Volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

In the last week of July I spent my time volunteering at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall. I’ll admit that this wasn’t the easiest museum to get to from London, and so may a first appear to be an odd choice of museum to volunteer for. However it all becomes clear when I explain that Porthcurno was the site of the Eastern Telegraph Company telegraph office, and was at one point the biggest and most important telegraph office in the world.

Porthcurno World War Two Tunnels today

Established in 1870 this telegraph office connected Britain to the British Empire and the European Continent through networks of submarine telegraph cables. Porthcurno was chosen due to its remote location and sandy beach which meant it wasn’t used by fishermen and would present less hazards for the iron roped cables. By the Second World War this telegraph office was so important that heavy defences were established such as flame throwers on the beach and camouflaged tunnels in the valley walls. Today you’re more likely to see tourists on the beach than flame throwers, and the tunnels form part of the Museum’s buildings, housing most of its collection; and what a collection it has! One of the most popular activities is an interactive Mirror Galvanometer, and unsurprisingly one of my favourite cases contained a large variety of cable samples, ranging from samples dating back to first international submarine cables to more recent fiber-optic cables. The museum also has a gallery full of working instruments, helping to create the atmosphere and sound of a working building, transferring electrical information from the world to London.

As you can probably tell, this museum was right up my street, and what I thought it did very well was underline the modern significance of this Victorian enterprise. Even I was surprised to discover that 95% of our international communication today is still sent via submarine cables. Satellites are obviously used today, but are better for television broadcasting, GPS and satellite telephones; even mobile phones, though they initially send information wirelessly,  connect to a server or base station, which is connected to cables, consequently if the call is international underwater cables are required. Furthermore the location of the old submarine telegraph cables are still important today as the new fiber-optic cables follow their course, and fishing vessels and renewable energy companies need to know where they are. Frankly the sea bed is becoming an increasingly important area of real estate and there is a lot going on under the water that we just don’t know or think about.

Connecting Cornwall/Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition

As well as being an international telegraph office Porthcurno was also a training school for telegraph engineers, many of whom were subsequently sent off to remote outposts across the British Empire, and in later years trained engineers from around the world. Consequently the Museum has very strong collections relating to social history and local history, demonstrated through the Nerve Centre of the Empire Exhibition. As well as objects like the engineers tool boxes, important because they contain all the necessary tools to fix the telegraph machines, as help was a long time coming to these remote outposts, like the Cocos Islands or Ascension Island, and a ship could take days costing the company as well as other businesses a lot of money.

The other area the museum is exceptional at is interactives and education. Part of my role as a Volunteer Learning Facilitator was to help supervise a room with several science activities from magnets and optical illusions, to circuit building. This was extremely popular and complemented the other interactives in the museum, including the activity that enabled families to use Morse Code to telegraph each other across the Empire or dress up as Victorians. Many a visitor would exclaim their surprise at the amount of activities for children and the amount of fun they were having. And yes, the adults had as much fun and the children, I built circuits with pensioners as much as toddlers, and more often than not it was dad who wanted to dress up first.

As well as my volunteering I did get to do some research too. It was a treat to get into Porthcurno’s incredible archive, and all the staff were exceptionally helpful and interested in my work. I almost didn’t want to leave!

Porthcurno Beach

I will try and write a post on some of the information I found there but I finish this post with a few links:

Obviously here is a link to the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum itself: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/

Here is also a link to it’s mention with other locations of communications history in Cornwall on the British Society for History of Science (BSHS) Travel Guide: http://www.bshs.org.uk/travel-guide/porthcurno-telegraph-museum-cornwall

Also Porthcurno are looking at ways to increase their national participation and impact, and one way they are looking at this is through Virtual Volunteers. So if you have any ideas of how you (or someone else) could help the museum in their many research, education, exhibition and outreach activities let them know. See their Virtual Volunteers site for more info: http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/page.php?id=286

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