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Industrial research at the Eastern Telegraph Company, 1872–1929


By the late nineteenth century the submarine telegraph cable industry, which had blossomed in the 1850s, had reached what historians regard as technological maturity. For a host of commercial, cultural and technical reasons, the industry seems to have become conservative in its attitude towards technological development, which is reflected in the small scale of its staff and facilities for research and development. This paper argues that the attitude of the cable industry towards research and development was less conservative and altogether more complex than historians have suggested. Focusing on the crucial case of the Eastern Telegraph Company, the largest single operator of submarine cables, it shows how the company encouraged inventive activity among outside and in-house electricians and, in 1903, established a small research laboratory where staff and outside scientific advisers pursued new methods of cable signalling and cable designs. The scale of research and development at the Eastern Telegraph Company, however, was small by comparison with that of its nearest competitor, Western Union, and dwarfed by that of large electrical manufacturers. This paper explores the reasons for this comparatively weak provision but also suggests that this was not inappropriate for a service-sector firm.

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Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith , Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 178–225

George D. Smith , The Anatomy of a Business Strategy: Bell, Western Electric and the Origins of the American Telephone Industry, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985

Dwayne Winseck and Robert M. Pike , Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860–1930, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007

Sidney Brown , ‘Automatic relay translation for long submarine cables’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1902) 31, pp. 10601085, 1063–1064

J. Elton Young , ‘Capacity measurements of long submarine cables’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1899) 28, pp. 475489, 475

B.S. Cohen , ‘Research in the British Post Office’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1934), 75, pp. 133151

Robert Boyce , ‘Imperial dreams and national realities: Britain, Canada and the struggle for a Pacific telegraph cable, 1879–1902’, English Historical Review (2000) 115, pp. 3970

Helge Kragh , ‘The Krarup cable: invention and early development’, Technology and Culture (1994) 35, pp. 129157

W.A.J. O'Meara , ‘Submarine cables for long-distance telephone circuits’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1911) 46, pp. 309427, 377–379

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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