Voice and Data|August 2020
From telegraph to the round dialing toy and size zero-smartphone – telecom has evolved to become wireless. Here is a quick jog down the memory lane

Imagine if Alexander Graham Bell was living in a submarine for the last seven decades. If he were to suddenly pop out on some remote beach in India, he would be a tad shocked to see that thing a fisherman is carrying around. He would look at the mobile phone and mutter – “Whoa! You have grown so ‘small’ kid!”

He would not be wrong to say that. They called it telephone perhaps due to some Greek factor again. They mixed the word “tele”, for ’a far’ and “phone”, for “voice or voice sound”. That has, incidentally, been pretty much the elevator-gist of the story of telephone in India too. It starts a century back.

The humble telegraph lineage

A lot of the initial pages of this history talk about the Britishers entering India. They, unlike, Europeans embraced the telephone with a lot of fervor and telephone lines. Colonialism spread these lines to India too.

It all started in Kolkata, somewhere in 1882. It began with the commissioning of a 50-line manual telephone exchange. But back then in 1850, the first electric telegraph Line that was instituted between Kolkata and Diamond Harbour was quite experimental. All we had for communication was the vintage ‘The Posts and Telegraphs department’ as part of the Public Works Department. Somewhere around 1853, we saw the construction of 4,000 miles of telegraph lines that connected various points in India. Like Kolkata and Peshawar in the north via Agra, Mumbai through Sindwa Ghats, and Chennai in the south, and Ootacamund and Bangalore. The pioneer here was Dr.William O’Shaughnessy and a lot of the initial infrastructure was laid down by the Britishers for their own needs. During British period all major cities and towns in India were linked with telephones.

In 1854, thanks to efforts of pioneers, telegraph facilities were made open to the public and a regular Telegraph Department was set up with the enactment of the Telegraph Act. By the time we made it to 1880, the idea of telephone exchanges found its first flutter with the arrival of two companies - The Oriental Telephone Company Ltd and Anglo-Indian Telephone Company Ltd. Their requests were rejected because this space was still a Government monopoly. However, in 1881, the Government gave a license to the Oriental Telephone Company Limited of England for opening telephone exchanges at Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Ahmedabad. The following few years saw a lot of momentum. The Indian Telegraph Department (ITD) found its first Superintendent in Dr. William O’Shaughnessy, who later became the first Director-General of ITD. In 1858, the first India-Ceylon cable was laid and in 1865, the first Indo-European telegraph communication was put in place. India embraced the first Duplex telegraphy in 1873 - introduced between Bombay and Calcutta. And in 1875, the ITD supplied the first private telephone line. The ITD transferred responsibility of the Ceylon Telegraph System to the Ceylon government in 1880 and the very next year, licenses were granted to private companies for operation of telephone systems in Madras, Bombay, Rangoon (Yangon) and Calcutta. Bombay saw a telephone exchange in 1882. The quadruplex telegraphy and provision of copper wire, instead of iron wire, happened soon enough – in 1885. Interestingly, it was in 1887 that the ITD started helping the India Meteorological Department (IMD) in communication of Storm Signals to all places.

The Indo-European Telegraph Department got merged with the ITD in 1888. Phonograms came in 1895. And by 1905 the control of the Telegraph Department was handed over from the PWD to the Commerce and Industry Department. In 1914, more administrative traction followed when the Postal and Telegraph Departments were amalgamated under a single Director-General while the P&T Department was reverted to the PWD.

But what was really pushing the space forward was the advent of new levels of technology. Like first automatic exchange at Simla (Shimla) that had a capacity of 700 lines and 400 actual connections. It was also an exchange that employed women operators for the first time, in 1919. In 1933, Radio telephone communications between England and India were opened. In 1937, deluxe telegrams with foreign countries saw the light of the day. And soon enough, the Bombay-Australian wireless telegraph service and Bombay-China wireless service and Bombay-New York Wireless Telegraph Service was switched on. By the time we touched 1944; we had a Hindi telegram in Devnagari script and an ‘Own Your Telephone Scheme’ in 1949.


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August 2020