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Dial M for modern

From smoke signals to satellite phones, a new exhibition is making contact, writes Deedee Cuddihy

COMMUNICATE!. permanent exhibition. Royal Museum, Edinburgh. tel 0131 247 4422

Communications is the fascinating subject of a permanent exhibition opening today in the science wing of the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

Communicate! charts the ingenious methods that people have come up with over the centuries to stay in touch with each other from the days of smoke signals and drum beats to modern day telecommunications.

Created particularly with seven- to 14-year-olds in mind, Communicate! is based around one of eight collections donated to museums in the UK by the telecommunications giant BT. These collections are, in turn, linked to BT's on-line museum,, where you can learn more about objects on show in the gallery, the other BT collections or the history of telecommunications.

Alison Taubman, the co-ordinating curator for the eight BT Connected Earth collections (including Communicate!) had first pick of BT's hoard of telecommunications artefacts. The objects she selected are now on show in the new gallery with the cream of Scotland's telecom heritage (collected at the Royal Museum since 1855) plus additional items sourced from around the world.

Ms Taubman says: "Communicate! covers the general history of telecommunications with a focus on Scotland and, in particular, remote locations such as Skye where, in October 1976, the last manually connected call in Britain was made from Portree telephone exchange."

The switchboard which was used to make that call is on display in the new gallery. Alongside are extracts from an interview with Portree telephonist Agnes Dewar, who explained that, following automation, locals could no longer communicate with an operator in Gaelic or ring the exchange to ask if the boat was in.

A telephonist from Orkney later told museum staff that automation caused considerable confusion there because islanders had never bothered to remember phone numbers as their local operator knew them all.

There are drawings of a French mechanical semaphore system used to relay lottery results from town to town in the 18th century and a stuffed carrier pigeon with a First World War message capsule strapped to its leg.

Sections on telegraph networks, telephone networks and on-line networks follow in chronological order, each one illustrated with objects and related information. There is, for example, a piece of the original 1866 telegraph cable that ran for 3,000 miles along the bottom of the Atlantic and connected the UK to North America for the first time and a scale model of a British optical telegraph system which was operated through a series of wooden shutters mounted on a roof top.

Visitors can read about Sandy Ness who had never used a telephone when he started work at Kirkcaldy telephone exchange in 1943, aged 15. He went on to become a linesman maintaining telephone cables and retired in 1986.

There are clips from a series of industry documentaries made in the 1930s and an example of the equipment that telephone operators used to time calls before automation: an egg timer.

Other artefacts on show include a traditional red telephone box, an entire telegraph pole and the satellite video phone used by Channel 4 news reporter Stewart Webb when he was reporting on the war in Iraq last year.

It arrived at the museum still covered in sand.

An eye-catching display of telephones through the ages shows their evolution from large wooden boxes to slim, glamorous mobiles. Complementing the history of telecommunications are the interactive pieces where visitors can tap out their name in Morse code, send a text message from a giant mobile phone and discover how to communicate with aliens.

Worksheets based on the Communicate! collection are available and an educational programme for schools is being developed.

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