Digitized BT Archives Launched

19 07 2013

AS: British Telecom, the former monopoly telephone company in the UK, has digitized part of its vast archival holdings and placed it online. The e-archive, which was just launched, will doubtless be useful to business historians. The project was developed with money from the New Connections project, a one million pound collaboration between Coventry University [my employer], BT itself, and the UK’s The National Archives, in order to bring an important part of this unique archive and innovations story to a much wider audience.  Note that while I am a business historian at Coventry University, I wasn’t involved in this particular project. My colleague Neil Forbes, who was the driving force behind it, is interviewed here. 

Here is their blurb:

BT is the world’s oldest and most established communications company. Its roots extend back to the UK’s Electric Telegraph Company, incorporated in 1846 as the world’s first national provider of telecommunications services. Few companies in the world have a heritage as rich as BT. Its history is a fascinating weave of invention, innovation, and endeavour – both as a public service and as a private enterprise..

BT Archives documents the leading role that the UK and BT and its predecessors have played in communications technology development from its very beginning, rolling out communications services around the country and across the globe, and the profound impact they had on society and in improving people’s lives. The archives are recognised as having international significance by UNESCO and Arts Council England as an important part of the UK’s cultural heritage.

The overall collection includes records, photographs and films of BT itself, records of the Post Office telecommunications function, and of the private telephone and telegraph companies taken over by the Post Office in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They document the development of the UK communications infrastructure and services to overseas from their earliest days, and major milestones such as the development of transatlantic communications from the earliest telegraph service to satellites and fibre optic cables

The project aimed to catalogue, digitise and develop a searchable online resource of almost half a million photographs, images, documents and correspondence, a core part of the overall collection assembled by BT over 165 years, including over:

·         45,000 photographs and pictures, c1865 – 1982

·         190,000 pages from over 13,500 research reports, 1878 – 1981

·         230,000 documents from over 550 policy and operational files, 1851 – 1983

BT’s archive of  work undertaken at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, and later at BT’s research laboratories at Martlesham Heath, is acknowledged to be particularly significant as a record of British scientific effort , often overlooked in research into the history of science and technology. For this reason it was established at an early stage that the entire research archive from 1878 to 1981 would be catalogued, digitised and published online as a key part of the BT Digital Archives.

The project has not digitised BT’s complete archive by any means, so extensive research and consultation including user surveys has been undertaken to establish the content, and functionality, that users would require. The records ultimately selected reflect the scope of the topics covered by the overall collection, not just science and technology but also social, economic and even political issues reflecting the vital importance of communications in the history of the nation.

The BT Digital Archives incorporates the public catalogue of the whole collection that is held by BT Archives, and replaces an existing online catalogue first published in 2009. Altogether, the BT Digital Archives website is an introduction to the wider collection occupying over three kilometres of shelving, which is available to researchers for study at the BT Archives searchoom in Holborn, London.

Anyone can view and search the records available on the website. Registered users will be able to download individual images for private non-commercial use. Academic and professional teaching practitioners can register to download higher quality images, and pdfs of whole reports and files, for private study, research and teaching.

Cool New Digital Public History Project at Coventry University “New Connections”

10 09 2012

AS: Coventry University, my employer, will be hosting a major project to digitize the archive of British Telecom, the major phone company in the UK. This will be a fantastic resource for business historians in both this country and abroad.


This project is a collaboration between Coventry University (CU), BT Heritage and The National Archive (TNA) and aims to catalogue, digitise and develop a searchable online archive of almost half a million photographs, images, documents and correspondence assembled by BT over 165 years.

This large and remarkable collection details the history of Britain’s leading role in the development of telecommunications and the impact of this technology on society. The BT Archive is held, with some limited public access, in central London and is by any standard a collection of national and international importance, recognised by UNESCO.

Examples of documents in the Archive include the following: details of the introduction of the telephone to the UK by Alexander Graham Bell in 1877; the Installation of the telephone at Balmoral Castle, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle in 1910-11; arrangements for telegraphic transmission of Disraeli’s ‘one nation’ speech from Manchester in 1872; and documentation relating to experiments with optical fibres from the 1960s that led to today’s fibre optics networks.

Examples of photographs include: The first UK telephone exchange 1878; early videoconferencing and viewphones from 1960s and The Queen making the first automatic long distance telephone call from Bristol to Edinburgh in1958.

The digitisation of a significant proportion of the Archive, will allow teachers, students, researchers and the general public in the UK and overseas to gain easier access to our scientific and cultural telecommunications heritage; enabling them to utilise the archive for studies and leisure from anywhere in the world. Digitisation of the Archives will also ensure the continued preservation of the collections in digital as well as analogue format.

The project includes research work around product and graphic design, language development and problem-based learning. Using innovative, immersive techniques the project will develop mobile and web access to the collection for scholars, teachers and learners as well as the general public.

The project brings together those in BT, TNA and CU with expertise in archives and heritage management, Serious Games, Design, Language, Computing, History, and Education and Learning Resources.