Many people think that Cable & Wireless is a new company. In fact, the group dates back to the 1860s, the pioneering years of international telecommunications. By the 1870s our company, then known as the Eastern Telegraph Company, had created the world’s first global cable communications network, a ‘Victorian Internet’, which revolutionised the speed of world communications.
The main global hub of the Victorian Internet was Porthcurno in west Cornwall. Today it is the home of the company’s historic archives and museum. The first cable from Porthcurno, linking England with Bombay, was laid in 1870 and within ten years the network had been extended to Indonesia, the Far East, Australia, South America and Africa. The Eastern Telegraph Company grew and grew and by 1900 it operated a massive international communications network of around 100,000 miles of undersea cables.
In the 1920s a rival technology emerged for the first time. Marconi sent a radio signal across the Atlantic from Cornwall in 1901 and by the 1920s he had a thriving radio communications network which offered both telegraph and voice communication. Radio began to threaten the dominance of the Eastern Telegraph Company and in 1929 a merger was arranged between the operating side of Marconi’s company and the Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies. This new company also incorporated a number of other cable operations such as cables across the Pacific and in the Caribbean. It was called ‘Imperial and International Communications’ until 1934 when it was re-named Cable & Wireless.
In the 1940’s, following the Second World War, the British post-war Labour government nationalised much of British industry. Cable and Wireless was one of the companies to be bought up by the government and it became the international communications section of the British Post Office. During the 1950s and 1960s it successfully adapted to major advances in communications technology. These decades saw the beginning of the end for the telegraph and ushered in a new era of international voice communications. In 1956 first transatlantic telephone cable TAT1 was made possible by the invention of the submarine repeater and Cable and Wireless played an important part in the laying of a new international telephone cable network for the Commonwealth between 1961 and 1967. Another major advance of the 1960s was the communications satellite and the Company’s first earth station was built on Ascension Island in 1966.
As a nationalised company, throughout the 1960s and 1970s Cable & Wireless continued laying cables, operating telecoms businesses around the world and developing communications technologies. This period was one of considerable change in the way the company did business in many locations. Whereas in earlier decades it had operated as a monopoly in many locations, it now had to establish working partnerships with the independent governments of many Commonwealth Countries.
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In 1981 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government re-privatised many major British companies, including Cable & Wireless. BT was floated as a separate entity from the Post Office and the British telecoms industry was de-regulated. Cable & Wireless seized the opportunity to establish a competitor to BT in the UK by forming Mercury Communications, later to become Cable & Wireless Communications. This was the first time that many younger people had heard the name ‘Cable & Wireless’. From this time the Company, freed from the restrictions of nationalisation, began to further develop its business around the world in the fast changing global communications marketplace.