back to article The Central Telegraph Office was serving spam 67 years before vikings sang about it on telly

The BT Centre is an unremarkable-looking building just north of St Paul's Cathedral, nine storeys of Portland stone with straight unadorned 1980s lines softened by curved corners. The headquarters of the UK's largest telco could be mistaken for an apartment block if it wasn't for the company's logo. BT Centre with st paul's …

  1. Paul Kinsler

    drooled the Illustrated London News in a November 1874 article.

    Unfortunately, in this regard, the ILN seems to be insufficiently illustrated to allow any judgement to be made as to whether or not such unseemly behaviour as drooling might ever be justified:-)

    However, further down, on google scan p.589/590 (ILN page 517/518) there is a picture & article relating to the 1874 transit of Venus.

    1. Paul Kinsler

      Re: drooled the Illustrated London News in a November 1874 article.

      Correction - illustrations are before, on scan p 576 (ILN p 504).

      Mops brow, retires somewhat flustered.

      1. 's water music Silver badge

        Re: drooled the Illustrated London News in a November 1874 article.

        Two pages up from the text (scan p576, ILN 1874-11-28 p504) is a full page spread of Sketches at the Central Telegraph Establishment ,General Post Office where readers may make their own, objectifying judgements of both male and female telegraphers although I imagine that the majority of commentards will be too distracted by the hardware also included to pay much attention

  2. Nick Kew

    A good read, and even the clickbait about historic spam seems to be merited!

    One little bit of history that may be missing: were they involved (and if so how) in Blighty's famously successful espionage on German communications in the lead-up to war?

    1. smudge

      If you mean the Zimmerman telegraph, which helped to bring the USA into WW1, it seems that that was intercepted at the Porthcurno relay in Cornwall.

      Although it's not clear from your post what espionage, or indeed which war, you are referring to.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        I immediately thought of the Zimmerman telegram, when the article stated the Telegraph Office had had a relatively quiet WWI. Which led to a quick bit of Googling to refresh old memories.

        It's interesting how things was different back then.

        Britain cut German cables so as to force them to broadcast by radio, so we could crack their codes. And also to be annoying.

        Comms discipline was pretty poor back then. Codes weren't all that good, or rigorously designed. And lots of stuff got sent in the clear. One reason the Germans trounced the Russians so badly in Poland and East Prussia in 1914 was that the Russian HQs kept issuing orders by radio with no encoding whatsoever. Also the German High Seas Fleet did their internal communications by radio when in port! Rather than by runner or ship-to-ship cable, which couldn't be intercepted.

        The US offered the Germans some telegraph help. Take uncoded messages to their embassy in Berlin, and the US would re-transmit them over their "secure" lines. Said lines went via Cornwall for amplification, and so were sneakily copied by the British. *Ahem!*

        The Germans managed to persuade the US ambassador to send the Zimmerman telegram in code - well they couldn't exactly get the Americans to transmit their plans to pay Mexico to invade them could they? Awkward!

        So the British government spent a few months looking for plausibly deniable ways to get this to the US, without admitting spying on their diplomatic traffic or that they'd broken the German codes.

        Which made it harder to say it wasn't an evil British forgery. But then Zimmerman went and publicly admitted it was genuine anyway! Despite German diplomats in the US and Mexico trying to say that it was a Britihs fake. D'oh!

        Also, what a stupid idea! Mexico was only just (mostly) stopping its own civil war. How the hell did the Germans expect them to be able to conquer Texas and New Mexico? Even if they were a united country there was no way they were going to be able to beat the US army, and it was obvious that they would know that too. So why make the offer, and risk Mexico telling the US about it and bringing them into the war quicker? Unrestricted submarine warfare was likely to bring them into it eventually anyway. It's a strange old story...

        1. Cuddles Silver badge

          "Comms discipline was pretty poor back then. Codes weren't all that good, or rigorously designed. And lots of stuff got sent in the clear."

          Yes, "back then". Certainly not like today at all.

          1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge


            Well lots of bad stuff happens now. But people like the military are a lot more aware about it. And normally even politicians nod to security - although people like Trump insisting on using their own mobile probably isn't that unusual. Didn't Obama demand they make him a secure Blackberry, because he didn't like the available choice of secure phones?

        2. Claverhouse Silver badge

          Without implying any callous attitude on the part of the Great General Staff, any success, let alone conquests, for the Mexicans --- even with heavy casualties---, would be less important than the merest diversion to keep the US preoccupied for a few months.

          The Idiot Press would have worked into a froth about Mexicans, American Statesmen would have planned gigantic Walls to no purpose, and Pershing would have matched up and down Mexico.

          Americans have always been a mite touchy about their beloved little brother down past the Rio Grande, and their tiny minds would have exploded at a full invasion.

          Anyone remember how in 1960s to 80s American films dealing with Mexican revolutions and the like, the hosts of unbelievably incompetent uniformed Mexicano mooks had a few sinister German advisers attached to each squad ? Generally in white undress uniform, with nose-rim eyeglasses.

          1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge


            Oh I fully understand why the Germans would want Mexico to invade. And the pre-WWI US army was absolutely tiny. But the Mexican army wasn't that much bigger, and despite years of intermittent civil war doesn't seem to have been particularly effective or done much with all that potential combat experience. Plus I think the Mexicans got a lot of their weapons from the USA - and the Germans were in no position to ship them any.

            As I understand it the Mexican government came to that conclusion pretty quickly, and also wasn't particularly optimistic about holding on to Texas even if by some miracle they were able to take it and hold it long enough to get it in the peace talks (should the Central Powers win).

            Hence it's such a transparently bad offer that there seems no possible reason to take it. Or in fact to do anything else than try and win brownie points from Washington by telling them all about it.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "Britain cut German cables so as to force them to broadcast by radio, so we could crack their codes. And also to be annoying"

          That was true during WW2, but in WW1 they cut the direct undersea cables, forcing them to use alternative routes that tended to be easier get access to... hence the Zimmerman telegram being intercepted at Porthcurno because it was one of the few transatlantic routes left

          1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

            Well the Zimmerman telegram went via the US embassy in Berlin. And apparently Wilson offered this route to communications as an aid to peace talks - the deal being all messages had to be un-coded. They persuaded the US ambassador to allow them to send that one in code, as it would have a tad embarrassing otherwise...

            Which means most of their stuff was still going to have to go via radio. Or sent on the commercial networks using subterfuge.

    2. Thoguht Silver badge

      I'm not sure about the lead-up to war, but during the war the telegraph office was certainly involved in anti-espionage work.

      One case I vaguely recall involved a simple three word telegram (not unusual because you were charged per word) being sent to a recipient in a neutral country stating "Grandfather is deceased". The telegraph operator, thinking the wording was a bit strange, contacted the intelligence services and was told to send the telegram but follow it with another one saying "Grandfather is dead". The reply came "Is grandfather dead or deceased?" The original sender was immediately arrested, found to have been spying on British fleet movements, and shot.

      1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

        I feel some sympathy for the spy who got shot because his handler was a f*****g moron!

    3. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      On the subject of espionage, I think there was some mention of "St Paul's" in "Spycatcher", with respect to tapping voice lines. It's a while a since read the book...

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

        ...found it.

        "The most important outstation was the headquarters of the Post Office Special Investigations Unit near St. Paul’s. MI5 had a suite of rooms on the first floor run by Major Denman, an old-fashioned military buffer with a fine sense of humour. Denman handled the physical interception of mail and installation of telephone taps on the authority of Post Office warrants"

  3. Steve @ Ex Cathedra Solutions
    Thumb Up

    A great read

    Great read, and a lovely historical perspective.

    1. JClouseau

      Re: A great read


      I am just reading Erik Larson's "Thunderstruck", a crime novel with bits of historic facts, and one important part is about Marconi's "invention".

      I'm using quotes because I didn't know how little he knew about physics (and next to nothing about maths), his success was mostly due to very good instincts, hard work, perseverance, and luck.

      And connections : I also didn't know his mum was a Jameson (whiskey), which explains why he came to London instead of a civilized place like, say, Paris, and was quickly introduced to the right people, like W. Preece

      The CTO has obviously an important part in the story.

      I'm finishing the part where he and Preece fall out, because of, you know, Big Money. Quite sad, as Preece appears to have been the prototype of the Honest Engineer, more interested in finding Useful Stuff and bringing progress to humanity- or at least to the UK telecoms.

      There is also an interesting bit about the clash between the "experimenters" like Marconi and Preece and the "theorists" or "Maxwellians" such as Lodge.

      All in all a funny read even if Larson digresses quite a lot, by his own admission.

      Hertz, Faraday, Marconi, Branly,... Great times.

  4. cpage

    BT Archives worth visiting when they next have an open day

    I visited the BT Archives recently when they had an open day. Lots of interesting stuff about early telephony. One map shows the German telelphone/telegraph cables which went along the English Channel to connect Germany to North and South America. One of our first actions when the first world war broke out was that we cut all these German cables and so cut them off from a large chunk of the world. It must have required quite a bit of intelligence and prior planning to have done that.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: BT Archives worth visiting when they next have an open day

      I haven't looked if they're doing it, but Open House London is this weekend.

      So if there's any BT open days going to happen, that's a really likely time for it to be. That's when London Underground let you go interesting and unusual places too - but those tend to book up ahead of time, as they're so hard to get on. But the BT archives are less likely to be over-subscribed.

      The London one is always a week before or after the national one, and there are alwasy loads of interesting places open that normally aren't.

      Sorry - just my little bit of advertising. As I remembered that it's around this time every year.

      Along with International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Which is today! I'd forgotten until now. Yaaarrrr!

      Sing a-long a Youtube

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

        Re: BT Archives worth visiting when they next have an open day

        Just had a quick look and there doesn't seem to be anything related.

        That said there are a few other interesting items in there, and as I hadn't even heard the event was happening it's a thumbs-up (and an upvote) from me anyway. Let's see if I can persuade the management into a day out on Sunday...

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: BT Archives worth visiting when they next have an open day

          It's an annual thing. Which I forgot to look up this year.

          Here's the site for the rest of England - which started last week and goes on to this weekend.

          link to map

          I'm sure there's a Scottish and Welsh equivalent, I just don't know that they're called.

          Obviously a lot of places that are open to the public anyway put themselves on it. But you also get interesting stuff from the railways, London Underground, and I see the John Radcliffe (Oxford) vascular imaging clinic are offering a tour for some reason. So if you're into ultrasound and radioactive tracers - go and knock yourself out.

          I missed the trip down Brunel's Thames tunnel a few years ago but I think that's on most years. And Thames Water have given people some interesting chances to get into water treatment works and down sewers.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: BT Archives worth visiting when they next have an open day @IAS

        >>Along with International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Which is today! I'd forgotten until now. Yaaarrrr!

        I once worked with two stoners whose weed was called "Red Beard". They managed to talk like pirates for a whole week, it was extremely funny. I guess that it stopped when their supply ran out. Bummer :(

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Open House London

        Thanks for the heads up.

        Who's crazy idea was it for everywhere to open on the same day? If they opened on different days throughout the year, more people would be able to visit each place!

        1. Wilco

          Re: Open House London

          "If they opened on different days throughout the year, more people would be able to visit each place!"

          I don't think that's true.

          The number of people who could visit a building is unaffected by the number of other buildings that are open.

          The number of people who want to visit a building is arguably increased by having a special open house weekend which is publicised and which people plan to go to every year. I've been going for 20+ years and I've seen some fascinating places.

  5. STOP_FORTH Silver badge

    Mondial House

    Great article, this takes me back. When I used to visit BT buildings in this neck of the woods (in the 80s) the international exchange was Mondial House which was a lovely looking building next to the Thames which looked like a cake. Faraday (known to everyone as "Trunks") was domestic trunk circuits. Had the largest wiring frame I have ever seen. I think it was in Godliman Street, it has probably gone now.

  6. Kubla Cant Silver badge

    Fascinating article. It's a testament to the importance of telegraphy to finance that the GBP/USD exchange rate is known as "Cable".

    Is a "manual Morse machine" the same thing as a Morse key? That's what the man in the picture seems to be using.

    1. SA_Mathieson

      I recall being told about the 'Cable' exchange rate at my first job in journalism, covering corporate finance from an office on Playhouse Yard, just round the corner from the GPO South/Faraday Building North site.

      Yes, that would be a Morse key, although it seems that the CTO tried pretty much every cable technology available at some point - the Hughes 'piano' keyboard is particularly striking.

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

        the Hughes 'piano' keyboard is particularly striking

        The young Eric Morecombe wouldn't have lasted long on that job

    2. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

      Love the bastard child of a Piano and a Typewriter!

      aside: there seem to be many "stenograph" machines available at Goodwill nowadays. Apparently the technology for court transcription has advanced beyond 10 keys and paper tape. Perkins Braillers still command a good price, though.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Perkins Braillers are still the thing. Most blind kids will get laptops and all the special software. But Braille embossers are still enormous and bloody noisy - my Mum had one and it was a bugger to get software. If you just want to do a few little labels, nothing beats a Braille embosser.

        The year after she retired from teaching, she took one of her ex-pupils to the Roald Dahl museum in Great Missenden - and complained to them about the lack of Braille labelling on everything. Though I think they opened some cabinets and let the kid touch some of the exhibits.

        So Mum did all their labels for them, on her Perkins Brailler onto plastic sticky labels - and in return they gave her a golden ticket that got her unlimited entries. Which got used on a few other ex-pupils and the grandchildren.

        1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge


          My Mum, who was not blind herself, at age 60 or so, took up Braille transcription for the Library of Congress. She had to get certified (Braille isn't just letter-for-letter, it's a shorthand) and take a test, transcribe part of a document with no errors, etc. For several years before her death, she would receive portions of books, and transcribe them with her Perkins Brailler to foot-square sheets of Braille, which she would mail off (postage-free) to the LOC. She used it so heavily that I had to replace a number of keyboard springs broken through heavy use. I called Perkins and they cheerfully supplied replacement parts!

          When she died, I again called Perkins, offered them the Brailler back, to be given to a needy student, which they gratefully accepted. Turns out, they do a good bit of business, the students build the machines, they're sold at cost, they are designed to be user-repairable and quite rugged. Apparently, there's now a "version 2", but the classics are still very much in use.

          I go past Perkins every day on my commute. Good people doing good work.

  7. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

    The photo: "A Siemens machine generating gummed tape, 1934" shows 5-level tape, but with dual sprocket holes on the outside edges, rather than between holes 2 & 3. I've never seen that before.

    1. SA_Mathieson

      If you're interested, here's the BT Archives entry for it:

    2. cantankerous swineherd Silver badge

      this has to be peak register!

    3. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      "A Siemens machine generating gummed tape, 1934"

      Question: I can understand that the recipient's message would be printed out on gummed paper (the height of one alphanumeric character plus an upper and lower gutter) so that it can be cut and affixed to the postcard used to deliver the message, but why would 5-level punched tape be gummed? I wouldn't relish the archivist who has to unravel them after being stored in a humid room.

      BTW Excellent article!

  8. Claverhouse Silver badge

    Britain's Taylor Swift

    Telegraphy had its innovations, some less welcome than others. Over 16-17 December 1903, The Times sent 88,847 telegrams soliciting purchases of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, VM Dunford, deputy controller of CTO, explained in an article he wrote in March 1915.

    To be truthful, knowing my people in 1903, the free arrival at a country rectory of a surprise telegram discussing an Encyclopaedia would have kept the perish chattering joyfully for days.

    Not a lot to do then in rural parts.


    'The largest telegraph office in the world'

    Weren't that our Gracie ?

  9. Ochib

    The first ever telegraph hack

  10. disgruntled yank Silver badge


    'They combined the optical telegraphy systems first used in France in the late 18th century – lines of stations using visual signals to pass on messages – with the development of batteries and the realisation that electricity in a wire could be used to send signals a long way almost instantly."

    I look forward to you covering Djikstra (the Geek's Guide to Holland? Austin?):

    "They combined the optical telegraphy systems first used in France in the late 18th century – lines of stations using visual signals to pass on messages – with the addition of philosophers and spaghetti to control access to share resources."

    Also, minor points off for mentioning Baudot without going on to "baud"./

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: combinations

      I look forward to you covering Djikstra (the Geek's Guide to Holland? Austin?):

      Please make that "Dijkstra".

    2. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: Also, minor points off for mentioning Baudot without going on to "baud"./

      Perhaps the author was worried about our short attention spans.

  11. Miss Config

    Telegrams. In 1987 ?

    What the article does not mention is that as recently as 1987 BT tried to reintroduce the telegram.

    I remember full page ads in newspapers explaining how cheap it was to send a page worth of text.

    Not sure how successful it was at the time but it more or less coincided with the arrival of faxes.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Telegrams. In 1987 ?

      The shipping industry (as in ships, not just transport) were using telexes into this century. Doubt they still do now though.

      1. -tim

        Re: Telegrams. In 1987 ?

        Telegraphs are still used control some equipment inside expensive containment areas like matter colliders and reactor containment vessels.

        The guy who created the system needed to talk to devices using one wire (as each additional wire could cost upwards of a million dollars to install), and was a amateur radio operator who knew Morse code. His idea was to use Morse code to talk to the equipment inside much like a serial port was used at the time. His boss insisted that he apply for a patent on the concept and after the patent office had correctly rejected most of the claims as being obvious, all he was left with was a patent for the telegraph just like the system used 100 years before.

      2. Stork Silver badge

        Re: Telegrams. In 1987 ?

        I used a telex when i did a week at a shipping office in the early eighties. I seem to remember they held out surprisingly long because the messages were almost impossible to fake.

      3. ghytred

        Re: Telegrams. In 1987 ?

        The UK gas industry used telex for suppliers to instruct the North Sea gas fields they were buying from how much to pump. They stopped when telex services were withdrawn, about 2008 I think.

        1. Claverhouse Silver badge

          Re: Telegrams. In 1987 ?

          They stopped when telex services were withdrawn, about 2008 I think.

          That seems sensible.

      4. trolleybus

        Re: another 'Google is Evil' example

        There are still plenty of pairs of signal boxes linked by telegraph on the UK's railways. Signallers communicate with each other by means of single-strike bell codes then use block instruments to track and repeat the status of the line: whether it's clear, occupied or the default status of line blocked (indeterminate).

        1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

          Re: block instruments

          They were certainly in use at Harrow-on-the-Hill when I was a signal engineering apprentice (early 1970's). These were used to signal trains between there and the next box along (Neasden Junction presumably) on the British Rail Marylebone line only. The rest of the site used (nearly*) conventional Underground signalling - including the next leg of the BR line up to Moor Park (which is shared with the Metropolitan line). (*The line up to Amersham had four aspect signalling, and the fog repeaters had light blue aspects instead of green to prevent confusion).

          I can't remember whether there were block instruments at Amersham (where the BR line continues on to Aylesbury), presumably there must have been.

  12. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    Love it that the Faraday Building is on Knight Rider Street. ;)

    1. SA_Mathieson

      [In calming and slightly robotic voice] Technically Michael, it's Knightrider Street. [Makes swirly noise while line of red lights flash.]

  13. Mystic Megabyte

    Off topic?

    I went up the BT tower when it still had a public gallery. I still have the brochure somewhere, what impressed me was the size of the power feed bus-bars. IIRC (unlikely) they had about 10 (now I'm guessing) 2ft width x 1inch thickness aluminium bars stacked so that there was a 1 inch gap between the bars. (Imagine a 90° change of direction of the bars)

    A friend of mine lived adjacent to the tower and when the IRA bombed it, pieces were raining down on his house. He thought that the tower was going to fall on his house. A case of brown pyjamas maybe :(

    Fun fact number two:

    A WW2 aeroplane nerd told me that at the start of WW2 there were 20 anti-aircraft guns guarding the Scapa Flow and only six guns for the whole of London.

    Fact number three:

    I hate BT and will have nothing to do with them, bunch of (read the small print) crooks.

    1. STOP_FORTH Silver badge

      Re: Off topic?

      I have been up the BT Tower and (more recently) The Shard. I'd say the view from The Shard is better.

      I'm guessing that the busbars were probably 50 volt, hence the size.

      1. Oh Matron! Silver badge

        Re: Off topic?

        Yeah, but have you been up BT tower when it rotates? :-)

        Have been lucky enough to have been up BT tower a few times. The double height lift is amazing

        And it would be remiss of me not to post this:

    2. ICPurvis47 Bronze badge

      Re: Off topic?

      Unfortunately, here out in the sticks, I have no alternative. BT or nothing round here :-(

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Off topic?

      I'll see your array of alumin(i)um bus bars and raise you 8-inch diameter copper pipe as a coaxial feed between a TV transmitter and the antenna. Center conductor is water pipe diameter held centered by Teflon "spiders" every so often. Pressurised with dry nitrogen and joined with the most remarkable hermaphroditic connectors (think "giant sized General Radio connectors").

      Also, I can neither confirm nor deny (wink, wink) that the view from the top of a 1500 ft guyed transmitter tower is equally impressive, though the elevator ride is something one would only take with a very close friend...who shouldn't have been taking visitors up there. 30 mile an hour breeze and it was rock solid.

  14. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Thanks, El Reg

    Even though I will probably never cross the pond, I put a Google Maps star on each site and hope.

    These articles are fascinating. Please keep the "Geek's Guide" going for as long as possible.

  15. Nifty Bronze badge

    "In 1919, the CTO employed 5,699 staff who were paid a total of £728,300 – a mean average of £128 – or £6,500 in today's money, according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator"

    £6,500 in today's money in London would rent half a studio and leave nothing spare for bus fares.

    Just how representative of reality is "Bank of England's inflation calculator"?

  16. Efer Brick

    £128 ?

    yeah, that does sound pretty mean.

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