Concepts, Actors and Practices from the Past to the Present
Edited by Stathis Arapostathis and Graham Dutfield
Chapter 6: Something in the air: The Post Office and early wireless, 1882–1899
In 1882 William Henry Preece, in his role as Assistant Electrician of the British Post Office, delivered a paper before the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) entitled ‘Recent Progress in Telephony’. This was less than two years after a legal judgment extended the monopoly and licensing of the Telegraphy Acts (held by the Post Office) to include telephony in addition to telegraphy.3 During this brief period, the Post Office conducted in-depth research into this newly-established field of telecommunications, and many of these developments and experiments are described in Preece’s paper. Two distinct developments described within this paper are of particular note: first, a short-term solution to a broken undersea telegraphic cable using sea-water conduction; secondly, the problem of inductive interference between telephone wires and telegraph cables with over 250 yards between them. This paper, which was widely published and disseminated, formed the genesis of two distinct, experimental forms of ‘wireless’ communications: inductive telegraphy and conductive telegraphy.4 A system of wireless communications developed by Preece (who later rose to the rank of Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office from 1892–1899) and the Post Office and utilising induction went on to become the world’s first commercial wireless telegraphy system, crossing the Bristol Channel between 1897 and 1898. How- ever, these early wireless systems were rapidly overtaken in the late 1890s by Hertzian wave-based wireless communications systems developed by Marconi, Lodge and others.
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