Beaming the British Empire: The Imperial Wireless Chain, circa 1900-1940

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History

Abstract

This project focuses on one of the most extraordinary milestones in the history of global telecommunications: the Imperial Wireless Chain (IWC). First conceived by Guglielmo Marconi in 1906 to use long-wave transmitters, the scheme was postponed following a political scandal and the outbreak of the First World War. In the early 1920s, and at some financial risk, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company developed its innovative 'beam' short-wave system and this was eventually adopted by the British government for the IWC. The first pair of 'beam' stations opened in Britain and Canada in 1927 and within a few years similar stations followed in Australia, India, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. It soon became one of the most widely used forms of long distance communication in the British empire and posed such a threat to the ageing submarine cable business that had long constituted the 'nervous system' of the British empire that the British government was eventually forced to amalgamate the newer and older forms of telegraphy into one of the largest telecommunication firms of its day: Cable and Wireless. Despite its importance, the history of the Imperial Wireless Chain has not been the subject of systematic scholarly study. The aim of this project is to plug this significant gap in our understanding of early wireless and radio.

There is much scope within this project for the post holder to develop their own research questions. Among the areas that might be explored are:

- The role of the IWC in fostering or obstructing technical developments in wirelessand radio, including those not associated with Marconi and his business.
- How IWC stations around the globe were constructed and operated.
-The role of the IWC in encouraging the emergence of local cultures of professional
and amateur wireless activity.
- Differences in perceptions of the IWC in different British colonies and dominions.
- Conflicts between and alignments of the diverse interests involved in the IWC,
including the commercial, political, legal, scientific and technological.
- The successes and failures of the IWC as an instrument of British imperial and
colonial integrity.

All these questions will be underpinned by a critical understanding of historical and sociological interpretations of technology and a critical perspective on the IWC that questions the extent to which the scheme as a whole, and Marconi's specific proposals for it,
were necessarily seen as improvements on existing systems of global communication.

Publications

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