Connecting people since 1846

Our ambition is to use the power of communications to make a better world. It's fair to say we're a global leader when it comes to connecting people. In their homes. In their jobs. In their everyday lives. We're at the heart of phone calls to loved ones. Emails to friends far and wide. Even chants for your favourite football team. BT’s earliest ancestor, The Electric Telegraph Company, was the first telegraph company to develop a national network. We’re proud to celebrate our important, impressive and innovative history of connecting people over time. But where did it all start?

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The Telephone

From the invention of the telephone patented in 1876 to today's nuisance call blocking technology, telephones have come a long way.

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The Mobile Phone

From 5G technology to augmented reality (AR), mobile phones have evolved to being the one device that does almost anything.

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The Computer

BT’s people have contributed hugely to telecommunications history. Including Tommy Flowers – who developed 'Colossus'.

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The Telephone

From the telephone patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 to the advancements in nuisance call blocking and VOIP, telephones have come a long way. When The Telephone Company, an ancestor of BT, was set up as the first telephone company in the UK, its services were expensive. And only businesses and wealthy individuals could afford them. Gradually, the telephone became more widely available. Infrastructure grew and developed, public telephone kiosks (or phone boxes) were installed, costs came down, and telephone designs were developed and improved. Even since mobile phone technology, you may be surprised to know that home phones are still popular in many homes across the UK.
The London Telephone Service of the Post Office (now BT): using a candlestick telephone, c1920

The Mobile Phone

While scrolling on your touch screen iPhone, can you believe that the first portable mobile phone was a huge brick that only made calls? Well, it wasn’t that long ago. The first mobile phone services were introduced in the UK by Vodafone and BT Cellnet. It was considered very cool to have a mobile phone… at the time. But the concept of phoning on the move wasn’t new. A public radiophone service offering a phone in your car was introduced by the Post Office (now BT) in 1959. The ‘Jade’ mobile phone from BT Cellnet in 1985, came with features such as a 50-number memory, conference calling, and call diversion and transfer. Later, Nokia saw the opportunity to market to consumers. Then advancements like ‘texting’ changed the game in how we communicated. Then we could take photos. And now, well, we can do almost anything.
Jade cellular mobile phone, 1985

The Computer

During World War II, Tommy Flowers developed ‘Colossus’ which helped to break the ‘unbreakable’ code of the German Geheimschreiber (secret writer). Tommy joined the telecommunications branch of the General Post Office in 1926, and then the research centre at Dollis Hill in 1930. In terms of break-throughs with computing in Britian; did you know that the first program in history to run on a digital, electronic stored-program computer was developed by researchers at University of Manchester? Researchers Frederic Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill developed the Small-scale Experimental Machine (The Manchester ‘Baby’) in 1948. And today, we can unlock our computers with fingerprint and facial recognition…
Colossus - the first major computer.
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The Television

In 1927, we supported John Logie Baird in the development of television, carrying his early broadcasts over telephone lines from London to Glasgow.

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The Music

In 1896, Marconi demonstrated his ‘telegraphy without wires’ (using radio waves) from the roof of the Post Office Central Telegraph Office.

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The Smart Home

Our BT Shop team won ‘Best Marketing & Advertising Campaign’ at the eCommerce Awards 2019 for our smart home ‘Scenarios’ campaign.

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The Television

In 1926, John Logie Baird held the first television demonstration in an attic in Soho, London. He also gave us the first experimental transatlantic television transmission in 1929 with a link from New York to London. It offered the world a taste of worldwide instant television. And in 1962 this became fully realised with the first transatlantic satellite transmission being received at the Post Office’s earth station at Goonhilly, Cornwall and onward broadcast to the country. The 1960s brought colour TV with then 625 lines high definition picture. The Post Office built a network of microwave stations, including the BT Tower, to send the pictures to TV transmitters around the county. During the 2010s, television developed with 2K and, more recently, 4K resolution - along with the apps that can stream our favourite shows on demand.
Television Switching Centre at Museum Exchange (now BT Tower), 1963

The Music

From 1895, an Electrophone service was offered under licence by the National Telephone Company – this business would later be taken over by the Post Office (now BT) in 1912. For a fee, music and other live performances were ‘streamed’ to people’s homes via telephone lines. The service ended after radio broadcasts took over - apart for the annual licence fee, radio was free and more content was available. With music streaming services now like Spotify, Tidal and Amazon Music, it’s hard to imagine a time when our favourite music wasn't at our fingertips. Now, most of us use our mobile phones or smart home speakers to listen to music. It's more convenient. We can play it just by asking our voice-assistants. And even get personalised playlists curated just for us.
A gathering of electrophone listeners, 1908

The Smart Home

Smart home and home automation has grown in popularity since the early 2000s. Smart home automation is definitely where the future is heading – along with clever technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR). Our lives are so fast-paced. Smart home electronics and appliances make our lives easier and more convenient because ‘things’ are happening in the background. And we can access our smart cameras and smart doorbells remotely using our smartphones. BT is known for helping create the connected home. From broadband services, to home phones and, more recently, smart home devices. We launched our smart home range on BT Shop in 2017 and have partnered with hugely popular smart home brands; like Amazon, Google, TP-Link and Honeywell. We’re also proud to have an award-winning smart home campaign - a first for BT.
A modern day smart home

We caught up with Anne, Heritage & Archives Manager based in the Holborn Telephone Exchange

Communication is at the heart of what we do

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BT's innovation timeline

1840s

1846
The Electric Telegraph Company, our oldest ancestor, was incorporated in 1846. Founded by William Fothergill Cooke and John Ricardo, it was the world’s first public telegraph company. In 2021, we’ll welcome our 175th anniversary. Yes, we’ve been around for a while (well, our ancestors have.)

1930s

1937
The year the first 999 call was made. After a fatal house fire in 1935, a neighbour wrote to The Times complaining that he was unable to get through to the telephone operator to alert the fire brigade. This led to an enquiry which recommended a universal number easily memorised by the public and instantly recognisable to telephone operators at the Post Office, which ran the exchange network. The new number was firstly introduced in 1937 in London. Operators were alerted to an incoming 999 call by a flashing red light and a klaxon.

1950s

1956
TAT-1, the world’s first transatlantic telephone cable, was laid between Oban in Scotland and Clarenville in Newfoundland, a distance of 2,240 miles. After crossing Newfoundland, a further submarine cable was used to complete the connection to the mainland of North America. Some of the circuits terminating in Canada and some in the USA. The Post Office cableship HMTS 'Monarch' (No. 4) participated in the lay. The cable entered service on 25 September at 6pm.

1960s

1966
A Government study decided that the Post Office should be split into two divisions - Post and Telecommunications. The Post Office Tower (now known as BT Tower) was officially opened to the public on 16 May 1966 by Postmaster General Tony Benn. As well as the communications equipment and office space, there was a souvenir shop, a rotating restaurant (the "Top of the Tower") on the 34th floor, operated by Butlin’s, and three public viewing galleries.

1969
The Post Office Act was introduced, and the Post Office ceased to be a Government department in October that year. Under the Act, the Post Office continued to have the exclusive privilege of running telecommunications systems, with limited powers to authorise others to do so too.

1970s

1977
The Carter Committee, commissioned by the Government, recommended a further separation of the postal and telecommunications services. Their findings led to the British Telecommunications Act in 1981, and the creation of British Telecom.

1980s

1981
"British Telecommunications" was launched and separated from the remainder of the Post Office. British Telecom introduced its first electronic mail service, as part of its Prestel product – a revolutionary new service, that provided the first online services. Using telephone line and television to connect to remote computers, it offered the British public its first taste of online services, such as home banking, travel bookings and mail.

1982
Adastral Park’s satellite dishes beamed television signals for Europe’s first satellite transmission service.

1983
Itemised billing was introduced on a trial basis on trunk and international calls in part of Bristol and Bath. The first cordless phone the "Hawk” came on to the market. The opening of a new dish aerial at Goonhilly meant that, for the first time, telephone and telex calls could be made or received direct via satellite to almost anywhere in the world – on land or sea - via Britain.

1984
BT became a public limited company on 6 August, with 50.2% of the new company offered for sale to the public and employees in November. This was the first national floatation of a public utility. The first day of dealings in British Telecommunications shares took place on 3 December. The search for a new voice for the famous speaking clock ended on 5 December when Brian Cobby, an assistant supervisor in a telephone exchange at Withdean, Brighton, was selected from 12 finalists in British Telecom's Golden Voice competition.

1986
First ever live satellite television programme from a ship at sea broadcast from the QE2. We opened the world's first all-digital international public telephone service between London and Tokyo. We helped to set up ChildLine, an emergency service for youngsters at risk.

1987
Britain’s Directory Enquiry service began as an informal service in the 1880s to assist the country’s few hundred telephone subscribers. It started with a simple volume of subscribers’ names and their telephone numbers being held at telephone exchanges for the operators to consult when a request for a number was made. In 1987, BT’s directory enquiries service was computerised. The world's first instantaneous translation of speech by computer was unveiled by our Martlesham research laboratories the same year.

1988
BT supported the very first Comic Relief Red Nose Day, helping to change lives in the UK, Africa and some of the world's poorest countries.

1989
We launched Skyphone the world's first satellite telephone system on a British Airways 747. We also became the first company to sponsor the British Paralympic Association.

1990s

1991
British Telecom became BT and welcomed the new identity of the BT piper. BT launched Phone Disc, an electronic phone book on a CD and Phone Base, a dial-up service connecting a customer's terminal or PC to BT's database via a modem and the telephone network. We introduced braille and large print telephone bills for blind and partially sighted customers.

1992
We launched our first Big Button phone for people who are blind, partially sighted or have dexterity challenges. BT established a network of 13 Malicious Calls Bureaux throughout the country, operated by teams of specially trained investigators who worked closely with the police.

1994
Growth in the internet exploded and e-commerce over the net began. We launched caller display and caller return services, peak rate charging was abolished. 'It's good to talk' for residential customers was judged to be the most effective advertising campaign in Britain between 1994 and 1996. BT's UK operation became the largest single organisation in the world to receive registration under the international quality standard ISO 9001. Image is from a customer leaflet advertising ‘modern telephones’, 1968.

1995
BT.com and BT Shop were launched. Interactive TV trials began involving some 5,500 users in more than 2,000 homes.

1996
We launched BT Internet, a residential mass-market internet dial-up service.

1997
We launched Wireplay, the first online gaming service in the world. By 1997, and the fifth anniversary of setting up the Malicious Calls Bureaux, BT had assisted more than 3 million customers who were being harassed by malicious calls.

1998
BT and AT&T, the major US long-distance telecommunications operator, announced they were forming a global venture. BT launched Schools Internet Caller, a new service offering affordable access to the Internet for Britain's 32,000 schools.

1999
We pushed fibre optical transmission to 80 gigabits per second. We acquired 100% of Cellnet, becoming BT Cellnet.

2000s

2000
BT SurfTime was introduced, offering a range of options for residential and business customers to access the Internet without hidden charges.

2002
BT Openzone offered public wi-fi access for the first time. BT Broadband was launched heralding the widespread availability of affordable high speed internet access.

2003
BT revealed its new "connected world" corporate identity which replaced the Piper emblem. And was introduced alongside the brand values of trustworthy, helpful, straightforward, inspiring and heart. We also launched our BT Broadband Voice package, which was the first move by a major UK player into the consumer VOIP market.

2004
BT offered its fastest-ever consumer internet service available to 75 per cent of existing broadband users.

2005
BT reached its target of five million broadband lines one year ahead of schedule. Northern Ireland became the first UK region outside London to have all its exchanges broadband-enabled. We launched our paper-free billing campaign. For every customer who signed up for this, BT bought a native sapling for the Woodland Trust to plant.

2006
Openreach opened for business. BT Vision - a ground-breaking new digital TV service - went live. BT acquired dabs.com.

2007
BT announced it had connected its ten millionth broadband line, smashing its initial target of five million connections by the end of 2006. On 30 January 2007, Plusnet was acquired by BT Group, but it continues to operate as a separate business.

2008
BT announced a £1.5 billion investment to roll out fibre-based broadband to up to 10 million UK homes by 2012.

2010s

2010
Launch of BT Infinity (now called BT Super-fast Fibre), our super-fast fibre-based broadband proposition. It’s currently available with average speeds of up to 67Mb.

2011
BT announced plans to roll out fibre-based super-fast broadband across the UK.

2012
We started offering customers our YouView set-top box which gives them standard definition (SD) and HD Freeview channels and the ability to pause, record and rewind live TV and on-demand content. In March 2012 BT Vision won the IP&TV Industry Award in the Best Service Growth Achievement category. This is awarded for significant growth in the number of subscribers to an IP-enabled TV service. The 75th anniversary of the 999 service showcased BT's long history of managing high-volume call centres. Of the 31m 999 calls received by BT operators each year, 98% were answered within five seconds.

2013
BT Sport's TV channels launched, and were free to BT Broadband customers. BT launched the SmartTalk app, which allowed customers to make phone calls from their smartphone – wherever they were in the world – but which were billed as if calling from their BT home phone.

2014
BT set a new broadband world speed record over an existing core fibre link between the BT Tower in London and BT's Adastral Park - data speeds of up to 3 terabits per second.

2016
Dabs.com closes after 10 years. BT announced the acquisition of mobile operator EE, creating the UK's biggest telecoms company. But decided to keep the EE brand.

2017
BT Shop launches ‘Smart Home’ portfolio online – a first for BT in this space. BT Sport was the first to air boxing in 4K ultra high-definition (UHD). And BT Sport is now the biggest sports producer of live 4K UHD in the world.

2018
BT Sport won the rights to a further 20 Premier League football matches in the UK. This took the total to 52 exclusively live matches per season for three years from the start of the 2019-20 season. In 2018, Plusnet was brought into BT Group's BT Consumer division. The CEO is Marc Allera.

2019
BT Shop wins Best Marketing & Advertising campaign at the eCommerce Awards 2019 for ‘Smart Home Scenarios’. EE and BT Sport broadcast the Wembley Cup over 5G – a world first – using remote production. BT signed a partnership for the widest ever sponsorship of English football with BT, as well as renewing our deal with Wembley with EE. BT kicked off the half year by launching our new BT brand, the start of building an even better BT to go beyond limits.

2020s

2020
Well, here we are. EE now has 5G live in a total of 61 places across the UK, more than any other operator. 100% of all BT customer calls are now back on shore in the UK and Ireland. BT Shop continues to grow the smart home portfolio online and aims to become to the number one destination for smart home products in the UK. We've come a long way.

We like making history

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Ena Knight

First woman to become director of a telecommunications region

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Tommy Flowers

Developed Colossus, the code-breaking computer used during WWII

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Annie A Heap

First Superintendent of the entire female staff of the London service

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Ena Knight (1918 – 2004)

Ena joined the Post Office in 1936 as a clerical officer. Working in wartime London, she studied evening and weekend classes to gain a BSc honours degree in Engineering. A rare qualification for a woman at that time. She had various telecoms roles at the Post Office, and in 1967 was promoted to head of telecommunications headquarters inland tariffs division. She became the first woman to direct a telecoms region in 1974, where she managed an area of more than 8,000 square miles, responsible for 17,000 employees and 1.5 million customers. Ena Knight was honoured by her old university in December 1975. She received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science at a ceremony at the City University in London.

Tommy (Thomas) Flowers (1905 – 1998)

During the Second World War, Tommy Flowers, a Post Office engineer, along with his team at Dollis Hill research station, developed codebreaking machine Colossus. It was the world’s first programmable, electronic, digital computer. It was used by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park to decipher key messages. The first Martlesham Medal was presented to Dr Tommy Flowers on 13 June, 1980.

Annie A Heap (1861 - 1951)

Annie Heap joined the Post Office telegraphs in 1876 at the age of 15. She moved to the telephone service in 1897 and a few years later was promoted to Supervisor of the Central Exchange, the hub of the Post Office’s London Telephone Service - a massive communications infrastructure in London. In 1904 she became the first Superintendent of the entire female staff of the London service, a position she held until she retired in 1921. She remained unmarried; had she married during her employment, she would have had to resign. Miss Heap’s salary on retirement was £350, the maximum for her grade and almost 33% more than her immediate subordinate. Even so, she was herself paid 40% less than a man would have been at the same grade and pay scale. Despite this, Annie was clearly proud of her career, passing on her experience by speaking many times at staff events and writing many features for staff journals, even for some years following her retirement. She was a widely respected figure within the Post Office.