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Queen Victoria and the Telephone

In January 1878, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his newly invented device - the telephone - to none other than Queen Victoria.

Britain’s first glimpse of the telephone was in September 1876, when Bell’s invention was exhibited in Glasgow at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Sir William Thompson described it as “the greatest by far of all the marvels of the electric telegraph”. Bell was awarded his UK patent on 9 December 1876.

The then-magical potential of the telephone was enticingly described in an 1877 flyer: “Persons using it can converse miles apart, in precisely the same manner as though they were in the same room.” Clearly, Her Majesty could not resist and the Queen's sanctuary on the Isle of Wight, Osborne House, was the scene of the country’s first publicly witnessed long-distance calls, when Bell dialed up London and Southampton.

Following the demonstration (today, 143 years ago), one of the Queen’s minions wrote to Professor Bell asking if she could by the 'instrument'.

Despite Queen Vicoria's enthusiasm for this remarkable new device, Her Majesty’s Post Office was, bizarrely, less keen. When Bell’s agent offered the company rights to develop the telephone as part of the British telegraph system, the Post Office declined.

Its incumbent arrogance echoed that of the giant American telegraph company Western Union. Soon after Bell patented his invention in the US in March 1876, it declined the offer to buy rights to the telephone for $100,000 (worth around $2.5m today), believing it wasn’t a rival to the telegraph.

Both Western Union and the Post Office soon realised their mistake, but lost out to a string of private companies set up by others on both sides of the Atlantic who recognised its potential.

In the 1890s, various private telephone companies amalgamated to become the National Telephone Company. Taken over by the Post Office in 1912, it was one of the early telco predecessors from which British Telecom evolved. (But don't tell Sid.)


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