Untold lives blog

39 posts categorized "Science"

13 March 2020

John Maynard Smith: evolutionary biology and the Logic of Animal Conflict

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Have you ever wondered why animals often fight in ritualised ways, not killing each other outright even though they have the weapons to do so?  Just think of how easy it would be, with all the teeth, claws, horns and antlers.


If you currently visit the British Library’s Treasures Gallery, you’ll find a small exhibit of material from the evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith’s archive.  In the 1970s, Maynard Smith gave one answer to the question above that proved highly influential and successful.  It even won him the Crafoord Prize, biology’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize.  And it made to number 61 of 87 in the Great British Innovation Vote, in which you were asked about ‘the most important innovation of the last 100 years’: evolutionary game theory.

John Maynard Smith standing amongst wild flowers 1989John Maynard Smith. Sussex, 1989. Copyright © Anita Corbin and John O’Grady. Courtesy of the estate of John Maynard Smith.

In the exhibition, next to some of his very early work on animal flight, you’ll spot some line printer output with purple annotations.  This particular printout dates from 1972 and is part of a series showing the crucial computer simulations based on which Maynard Smith and his then collaborator George Price wrote “The logic of animal conflict”.  This paper, published in 1973, is the basis for evolutionary game theory.
 

Maynard Smith’s personal copy of ‘The Logic of Animal Conflict’Maynard Smith’s personal copy of ‘The Logic of Animal Conflict’, 1973. Courtesy of the estate of John Maynard Smith.

Maynard Smith, born in 1920 (died in 2004), would have turned 100 this year.  He was one of Britain’s leading evolutionary biologists, a “puzzle-solver” with mathematical intuition whose research career spans almost half a century.  The exhibited printout and others of the same series were sent back and forth between Maynard Smith at the University of Sussex and Price in London.  The two of them had met in 1970 and later started collaborating on what became evolutionary game theory: the application of game theory – which originated in economics – to evolutionary biology and animal behaviour in particular.

By pitting animals against each other as in a game, supplied with strategies like “probing” and “retaliating”, Maynard Smith and Price showed why animals fight in almost ritualised ways, without full use of their weapons: because it is evolutionarily beneficial.  To underline their idea, they ran a series of computer simulations, having two “animals” A and B “fight” round after round.  A and B had the options to escalate the fight or not to.  The simulations showed that the risk of retaliation is too great: if A escalates the fight, B may follow suit and injure, even kill, A.

Hawks and Doves - Computer printout (‘Hawks and Doves’) - Computer printout for 'B31 L – run 2'; 11 April 1972. (Add MS 86749). Copyright of the estate of John Maynard Smith.

As the purple annotations on the exhibited printout show, the computer simulations were useful but not necessarily straightforward.  Some results were ‘v[ery] puzzling’.  Once everything was resolved, the results were published, stimulating much research on animal behaviour.  In 1976, evolutionary game theory joined several other ideas forming the basis of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In fact, Dawkins credits Maynard Smith’s work as a ‘major stimulus that led me to […] write the whole book.’  If you would, please turn to Chapter 5, ‘Aggression: stability and the selfish machine’…

Anyway, that’s where you can read Dawkins’ description of evolutionary game theory – without any of the maths that was in the original paper of Maynard Smith and Price.

Helen Piel
Postdoctoral fellow at the Research Institute for the History of Science and Technology at the Deutsches Museum, working on the relationship between artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

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The John Maynard Smith exhibition is on display at the British Library Treasures Gallery until April 5.

 

11 March 2020

Within a hair’s breadth of failure: John Houghton and the climate change report

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Among the papers of the climate scientist Sir John Houghton, (Add MS 89409) is a record of one of the most significant moments in either Houghton’s career or the history of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body set up by the United Nations in order to observe and respond to changes in the world’s climate.  It is a transcript of a meeting in Madrid, in late 1995, of Working Group I, the IPCC’s division for assessing the ‘physical science of climate change’.

At the time, the IPCC was preparing its second major report.  The contribution of Working Group I already existed in draft form, but its summary still needed finalising.  Did its phrasing – especially in its central assertion, that human activity is affecting the climate – reflect the scientific evidence?  As co-Chairman, Houghton was to oversee this fine-tuning, and, if possible, to guide the meeting towards a consensus.  This could never come at the cost of scientific integrity, but it seemed within reach, and worth striving for.

Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995. (Add MS 89409/4/23), Copyright 2020 The British Library.

Houghton was prepared for robust debate, but admits that he had not anticipated the direction actually taken by the discussion, which the transcript records in a 238-page slab of twelve-point text (Add MS 89409/4/23).  On the first day, Houghton noticed a representative of the Global Climate Coalition, one of the invited non-governmental organisations, engaging certain delegates in conversation.  That this organisation was generally critical of the IPCC’s conclusions was not in itself a problem, but its being backed by ‘powerful parts of the US and international energy industry’ suggested certain non-scientific interests.  The next day, Houghton found that some of these delegates ‘wanted to weaken the statements about the extent of climate change’ and emphasise the ‘uncertainties about [its] causes’.

Houghton was frustrated because it was clear to him that their motives were political, not scientific.  Indeed, one main representative was not a scientist but a lawyer.  Time was ticking on, objections were now being raised over individual words, and he was being cast in the role of a political negotiator.  Could some concessions be made in exchange for others? ‘I’m keeping no score sheet,’ he insisted.  The science could not be bartered.

John Houghton speaking at a conference 2005John Houghton speaking at a conference in High Wycombe, UK, 2005. Photo credit: Kaihsu Tai. Reproduced under the terms of Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0, (cropped and lightened).

The third afternoon wore on.  Time was running out.  The planned evening meal was abandoned; at 9 pm the translators left.  The meeting agreed to continue without them, and Houghton pressed on.  Only at twenty past midnight, minutes before the building closed, did they finish.  But a consensus, albeit sobering, had been reached: ‘The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate’.

Houghton has written that if it had not been for the last-minute success of this meeting, the major Kyoto Protocol climate treaty would not have been adopted two years afterwards.  He has also observed that all the opposition actually resulted in a better, stronger document.  ‘It was a stimulating and exciting time’, he reflected later, ‘but we had come within a hair’s breadth of failure’.

Dominic Newman
Manuscripts Cataloguer

The Papers of John Houghton were gifted to the British Library in 2015.  At present a single series ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’ consisting of correspondence, notes, offprints and published material, is available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89409/4.

The British Library would like to thank the American Institute of Physics (AIP) for their generous support in enabling the cataloguing of this material.

Further reading:
John Houghton, ‘Madrid 1995: Diagnosing climate change’, Nature, 455 (2008), 737-738
John Houghton et al. (eds.), 'Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
John Houghton, with Gill Tavner, In the Eye of the Storm: the autobiography of Sir John Houghton. (Oxford, Lion, 2013)

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09 March 2020

A Pioneer of Artificial Intelligence: Donald Michie

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020. 

A reasonable claim could be made to the idea that Donald Michie (1923-2007) is the father of British research into artificial intelligence (AI).  Following a successful early career as a mammalian geneticist, Michie devoted his life to the development of computers which could perform complex, human-like tasks.

His initial interest was sparked during his wartime service as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park where he forged a friendship with Alan Turing, playing chess, discussing the potential of computers, and even (unsuccessfully) attempting to locate Turing’s hidden stockpiles of silver after the war.  The two gave considerable consideration to developing early computer programmes which could play chess.

Donald Michie in 1940s Donald Michie c. 1940s (Add MS 89072/1/5). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Michie’s interest in building machines capable of learning continued after the war.  In 1960, he developed a computer programme which could learn to play a perfect game of noughts and crosses.  Lacking a computer to test the programme, MENACE (Machine Educable Noughts and Crosses Engine) was built from matchboxes and coloured beads which corresponded to all potential possibilities in a game, winning Michie a bet in the process.

In 1965, Michie established the forerunner to the University of Edinburgh’s Department for Artificial Intelligence and was at the forefront of international research into the field for decades thereafter.  Working at Edinburgh, Michie and his team developed and built a pair of machines, affectionately known as Freddy I and Freddy II.  These machines were capable of learning to identify the parts of and assemble model toys, such as a car or a boat, integrating perception and action into one machine.

Michie’s importance was most evident from his prominent role in the Lighthill Report and Debate in 1972-73.  James Lighthill’s 1972 Report for the Science Research Council suggested that research into AI had overpromised and underdelivered on its capabilities to that point.  A televised debate in 1973 saw Lighthill opposite Michie and two fellow researchers into AI: James McCarthy and Richard Gregory.

Michie, McCarthy and Gregory were not successful.  The outcome of Lighthill’s intervention became known as the AI Winter.  Funding for research into AI was slashed across the UK (and, shortly after, in the USA).  However, Edinburgh retained its research into AI, albeit with a departmental restructure in 1974.  Michie continued his research at the University for a further decade before moving on to co-found the Turing Institute in Glasgow as Director of Research.

Following his retirement from university teaching, Michie dedicated his work to developing a chat-bot to beat the Turing Test: could a computer programme convince a human it was a human?  He named his chat-bot Sophie, complete with humorous backstory and familial relations (apparently ‘Southern California Trash’ was an apt accent for her given her personality).

Donald Michie in 1980s Donald Michie c. 1980s (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprise three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2008.  They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.

Matt Wright
PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. He is on an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership researching the Donald Michie Archive, exploring his work as a geneticist and artificial intelligence researcher in post-war Britain.

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Further Reading:
Michie, D., Donald Michie on Machine Intelligence, Biology and more, ed. by Ashwin Srinivasan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
van Emden, M., ‘I Remember Donald Michie (1923 – 2007)’, A Programmer’s Place, 2009.

A longer version of this post can be found on our Science blog.


 

25 February 2020

17th Century Recipes for Those Feeling Under the Weather

It is that time of year again when almost everyone is getting ill.  Luckily, the British Library manuscript collections are full of historic and innovative gastronomic concoctions to help alleviate your various ailments.

A fine place to start is with the Sloane manuscripts, which contain a formidable number of medical recipes, or receipts, as they were known before the 1700s.  On his death, collector and physician Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his vast collections to the nation.  Chief among Sloane’s academic interests was medicine and he collected many manuscripts that illuminated approaches to medicine through the ages.  These manuscripts date back as early as the 10th century.  They form a fascinating record of the varying treatments used for illnesses over time, as well as highlighting the persistent impulse to treat ailments with food.

From the 1600’s onwards, we can read some of these recipes in modern English and see just what sort of potions we may have had to drink for an illness had we lived during the 17th century.  Here are a few informative examples:

Recipe for the treatment of consumptionRecipe for the treatment of consumption, Sloane MS 3949

For the treatment of consumption, it was recommended to take 3 pints of cow milk, 12 yolks of fresh eggs, 6 ounces of fine breadcrumbs, 3 ounces of fine cinnamon, 2 or 3 pieces of fine gold (surely a staple of every good chef’s kitchen cupboard), 5 ounces of fine sugar, mix together and bring to the boil.  Then one would drink as much of it at a time as possible, or as the recipe states, as much ‘as you shall think convenient’.

Recipe2Recipe to ward off fever, Sloane MS 3949

This was a nice simple recipe to ward off fever:  Take a piece of white bread and dip it in red rose water, then strew it with sugar and eat it an hour before the fit (obviously it helped to know when you were due to be ill for this one).

Recipe 3Recipe against the plague, Add MS 4376

If you were feeling particularly unwell, had buboes in your armpits and a progressively aggressive fever that hinted at your impending doom, then you more than likely had the plague.  In this case, you would have needed to consult the following advice by order of the Corporation of London.  It involves taking rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender and infusing them together in a gallon of white wine vinegar (so far, so very Waitrose), cooking them in a pot for eight days, draining the liquid and then applying this to the body every day.  You would also have to pour a bit of the mixture onto a sponge to smell when you happened to pass by a particularly plague-ridden avenue.  This receipt even includes its own product review.  It states that criminals would put some of the recipe on their bodies before robbing the houses of those deceased from plague, and that despite them entering these sites of contagion, they had remained healthy.

Although very different from a modern cough medicine, one can recognise in these recipes a few familiar tendencies, such as: equating infused herbs with health; using warm dairy products to comfort; and the use of sugar to make the mixtures more palatable.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Ayscough, S., A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Preserved in the British Museum (London: John Rivington, 1782), 2 vols
Hunter, Michael, and others, eds, From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his Collections (London: British Library, 2012)
Scott, E. J. L., Index to the Sloane manuscripts in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1904)

 

07 January 2020

Sir Ronald Ross and the Transmission of Malaria

To mark the digitisation of medical archives in the India Office Records, I am highlighting some seminal research relating to Ronald Ross (1857-1932) and his important work discovering the causes of the transmission of malaria.

MosquitoMosquito BL: IOR/R/15/2/1061 Noc

By the late 1870s a miasmic (‘bad air’) theory of transmitting malaria was falling from favour and being replaced by a focus on biological transmission.  Corrado Tommasi-Crudeli and Theodor Klebs had isolated a bacteria from water which they claimed acted like malaria.  A French physician, Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran, had shown that malaria was spread by parasites by performing necropsies on malaria victims.  Following this groundwork, a combination of work from Patrick Manson, Giovanni Grassi and Ronald Ross added ultimately conclusive developments to the theory…

Man hiding under blanket with mosquito hovering overheadImage from Wallis Mackay, The Prisoner of Chiloane; or, with the Portuguese in South-East Africa (London, 1890) British Library 010096.ee.16 Noc BL flickr 

Sir Ronald Ross was born in Almora, India, in 1857 to Sir Campbell Ross, a general in the Indian Army, and his wife Matilda.  He entered the Indian Medical Service in 1881.  During a year’s leave, he studied for the diploma in public health from The Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in England taking a course in bacteriology.

Photograph of Ronald RossSir Ronald Ross. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Ross’s interest in malaria began in 1892 when he was converted to the idea that the malaria parasites were in the bloodstream.  Patrick Manson demonstrated this to Ross in 1894.  In India, Ross was investigating if mosquitoes were connected to the transmission of malaria, but he was called away from malaria-infested areas on Indian Medical Service duty.  This frustrated Ross; he sent a letter requesting to be ‘put on special duty for a few months after relief at Bangalore to enable him to investigate the truth of Dr. Patrick Manson’s theory of the Transmission of the infection of malaria by means of the mosquito’. 

Proposal to place Surgeon Major Ronald Ross on special dutyIOR/P/5185 Mar 1897 nos 141-45; Proposal to place Surgeon Major Ronald Ross on special duty to investigate the truth of Dr. Patrick Manson's theory of the transmission of the infection of malaria by means of the mosquito Noc

The work would be carried out by someone who was ‘a microscopist and bacteriologist with a bent towards original research’.  Ross planned to follow Manson in proving that it was the mosquito which spread the disease.  He wrote instructions on how to carry out the experiments and listed three necessary proofs:
• That the parasite went through the same change inside the mosquito as it did in blood drawn from humans
• That the parasite was capable of developing and living inside the mosquito
• That the parasite could be communicated from the mosquito to humans.

On 20 August 1897, in Secunderabad, Ross made his breakthrough discovery.  While dissecting the stomach tissue of an Anopheles mosquito, fed four days previously on a malarious patient, he found the malaria parasite.  He noted these memorable words in a poem:
‘..With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death’.

Communicability of malaria by mosquito bitesBritish Library IOR/P/5644 May 1899 nos 156-59 Communicability of malaria by mosquito bites Noc

Ross continued his research in India and demonstrated that mosquitoes could serve as intermediate hosts for bird malaria.  He showed that the route of infection was through the bite of a mosquito with experiments on four sparrows and a weaver bird.  The account of these findings was presented to the British Medical Association in July 1898.  In 1902 Ross became the first Briton to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

David Moran
Western Heritage Collections

Further Reading:
IOR/P/5185 Mar 1897 nos 141-45 Proposal to place Surgeon Major Ronald Ross on special duty to investigate the truth of Dr Patrick Manson's theory of the transmission of the infection of malaria by means of the mosquito
IOR/P/5644 May 1899 nos 156-59 Communicability of malaria by mosquito bites
IOR/P/5418 Nov 1898 nos 10-12 Ronald Ross, Indian Medical Service, Preliminary Report on the Infection of Birds with Proteosoma by the Bites of Mosquitoes
IOR/P/434/44 Sep 1869 no 01 Report on the causes of malarial fever in Bengal
IOR/P/5644 Jan 1899 nos 79-82 Investigations at Rome into the role of mosquito-bites in the spread of malaria
IOR/P/5644 Jan 1899 nos 206-16 Proposed appointment of a Scientific Commission to investigate the causes and cure of malaria and the deputation to India of Dr C W Daniels to aid in the investigation
IOR/P/1204 Dec 1828 nos 10-13 Results of the trial made in certain hospitals in the Bombay Presidency with Mr Wood's alkaloids in the treatment of malarial fevers
IOR/P/351/37 20 Dec 1854 nos 6117-19 Report on sanitary conditions at Poona Cantonment and in the vicinity, and corrective measures to remove the causes of malaria

 

13 June 2019

Hidden Worlds in the Laboratory Notebooks of Anne McLaren

Building on a recent Science blog post, this post focuses on a lab notebook belonging to developmental biologist Dr Anne McLaren (1927-2007). What hidden connections does this lab notebook contain and why might it interest scientists and non-scientists alike?

Title page of MacLaren's notebookFigure 1. Title page of the notebook (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

McLaren’s research on mice has contributed to many fields, including in vitro fertilization (IVF) and stem cell research. Laying the groundwork for such contributions, McLaren’s lesser-known research project from 1952-1959 explored the genetic effects that a mother’s uterus—not just the material contained in the egg—had on the development of an embryo. To study this, she and her then-husband Dr Donald Michie took two strains of mice, one genetically disposed to have 5 lumbar vertebrae (C3H) and the other to have 6 (C57), and developed a technique of transferring fertilized embryos from a donor of one strain to a surrogate mouse from the other strain. Surprisingly, the transferred babies predominantly took after their surrogate mother in number of lumbar vertebrae—and even today, the mechanisms by which this effect functions are not fully understood.

One notebook, Add MS 83844, contains most of the raw results from this embryo transfer research; however, it also contains a hidden connection. In the summer of 1958, while these experiments were underway, McLaren worked with Dr John Biggers (1923-2018) to culture 249 fertilized embryos for 48 hours in vitro (in glass) before transplanting them into surrogate mice. After 19 days of gestation, these transplants resulted in the birth of two mice, which McLaren called “bottled babies” and were the first mammals cultured outside of a uterine environment pre-implantation (McLaren and Biggers).

Add MS 83844 makes no mention of its relationship to this landmark discovery, and yet, without the embryo transfer work it documents, the bottled babies would not have been. Similarly, McLaren’s later work shows how she continued to use the processes developed during the transplant and in vitro experiments, such as in her experiments with chimeras, or mice made from mixing two different 8-cell eggs before implantation. The notebooks therefore provide unique insight into the interconnected nature of scientific exploration.

Open notebook displaying experiment notations

Figure 2. Two pages from the notebook showing experiment notations, vertebrae counts, and various stains. (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

The notebook also showcases for scientific and non-scientific readers alike the human, material, and even quotidian processes that scientific advancement relies on. Just a quick browse of the pages emphasizes the years of painstaking work required to arrive at a breakthrough like the IVF mice, as well as showing some of the ways that McLaren systematically managed the dense information produced over those years (lumbar vertebrae counts appear in the notebooks in pink ink, for example, to make them stand out). Each page contains detailed observations, small corrections, and sometimes even notes like this, which records a short tale of an escaped mouse.

Detail from notebook recording a mouse as 'escaped, prob lost'Figure 3. Detail from the notebook recording a mouse as 'Escaped, prob. lost.' (Add MS 83844).Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

In addition to the written material, the pages bear traces of marks, spills, and stains that result from the unpredictable realities of laboratory work. Collectively, this notebook’s mosaic of material traces helps document scientific processes in ways that can be overlooked when looking at polished published papers.

Bridget Moynihan

PhD student, University of Edinburgh

As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, Bridget Moynihan’s research focuses on archival ephemera and digital humanities. These same interests led Bridget to undertake a British Library internship, researching the notebooks of Dr. Anne McLaren.

Further reading:

McLaren, A. and Biggers, JD. “Successful Development and Birth of Mice Cultivated in vitro as Early Embryos.” Nature 182, 1958: 877-878.

30 May 2019

The Geologist and the Tortoise

It has not often been said that behind every great man walks his tortoise.  Yet one of William Buckland’s scientific conclusions was inspired by his tortoise.

Portrait of William Buckland William Buckland c. 1843 from Elizabeth Oke Gordon, The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland (1894) Noc

William Buckland (1784-1856) was a pioneering geologist and celebrated theologian.  He was elected to the Royal Society in 1818, and appointed Dean of Westminster by Sir Robert Peel in 1845.  One of his many research successes is the discovery of the misnamed ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ in a cave in Gower, Swansea.  This is still the oldest anatomically-modern human found in the UK.  His research partner and wife was Mary Morland (1797-1857) who specialized in technical illustrations of fossils for publication.  She also repaired broken fossils and made models of them.  When William and Mary married in 1825, their honeymoon lasted a year and was spent touring Europe, visiting geologists and geological sites.  Before marrying, Mary had already illustrated publications by French palaeontologist Georges Cuvier and for the British geologist William Conybeare.

Drawing of Professor and Mrs Buckland and thier young son Frank with fossils'Professor and Mrs Buckland and Frank' from Elizabeth Oke Gordon, The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland (1894) Noc

While working on his ‘Bridgewater Treatise,’ Buckland had been sent a slab of sandstone with mysterious fossil traces on its surface.  William Buckland’s daughter Elizabeth Gordon relates how the puzzle was solved:
‘He was greatly puzzled ; but at last, one night, or rather between two and three in the morning, when, according to his wont, he was busy writing, it suddenly occurred to him that these impressions were those of a species of tortoise. He therefore called his wife to come down and make some paste, while he went and fetched the tortoise from the garden. On his return he found the kitchen table covered with paste, upon which the tortoise was placed. The delight of this scientific couple may be imagined when they found that the footmarks of the tortoise on the paste were identical with those on the sandstone slab’ (Gordon, 1894: 217).

Buckland is a celebrated figure who recognised the work of his many collaborators.  As far as I know though, the tortoise didn’t get its name in print.

Huw Rowlands
Project Manager, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Buckland, William. Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology / William Buckland. Bridgewater Treatises ; 6. Pickering: [s.n.], 1836. British Library W5/7293, W5/7294.
Buckland, William. Plates of Dr. Buckland's Bridgewater Treatise. 1836. British Library 495.i.20.
Gordon, Elizabeth Oke,  The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland, Sometime Dean of Westminster ... by His Daughter, Mrs. Gordon, Etc. [With a Preface by W. B. Dawkins.]. 1894. British Library 4907.ee.1.

 

21 March 2019

Telephone Map of India 1934

The files of the India Office contain many different kinds of maps of pre-1947 India, which give a fascinating visual representation of different aspects of the country.  One striking example is a telephone map of India from 1934, showing projects in progress and approved.

Telephone Map of India 1934 (Detail)IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934 (detail)

Telephone Map of India 1934IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934

The map is in a file in the India Office Records on the subject of a radio-telephone service between India and the UK.  Communications between Britain and India had always been challenging, with a six month sea journey during the era of the East India Company, being cut to six weeks with the opening of the Suez Canal.  The development of the telegraph and later aviation speeded things up further, allowing civil servants in London to more easily communicate with their counterparts in Calcutta and Delhi.

Telephone Map of India 1934 (Punjab detail)IOR/L/E/9/1348 Telephone map of India 1934 (detail - Punjab)

In today’s world of smartphones and almost instant global communication, it is interesting to think of the long road of technological development which has been travelled.  As the map shows, in India in the mid-1930s the telephone system only really linked the major urban centres, with most of the country not yet connected.  In a letter to His Majesty’s Postmaster-General, dated 29 September 1934, Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, stated that the development of the telephone was being slowed by a lack of demand, with Indians making comparatively little social use of the telephone, often due to the distances involved and the cost of a telephone being larger than the incomes of a large proportion of the population.  Despite this, progress was being made, with 36,000 miles of aerial trunk lines having been installed in the previous years to 1934.

Article from Daily Mail  28 August 1930Daily Mail 28 August 1930

The file records the establishment of an international telephone service between Britain and India. The Times newspaper reported that this service was inaugurated on 1 May 1933, with Big Ben sounding the quarter hour, followed by an exchange between Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India, and Sir Frederick Sykes, Governor of Bombay.  The service was initially restricted to Bombay and Poona, and a three minute call from anywhere in Great Britain was £6, and the other way from India to Britain the cost was 80 rupees!

List of telephone numbers 1933IOR/L/E/9/1348 List of telephone numbers 1933

The service rapidly expanded through the late 1930s, but was suspended with the outbreak of the Second World War due to security concerns over the danger of enemy eavesdropping.  The line was re-opened on 3 December 1945 by Sir Mahomed Usman, Member for Posts and Air, Government of India, who made a call to Lord Listowel, Postmaster-General, in London.

Document stating that the London-India Telephone Service had re-openedIOR/L/E/9/1348 London-India telephone service re-opened 1945

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Telegraphy - India-U.K. Radiotelephone Service and other long-distance services: inauguration and arrangements regarding official calls, 1929-1945 [Reference IOR/L/E/9/1348].

 

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