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IET Archives: The story of the telegraph

Watercolour of the interior of the cable hut in Valentia, Ireland, by Robert Dudley OPC 1/37  

A new way to communicate

Telegraphy is a means of communication by electrical pulses from one place to another. It revolutionised society as information could be sent at speed over long distances. Electric telegraphy reached commercial success in Britain when William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone joined in partnership in 1837 and applied electric telegraphy to railways. Their system sent electromagnetic signals which moved a needle on a dial which then pointed to letters of the alphabet. By 1870 over 2000 men and 500 women were employed by the telegraph companies in the UK, predominantly as telegraph operators, but for the men there was opportunity to become an engineer.

The Society of Telegraph Engineers

The Society of Telegraph Engineers (STE) formally came into existence on 17 May 1871.In the early days the focus of the Society was on telegraphy alone. However, it was decided that it would need to broaden its scope to include electrical science as this was a concern of every Telegraph Engineer and was not already represented in a separate learned society. The STE grew from strength to strength mainly because engineers required a Society of their own to reflect and represent their needs in a world where new uses for electricity were being rapidly developed. The STE and the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) are the predecessor institutions of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. The history of the IET is available on this website.

To find out more about the subject of telegraphy take a look at our online resources.


Line drawing of a man using the writing telegraph from a pamphlet in the S P Thompson collection number 310

Original material

For original material in our collections please refer to the research guides and search our catalogue.

Online resources and related links

 Links to other websites