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Follow the brown signs

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The nerve centre of The British Empire in a quiet little Cornish cove. Who knew?

This is the sign at the bottom of the Minack Theatre hill. I’d never heard of the Telegraph Museum so I was intrigued, and when I’m intrigued I must discover. We’d passed a big white building on the way to the Minack with MUSEUM printed in massive letters on it so I guessed that was it.

After parking up you walk through a garden full of “sci-art” sculptures which were born out of an interesting collaborative project that aims to bridge the age old divide between the art world and the science world by engaging local school children and innovative artists to design pieces of object d’arts that reflect the invisible science behind telegraph technology portrayed though the medium of sculpture, sound and light. I liked this eerie one the best…

This is a telegraph pole connected to a redundant submarine cable that was once used to send telegraph signals between here and Vigo in Spain. Since the cable no longer transmits telegraphs the signals it now picks up are the earth’s faint electrical charges which are then processed and sounded out through the speaker on top. It emits live changes in the electrical signals under the sea, so in effect what you’re listening to is the cumulative sound of the earth’s magnetic field, radio waves, lightening and man-made electromagnetic charges (among other things) and hearing it makes you feel like you’ve been shot straight into an episode of Doctor Who. It was all creepy and scary and I love that.
The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum charts the extraordinary work carried out at this vitally important but little known place that served as the nerve centre of the whole British Empire for 100 years, even Chris didn’t know about it and he’s only from the next county. This is what they say about themselves:

“Porthcurno occupies a unique position in history as the most strategically important communications site in mainland Britain. From the first undersea cable that was laid in 1870, Porthcurno grew to house the world’s largest and busiest submarine telegraph station. Porthcurno was also home to the international Cable and Wireless Training College, described as the world’s leading training institution for telegraph technology. The 14 cables linking Porthcurno to the British Empire employed a binary code technology that was the fore-runner of the internet. This cable network was of vital strategic importance in World War II. We have the only working cable station (complete in all details except the actual cable) in the world. We also have all the supporting materials and associated ephemera that are rarely preserved with such collections. Porthcurno also had one of the earliest commercial wireless stations in 1902 so we are able to show the emerging competition between cable and wireless technology.”

If you actually stand and think for a minute about how it was before we could all communicate instantly it really makes you realise how different the world was. When it was discovered that electrical signals could be sent down a cable as a coded message which could then be deciphered and read by someone in another location it quite literally changed the face of the modern world forever; mobiles, fibre optics, the internet, radio and television would not be have been possible without the development of the telegraph and early wireless technology. The museum website is packed full of pictures, stories and time lines and its a great place to find out about the history of telegraph technology if you don’t get to visit the museum yourself. I love this photo of local chaps hauling one of the first submarine cables up the beach…

The potential of the telegraph to be used for worldwide communications was not underestimated, it was the first practical use of electricity (even before the electric light bulb) and The Great Western Railway were already using it commercially by the mid 1800s. Submarine cables began being laid and tested and (after a few hiccups like trawlers dredging them up thinking they were massive eels filled with gold) they proved successful and the race was on to establish a worldwide network. Previously insignificant far flung islands that were once ignored by the British suddenly became of great strategic interest. They were colonised and become relay stations for the submarine cables where electrical signals could be “boosted” and resent to make sure the signal had enough strength to get to its destination. Throughout the museum there are photos of the people who worked for The Eastern Telegraph Company, later becoming Cable and Wireless Plc, across the world transmitting and receiving telegraphs.  The company produced a magazine called “The Zodiac” which helped pull all the employees together within this diverse multinational organisation

A former telegraph operator at Porthcurno is now a volunteer for the museum and he mans a mini relay station at the back of the museum showing visitors exactly how the telegraph system worked. Here he is…

(Just as an aside, my Australian friend Kate who keeps up with my pursuits through the blog and sends me much needed presents of National Trust membership, would say this is a classic “Amanda goes brown-signing” photo. As she said to me once “it’s so cute, your blog photos are so often of old men taken from the back while they’re demonstrating something to you”. And she’s right of course. It’s weird but unless The Mose is there to ask these brilliant volunteers and attraction owners for a photo I simply cannot make myself face up to doing it myself. It’s silly I know but it makes me really emotional to see these guys volunteering and showing people like us how important these things are, so I don’t do it for fear of bursting out crying. Rob Archer would say it’s my way of repressing the pain, which of course it is).

To demonstrate the telegraph process visitors get to have a go themselves (my favourite thing). At one end of the mini relay station there’s an old typewriter which you type out your message on, this then gets turned into Morse code punched out on a strip of paper, said piece of paper then gets fed into a noisy machine to be turned into an electrical signal, the message goes through another noisy machine as it gets relayed (think of it as what happened at the aforementioned far flung islands), then finally the signal gets decoded at the end and printed out on another strip of paper which you can keep for your very own, so here’s mine…

“Amanda and Chris go Cornwall brown signing”. The telegraph operator was a little confused about the message and thought I’d spelt something wrong but when I explained that “brown-signing” is actually a whole new verb I’d invented he was satisfied. I hope he starts using it in his everyday vocab, although I don’t think he will.

I love this map of “The All Red Line”. This is the informal name given to the submarine cables that were laid across the globe by the turn of the century, so called because the British Empire was coloured in red on world maps in those days and so therefore were the submarine cables…

How cool is that?! Compare that to the current map of the many hundreds of cable optic submarine cables across the world and the difference is unbelievable…

It always astounds me when I think properly about what we have, the way we live and how we came to have what we have. It’s just so easy to not think about it or ask how all this came to be and actually see the enormous feats of engineering and science that allow us to live the unbelievably privileged lives we do. From the very early beginnings when experiments were being done to see whether wires could be used to carry electrical signals to now when (it seems) the world we live in quite literally pivots on world wide communications, cables and cyberspace. Quite frankly it makes my mouth hang open.

I got up early to finish this blog before work today and over breakfast (of kippers with brown backs) with my parents (that’s right, I’m living with the old ma and pa) I began waxing lyrical about how far the modern world has come, what massive leaps forward we’ve made and how amazing things become when you start learning just a little bit about them, but that it’s also so easy to accept the way we live and not think about the hows or whys. Just this little bit of knowledge about telegraphs has sparked my interest in things I simply had no idea about but have such dramatic and important implications for all of our lives. Me and my pal Chris happened upon a brown sign to a telegraph museum after a visit to a theatre and now I’m thinking about the British Empire, island colonies, science and the potential of international conflicts and all these things centre around one thing: human nature’s fundamental need to communicate and the constant pushing of boundaries to make breakthroughs to ensure it gets easier, better and faster.

My parents talked about the changes they’d seen in their lifetimes and their own experiences of growing up without the internet and all the multitude of opportunities we have today that we all just take for granted, it was a very interesting conversation. We were sitting quietly after our chat just thinking (we’d moved onto the bread, marmalade and second cup of tea by then) when my mum looked up at me and said “so my darling, everything comes back to brown tourist signs” and gave me a wink. And I nearly cried. Right on that lady.