in 1860 and it saw the start of one of the most adventurous episodes in postal history anywhere in the world. The Pony Express was born because it provided the only way of achieving a quick postal service to the half a million Americans who lived west of the Rocky Mountains. In its short and spectacular life it provided more than this, however. Its riders, like Bob Haslam or Buffalo Bill Cody were real-life heroes; its 2,000 mile trip through mountains, plains and deserts showed the way in which the West could be opened up. Finally, what started as an adventurous business eventually became a symbol of service which others have since tried to copy.

There was no doubt in the minds of most Americans that something needed to be done about their postal system. Like its British counterpart it had developed piecemeal from private letter carriers and small companies who operated only in a restricted area. Later on the United States Post Office organised the country-wide services but in such a vast continent there were difficulties that were never dreamt of in Britain.

In the days of the 1840 Gold Rush in California, mail from the East Coast could cross the continent by land but it was a slow and uncertain business. It often waited for a wagon-train of emigrants and with hostile Indians, snow-covered mountain passes and scorching deserts all taking their toll much of the mail never got through at all. The alternative, by ocean and across Panama took at least six weeks and was very expensive, and since the steamship line rarely kept to its schedules no one could be sure just when any letter or packets would arrive.

But the United States Post Office was running at a heavy loss and although Americans cast envious eyes on Britain’s newly started Penny Post there was no chance of a similar scheme spreading across the Atlantic. Actually getting the mail through at all had first to be regularly achieved.

Read the rest of this article »

The dangerous days of Britain’s long-distance mail coaches

Posted in Communications, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Sunday, 16 March 2014

This edited article about Britain’s postal service first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

The Birmingham Flyer,  picture, image, illustration
The Birmingham Flyer by Derek Eyles

The Royal Palace of Sheen, in Surrey, was unnaturally quiet. Instead of the usual gaiety and music, the bustling of servants and the gossip of courtiers, there were only silent groups of grave-faced men and women. They were waiting for the end of an age, for their Queen, Elizabeth I, was dying. Soon after midnight on 24th March, 1603, their long vigil ended.

Within half-an-hour a rider cantered out of the courtyard, at the start of a long journey to Edinburgh where King James would learn of the throne which awaited him. The messenger, Sir Robert Carey, galloped on through the day, changing horses every 20 miles or so. The roads were atrocious and he passed many a coach, floundering up to the axles in mud. But the Tudor postal system, with its regular stages and efficient organisation was designed to help a single rider and he eventually completed the 400 mile journey in under three days.

Not everyone, however, heard the news with such speed. There were parts of Devon and Cornwall where the people were still unaware of the change of monarch six months later! It was at times like these that people realised how much still needed to be done before the Postal Service could really be said to cover the country and it took another 250 years to achieve this.

The idea of a regular series of messengers was nothing new, for both the Persian and the Roman Empires relied on state couriers to deliver despatches over the thousands of miles of territory they controlled. Houses were built at regular stages, or posts, along all the main roads and these provided protection, fresh horses, and reserve messengers so that the service could be as speedy as possible. The Greek historian, Herodotus was a great admirer of these despatch riders and he wrote:

‘Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’

A good system of posts, it was realised was an aid to power and so it was the King who usually kept tight control over the system.

Read the rest of this article »

No-one believed Marconi had sent a transatlantic message

Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about Marconi first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

Marconi experiments with a kite,  picture, image, illustration
Marconi sends the first wireless message by Peter Jackson

Flying kites is usually a summer-time hobby for young people.

But these kite flyers were men, and they were doing it in December. On that bleak headland at St. John’s, Newfoundland, the gale shrieked and the wind, sweeping down like a solid wall, had already carried away one of the kites.

Yet another one went up in its place, and the wire that held the kite trailed off into a lower room in a deserted building. There on the table was a collection of electrical apparatus and an earphone.

One of the men picked up the headphone and listened, hoping to hear the letter S in Morse Code. Three dots – blip, blip, blip.

Nothing. Not a sound. Hours went by, during which the imagination could have played tricks. Even when it came at last the listener could not be sure. He passed the earphone to his companion who listened and nodded. This was it.

Why was this an historic moment? Because the man who first heard the signal was a young Italian named Guglielmo Marconi. The date was December 12th, 1901, and the signal they heard had come through the air from Poldhu, in Cornwall, roughly 3,000 miles away.

The story of wireless – and particularly that of Marconi – cannot be told without first sweeping aside the word “inventor.”

It is a misleading word, suggesting a brilliant flash of inspiration which, at one bound, gives us a great boon. It hardly ever happens. Most of the great inventions came to fruition through the workings of many minds with one man finally gathering the threads together.

In wireless, Marconi was that man.

Read the rest of this article »

The digital revolution stems from the discovery of electrons

Posted in Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science, Technology on Friday, 24 January 2014

This edited article about electricity first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 526 published on 12 February 1972.

Dr Lee de Forest,  picture, image, illustration
Dr Lee de Forest with the valve transmitter he used in 1906 to broadcast the voice of the famous tenor, Enrico Caruso

A strange phenomenon ‘discovered’ by Thomas Edison in 1883 opened up the whole, amazing world of electronics and gave us radio, television and a host of marvellous devices that now serve mankind.

You cannot see it, hear it or feel it. Yet it is one of the biggest discoveries of all time.

Without it there could be no radio, television, computers, telephones, radar, electric light or a host of other things which have become a part-and-parcel of our everyday lives.

What is it?

This wonder of the modern age is a minute particle of matter called an electron, and it is to be found in every atom. An atom is like the solar system. The sun is the positively charged centre called the nucleus. The planets which revolve around the sun are like the electrons which orbit the nucleus.

Electric current is made by the passage of electrons from one atom to another. And sometimes the electrons can be made to fly through space from one conductor to another. We call this radiation.

The first man to discover this strange effect was Thomas Edison. In 1883 he was trying to improve his carbon filament lamps. To find out why these blackened, he sealed a metal plate inside a lamp to collect the deposit. Then, he noticed that under certain conditions, electricity could flow from the plate to the filament without any electrical connection.

This was the first time that electricity had been known to flow through a vacuum.

For once in his life, Edison, who eventually patented over 1,300 inventions, failed to realise the tremendous possibilities of what he had noticed. The strange phenomenon he had seen was to lead to the radio valve, radar, television and the host of electronic devices that now serve mankind.

One man who was intrigued by this effect was J. A. (later Sir Ambrose) Fleming who experimented with electric lamps fitted with plates of various sizes. But twenty years were to pass before he found a use for this effect, which was due to electrons freed from matter.

A wireless station at Cornwall was transmitting the first transatlantic signals. These were very feeble, and Fleming tried to find a way to make these stronger at the receiving end. He ordered a dozen lamps fitted with metal cylinders around the filaments and used these in the receiving circuit.

At the same time, Dr. Lee de Forest in the U.S.A. was working on the same idea and found that by putting a wire mesh between the filament and the plate feeble signals could be amplified and not merely detected.

From this point onwards, progress raced ahead. Wireless telegraphy and telephony became reliable, stimulated by the need during the First World War to improve communications.

Read the rest of this article »

Mr Bell made the first ever telephone call to a Mr Watson

Posted in America, Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Scotland on Wednesday, 22 January 2014

This edited article about communications first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 521 published on 8 January 1972.

Bell and Watson, picture, image, illustration
In 1876 Bell spoke the first words into a telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you" – Thomas Watson was Bell's assistant

“Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” It does not sound like one of the epic remarks of history, but it is. They were the first words spoken by the human voice to be heard over a wire. They signalized the birth of the telephone.

In these days of jet planes, television and communication satellites, it is not easy to recapture the wonder of that moment when the voice of Alexander Graham Bell was heard by his assistant at the other end of a wire on the night of March 10, 1876.

The telegraph had been in use for about forty years, and though a marvel of its day, was easily explained. Intermittent currents sent along a wire were used to spell out the letters of the alphabet. Even when, in 1858, the “wire” – an undersea electric cable – spanned the Atlantic Ocean, enabling Queen Victoria and the American President to exchange messages of greeting before the flood of business telegrams began, it was only an extension of the same idea.

That the human voice could ever be sent by the same means was such a fantastic thought that few people ever regarded it as being within the bounds of possibility. And those who did had not the faintest idea how it could be achieved.

Why, then, was Alexander Graham Bell the first man to break that sound barrier? Because he had the finest beginning that any man could have in that particular realm. He was the son of a man who had been closely concerned with human speech. His father wrote a book called Visible Speech, instructing deaf mutes in lip reading.

Young Bell, born in Edinburgh in 1847, showed signs of inventive genius, and one day his father said to him and his young brother, “Make a machine that speaks.”

They fitted up bits and pieces inside a human skull, imitating the human tongue and throat, and using bellows for lungs. Did it speak? It squawked “Mamma” well enough for the woman in the flat below to call up the stairs, “Why can’t you keep that baby quiet?” but young Bell was not deceived about his success.

Their “little man,” as they called the robot, “has no muscles and he can’t open and close his throat, or touch his teeth or the roof of his mouth, with his tongue, or puff out his cheeks or press his lips together.” Oh yes, Graham Bell knew enough about the wonder of the human voice to realize how much he had failed to imitate it.

Yet he could not escape from the subject. At the age of twenty-one he came to London, and read a translation of a book by a German named Hemholz describing how scientists had made tuning forks vibrate by electro-magnets and imitate the human voice. Was this the way?

Read the rest of this article »

In 1843 America’s Congress almost voted against adopting Samuel Morse’s Code

Posted in America, Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Language on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about Morse Code first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 515 published on 27 November 1971.

Samuel Morse, picture, image, illustration
Samuel Morse in later life

The passengers aboard the sailing ship Sully, on their way from Le Havre to New York, were puzzled by the behaviour of a poor but popular artist who had done likenesses of them in his sketch-book.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, 41-year-old Samuel Morse was no longer to be seen in the dining-room, or working at his pictures on deck. Instead he had locked himself in his cabin, and the only person who had access to him was the steward who brought him his meals.

He refused to answer any other knocks on his door, and was quite rude when people shouted through the panels, asking what he was doing. “Go away!” he cried. “I am working on something completely different. An invention which one day might save your lives!”

Discuss it as they might, his former friends could not imagine what this invention could possibly be. The last conversation they remembered having with him had been about safety at sea; and how invaluable it would be if there was a speedy and simple way of letting those on land know that a ship was in distress.

His invention could be concerned with that. But Morse was an artist and art teacher – not a man of science. Besides which there was little in the year 1832 to suggest that messages could be sent hundreds of miles across water. Telegraphic devices in England and France had not been greeted with widespread encouragement, and were too unreliable and costly for everyday or even emergency use.

As the month-long voyage drew to its end, the mystery was no nearer a solution. It was not until the last week of October, as the vessel entered New York Harbour, that Morse finally emerged from his cabin. He went straight to see the ship’s master, Captain David Pell, and said to him:

“I must apologize for having appeared so unsociable and discourteous. The fact is I have been drawing an electric telegraph which is going to prove a boon to mankind – a real life-saver. Remember when it is put into use that it was invented in a cabin on your ship!”

So Morse hurried ashore clutching his sketch-book and determined to be the first man to send information and calls for help across the entire Atlantic Ocean if necessary.

Since the death of his wife a few months earlier, he had travelled throughout the galleries and churches of Europe in an effort to ease the pain in his heart. Now he was back again in his native land, and the first thing he had to do was find a job and somewhere to live.

Through the help of some old colleagues and friends, he was employed as an art teacher at New York University. At night, when the lectures were over, he strove to perfect his model electric telegraph which “wrote out” messages by means of an electro-magnet, a battery, some wire, and a pencil stub.

The slanting strokes the pencil made could only be sent and received over distances of a very few feet. The whole process was extremely primitive, and for the next five years Morse endeavoured to solve the problem of relaying messages from, say, New York to Boston.

Read the rest of this article »

Futuristic travel in Twenty-first century Britain

Posted in Communications, Science, Technology, Transport, Travel on Friday, 3 January 2014

This edited article about futuristic Britain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 502 published on 28 August 1971.

Futuristic cityscape, picture, image, illustration
Futuristic cityscape of 2001 with a monorail and helicopter

How will we travel in the year 2001? Will we still be crossing the channel by ship when we want to visit the Continent by rail? Will lorries, buses, and motor cars still be filling the atmosphere with dangerous fumes? Will we still have to look carefully right and left when we cross a busy road?

One thing now seems to be certain about travel in thirty years’ time: we will not be using the “internal combustion engine” for driving cars and lorries and buses. Although exploding petrol or diesel oil vapour may be an efficient way of using energy to turn wheels, we now have more than sufficient evidence that it is a hazard to health.

In fact, the motor car engine of the future is being designed now, and some of them are already in use.

The energy of petrol can be efficiently “harnessed” by an ingenious device called a “fuel cell”. This is a small container made of metal which is fitted with a number of metal plates or electrodes. The petrol is simply pumped into the metal container, a complicated chemical reaction takes place, and an electric current flows through the electrodes, which can then be used to drive an electric motor.

Cars carrying batteries of these fuel cells give off no dangerous fumes. Fuel cell cars are also almost silent in operation, and have fewer moving parts to wear out or need replacing or repairing.

A few of the expensive “luxury” cars of 2001 might be both “modern” and “traditional” at the same time. They would be modern because atomic furnaces or “reactors” would furnish the power. They would also be very traditional because their motors would be steam engines!

In these cars heat from the atomic reactors would generate steam in a small boiler, and the steam would drive the car’s motor.

Read the rest of this article »

Mr W H Russell told Victorian England the truth about the Crimean War

Posted in Communications, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News, War on Tuesday, 10 December 2013

This edited article about the Crimean war first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 486 published on 8 May 1971.

W H Russell, picture, image, illustration
Mr. W. H. Russell, Correspondent of the "Times" in the Crimea

The names of Crimean battles ring down through British history like trumpet calls: Alma, Inkerman, Balaclava, Sebastopol. Yet there was little that was truly glorious about that muddy, bloody, and agonising war which, like so many others, need never have been fought at all.

There was, though, one big difference between this and the other unnecessary wars that had been fought before. For the first time someone was going to tell the truth, the whole truth, not only about the fighting but about the muddle and mismanagement which caused more massacre, mutilation and misery than all the enemy’s guns and sabres put together. He was a big, jolly, outspoken Irishman named William Howard Russell, who worked as Special Correspondent for The Times.

There had been war reporters before Russell, but none of them did much more than report the results of battles witnessed at a distance. Russell – much against the will of the Army Command – lived and ate and slept, sweated, and scratched, and froze with the men who fought. He went with them into the thick of the fighting, and he sat out the long, bitter, winter of 1854-55 on the heights before the fortress of Sebastopol, waiting for the Russians to be starved out. He risked death not only from wounds, but from half-a-dozen killer diseases.

His eyes and ears were permanently vigilant, and he wrote down everything he heard and saw, with a pen so eloquent that even today the word-pictures he painted leap from the page.

The war began on a wave of almost hysterical patriotism, with banners waving, bands playing, men in scarlet and blue uniforms trimmed with glittering buttons marching like machines; but few people really knew what it was all about. The Crimea is a small peninsula – virtually an island – thrusting south from the body of Russia into the Black Sea, towards Turkey. Why on earth should a 19th-century British army have gone to fight there?

The root causes of war are never simple, but like so many others, this one was sparked off by a quite small, comparatively unimportant, incident in one of the most unlikely places imaginable: Bethlehem! It was, at least in the early stages, a religious war – or more accurately a religious squabble – a sort of holy “who-does-what” dispute.

At this time the Holy Land was part of a crumbling Turkish Empire, though many other countries, through their religious interests, claimed rights there. The Roman Catholics, for example, were strongly supported by France, and the Orthodox Church by Russia.

In the summer of 1853, some Roman Catholic monks decided to fix a silver star over the manger in the Church of the Nativity. The Orthodox monks tried to stop them. A fight broke out, and several Orthodox monks were killed. The Russians were furious with the Turkish police for not keeping order, and even hinted that the Turks had connived at the “murders.”

In fact Russia had for some time been seeking an excuse to disrupt the Turkish Empire which at that time included Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece, and most of the Asian part of the Middle East. By doing so she hoped to take over some of its territories and so break through from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. In time she hoped to stretch out even farther – overland to India and the great trade routes.

Read the rest of this article »

Cunard’s success attracted envious competitors led by J Pierpont Morgan

Posted in America, Communications, Historical articles, History, Ships, Transport, Travel on Monday, 9 December 2013

This edited article about shipping first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 483 published on 17 April 1971.

Mauretania, picture, image, illustration
The Mauretania

In 1865 came the death of the man who, more than any other, had brought about the safe and speedy conquest of the Atlantic by steam. Sir Samuel Cunard had well deserved being made a baronet. His great ships, now no longer paddlers, carried their passengers, mails and general cargo to and fro over the deep waters with sturdy regularity and increasing comfort. Ships such as the China and the Persia were crossing the Atlantic in around nine days.

Cunard lived to see his Atlantic timings first rivalled, then clipped by the American Collins Line. The Collins ships were 10 to 12 hours faster. But it was not in the philosophy of Cunard to be panicked into hasty speeding of his vessels. He waited, and saw Collins go out of business in 1858. He also, two years later, saw the most fantastic steamship of her time go into business.

In 1860, the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel, bridge-builder extraordinary and architect of the Great Western Railway, died just before his marine masterpiece sailed on her maiden voyage to New York. This may not have been so tragic as it sounds, because the Great Eastern, six times the size of Cunard’s Persia, until then the biggest ship in the world, was a magnificent failure. The monster weighed 19,000 tons and was driven by sail, by screw-propeller and by the most enormous paddle-wheels devised by man. Great Eastern was opulent with plush, pillars, and public rooms of – for those days – unthinkable size and luxury. Brunel had designed her with the aim of sailing her regularly to Ceylon laden with passengers and merchandise, who and which would then change into other smaller ships for various destinations in the Far East.

Unfortunately, the shipping company which had ordered up this flamboyant freak failed, and Great Eastern was taken over by the Great Ship Company for the Atlantic Ferry. For the Atlantic run the monster was totally unsuited, and even at full steam ahead she was two days slower than Cunard’s crack Blue Riband holder, Persia.

But now the battle for Atlantic supremacy was well and truly joined, and it was characteristic of Cunard that the company was quite prepared to stand upon the side-lines and watch the race steaming up. In turn ships of the Inman Line, the White Star Line and the American Guion Line collared the Blue Riband. Cunard people sailed on these ships, keeping their eyes and their ears open. Marine design and engineering was changing almost year by year, and Cunard was quietly prepared to go steady, while all the time looking to the future. More hurry, less speed was their motto.

In 1881, and without undue blowing of trumpets, came the 7,000 ton Servia, Cunard’s first steel ship, and the first to be lit by electricity. Close on her stern the Aurania offered luxury suites of rooms. Things were hotting up, and they hotted up still more when the Umbria and the Etruria quietly took back the Blue Riband with speeds of over 18 knots. Inman’s countered with the City of Paris at 19 ½ knots. Back came Cunard with 22 knots and her fine ship Lucania.

These were thrilling days towards the turn of the century. North German Lloyd’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, 14,000 tons, came blasting out of Hamburg with 22.35 knots. Three years later the 16,500 ton Deutschland knocked all opposition sideways with 24.37 knots. The year was 1900.

Read the rest of this article »