A major anniversary of a landmark event in the development of UK telecommunications, which took place on the Isle of Wight in the 19th century, is being celebrated today (Sunday).

On 14th January 1878, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone for the first time to Queen Victoria at her rural retreat at Osborne House in East Cowes.

He made the UK’s first publicly-witnessed long distance calls, calling Cowes, Southampton and London. Queen Victoria liked the telephone so much she wanted to buy it.

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David Hay, BT’s head of heritage and archives, says:

“This first demonstration of the phone to the Queen by Alexander Graham Bell is a significant moment in telecommunications history. Her approval and enthusiasm would have been an important step forward for a service which was still in its infancy.”

Bell had made history less than 2 years before on 10th March 1876 with the first successful speech telephone call to his assistant Thomas Watson with the words “Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you”. From then, development of the technology was swift.

Mr Hay continues:

“The UK’s first long-distance trunk line was opened between Brighton and London a few years later, on December 17, 1884. The line was built by the General Post Office, from which today’s BT is descended, and licensed to the United Telephone Company to connect their exchanges and customers.”

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Previously the range of a telephone exchange was limited to 5 miles from the centre of a town, but on 7th August 1884, the Postmaster General withdrew the restriction. This meant telephone companies could apply for licences to work in the UK and create exchange areas, allowing more people access to the telephone.

This ‘liberalisation’ meant any member of the public could make calls from the public call offices that started to spring up in places like shops and railway stations. In 1896 the trunk network was nationalised and brought under control of the Post Office.

Today there are more than 26 million residential phone lines in the UK and billions of phone calls are made every year.

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