16th September 2001
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Call from the past

  • Kaiser connections 
  • Strange coincidences 

  • Kumudini Hettiarachchi finds treasures down the wire at the new Telecom Museum we say hello into that phone, surf the web, e-mail our friends around the globe or send that fax, we hardly give a thought to the immense power of communication. It's there at our fingertips at the touch of a button. 

    But in a beautiful house down Anderson Road, Havelock Town, a dedicated team is painstakingly collecting not only dust-laden papers and books but also antique equipment criss-crossed by cobwebs, to take Sri Lanka into the dim mists of the past.

    Yes, soon, they will take us down the corridors of time, nay down the tangled wires of time, on a fascinating journey to an era long before the telephone. Then step-by-step, we will be shown how Sri Lanka came to be on the communication map of the world at the Telecom Museum to be opened in January next year.

    Wooden phones used in the late 1980sWooden phones used in the late 1980s

    The idea to preserve for posterity the 'communication story' germinated 27 years ago. A suggestion is made by a senior telecom official about the setting up of a museum. The okay is given.

    This museum will be the first and only technical one to be set up in the country so far and the team behind it is being guided by Telecom Director Christie Alwis. 

    When we visit Anderson Road, for us it is a step back in time. It's January 1858 and Ceylon is under British rule. The need for quick communication between Colombo and Galle, an important seaport connecting this tiny island to the world, takes priority.

    The first telegraphic line covering 74 miles is drawn using coconut trees as poles and wooden brackets, instead of insulators, nailed to them. But it is not trouble-free, for the single exposed line has to contend with the full force of the monsoon, causing many an interruption. This results in posts and porcelain insulators being substituted. The needle-type instrument is the first link-up ever used in our country, even before Morse. "Tele means distance and telegraph means distance writing. With the first needle-point machine, a message would be tapped out at the transmission point and depending on the movement of the needle or the signal, it would be recorded by hand at the receiving end. Telephony which comes later is 'distance speech'," says team member and engineer K.A. Dharmadasa who is helped by Consultant Prabath Wijesekera. 

    In June of 1858, the Colombo-Kandy line is set up and in October the more ambitious plan of pulling a 250-mile line across the seas, connecting Colombo, Mannar and Talaimannar and providing direct telegraphic communications with India, for it is the Indian Government which controls such links.

    First automatic exchange with dial used in 1937First automatic exchange with dial used in 1937

    In July 1859, the early needle-type instrument is replaced by the Morse system of telegraph, involving two signals, a dot and a dash. The 1860s and 70s see the rapid extension of telegraph lines to Trincomalee, Nuwara Eliya, Jaffna, Badulla, Batticaloa and Panadura.

    1865 is a significant year for Ceylon as on March 2, Colombo receives its first telegraphic message from Europe, and on August 19, Galle gets its first from New York. 

    May 17, 1865 is a red letter day for the world, when several countries with telegraphic facilities spanning the globe meet up to form the International Telegraph Union, the oldest international organisation and forerunner of the International Telecom Union (ITU). Even now May 17 is celebrated as World Telecom Day.

    Back home in Ceylon, to further strengthen links with India, a new telegraphic cable, Hoppers' Care, is laid in January 1867. Narrating the arduous task of developing the communication network, Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon states: "At that time the interior of Ceylon was very little developed, and considerable difficulty was experienced in maintaining communication. Herds of wild elephants roaming the countryside knocked down the posts and broke the wires, and there were other mishaps due to the unsettled conditions then prevailing." 

    A landmark in this new baby's life comes when 1,653 miles of posts and 3,366 miles of wire, under the control of the Indian Government, are transferred to the Ceylon Government on July 1, 1880. With the amalgamation of the inextricably linked postal and telegraph services, Postmaster General T.F.B. Skinner becomes the first Director of Telegraph and the industry is firmly head-quartered in the imposing General Post Office (GPO) building in Fort.

    1895 model-when the govt. took over from the Oriental Telephone Company1895 model-when the govt. took over from the Oriental Telephone Company

    "All the greater towns and many of the lesser ones are connected. Lines cross from the west to the east coast, passing over the mountain ranges which constitute the backbone of the country. In places where the country is rough the wires cross great ravines, several of the spans being as much as 800 yards in length. From the extreme south to the extreme north of the island, a distance of 400 miles, there are lines which on one portion of the route the section beyond Matale pass through dense forests and a sparsely peopled country," states Twentieth Century Impressions.

    The year 1880 also revolutionised private communications within Ceylon, with the establishment of the first telephone service for commercial purposes by Alston Scott & Company. A phone line is drawn between their head office and coffee store, a distance of two and a half miles in the Fort-Pettah area.

    Meanwhile, the Ceylon Government in desperation over the poor telegraphic link up with India, reconstructs the line in 1882, while providing an additional wire to meet increasing communication traffic. 

    As the 1800s draw to a close, the telegraphy and telephony industry in Ceylon is well on its way to maturity. 

    Taking into consideration the importance of phone connections, the Government on January 1, 1896 takes over a manually operated exchange at a cost of Rs. 42,666 from the private company, Oriental Telephone Company. At the time of the transfer there are 56 subscribers. By 1905, the number of calls on the exchange is an amazing 358,000. 

    In 1911, the Central Telegraphic Office (CTO) is opened for business, moving the hub of the communication network from the GPO to this new building in Fort. A year later, the Colombo Wireless Telegraphy installation is completed and the first message sent to Bombay, while a few months later, in July, the Colombo Wireless Telegraph Station is opened.

    Automatic telephony is introduced to Ceylon with the installation of a 25-line rural automatic exchange on a tea estate in Kahawatte in 1931.

    1936 sees telegraph staff quickly snapping up the teleprinter service between Colombo, Galle, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. The brainchild of a telegraph operator in England, the Creed exchange named after him, quickens message transmission

    The Ceylonese operators prefer this service because earlier they had to listen to the Morse Code, decode it in their heads and handwrite it. The Creed teleprinter helps to do away with this work, giving messages quickly and directly and also cutting out human error.

    In 1938, the manually operated phone exchange in Colombo is replaced by the Strowger automatic exchange. The first automatic exchange brought to Sri Lanka by ship from England is so heavy that bullock carts are mobilised to transport it from the harbour.

    For Ceylon after the 1940s, there is no turning back be it telegraphy or telephony. In 1941, the British-based Cable and Wireless Limited takes over the overseas telecom service from the Ceylon Government, with the Government buying it back in 1951 at a cost of Rs. 2.6 million.

    From then on this sector sees rapid development moving from subscriber trunk dialling (STD), international direct dialling (IDD), internet and e-mail using cable and satellite communications. An interesting quirk in this development is that upto 1966 only trunk calls with a delay of around four hours - are possible between Colombo and Mount Lavinia. Direct dialling between the two towns, so close, yet so far away in terms of communications, comes only in 1966.

    Now, of course, the potential is sky high and that is just what the museum, in the former home of the British Chief of the Cable and Wireless Company, will try to depict. Through the seven galleries, men, women and children would be able to peep into the distant past, marvel at the communications of yore and then step into the modern world and ponder on the immense and wonderful possibilities of the future.

    (Next week: The radio comes to Ceylon)

    Kaiser connections

    It stands as a proud symbol of the romance and tragedy of the royal court of Germany the very telephone, royal emblem and all, cradled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, through which he would have whispered sweet nothings, made secret rendezvous and also barked harsh orders.

    Plundered by the Allied Forces from this war-mongering Emperor's palace, when Germany was defeated in World War I (1914-1918), the phone had been taken to England and later brought across the seas to Ceylon. Here it stood on the table of the Postmaster General who kept it as a souvenir.

    It will be the piece de resistance of the museum.

    Strange coincidences

    There have been some strange coincidences in Sri Lanka's history of communications.

    * 1880 & 1980 Telegraph lines were transferred from the control of the Indian Government to that of the Ceylon Government in July 1880 and linked up with the postal service to form the Posts and Telegraph Department. A hundred years later in August 1980, the department is bifurcated and becomes the Postal Department and the Telecom Department.

    * 1896 & 1996 The Ceylon Government takes over the service run by the Oriental Telephone Company, on January 1, 1896. A hundred years later in August 1996, the Telecom Department , which had become Sri Lanka Telecom Corporation in 1991, is privatised to form Sri Lanka Telecom Limited.


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