Crimean War spurred pioneering telecoms technology
The anniversary of Britain entering the Crimean War of 1853-56 has highlighted BT’s early role in pioneering telecommunications technology.

​The Crimean War is regarded as one of the first “modern” wars because, as well as seeing Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole using pioneering medical practices to treat the wounded, it also featured the first use of major technologies, such as railways and telegraph communications.

On his website, Distant Writing - A History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain, Steven Roberts details the war with Russia when Britain and France landed a huge military expedition on the Crimean peninsula in 1854, which turned into a long-term siege of the city and naval base of Sebastopol.

Roberts records how the Electric Telegraph Company, BT’s earliest ancestor company, and other companies in industrialised Britain rushed to support the war effort.

He writes how, in late 1854, the government in London created a military telegraph detachment for the army, comprising 25 men under the command of an officer of the Royal Engineers. The men were trained by the Electric Telegraph Company to construct and work the first so-called field electric telegraph.

The detachment used the horse-drawn telegraph war wagon to carry their equipment and tools, made by the Electric Telegraph Company in its workshops. It included a folding boat and 24 miles of copper wire insulated with gutta-percha resin for underground and underwater use. They used a man-hauled plough for laying light underground cable, but it often failed in heavy, waterlogged earth.


The men worked throughout the bitter winter months and eventually set up eight field electric telegraph stations which they operated in shifts round the clock. They were paid between one shilling and five shillings additional allowance for their “proficiency and extra duties”.

The Crimean War was also the first media war, typified by Times correspondent William Howard Russell, who sent first-hand dispatches from the front line using the new telegraph technology. His reports played a large part in bringing down Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen’s government in January 1855 when its mishandling of the war became quickly apparent.

Reports of the suffering of the sick and wounded also inspired a number of organisations, and individuals such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, to set out for the war zone to minister to the soldiers.

BT head of heritage and archives David Hay said: “The electric telegraph enabled news to travel across continents in hours, not weeks. Events such as the Crimean War became much more immediate - a massive leap forward on the way to our age of instant global coverage and speedy response to crises that BT’s technology and networks support today.”

David posted about the BT connection on the BT Archives Twitter feed.

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