Lunchtime Seminar Series – 4th November: Alice Haigh (University of Leeds)

CHSTMSeminar Alice Haigh

Relocating Research: the Origins of the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill

The General Post Office (GPO) was the UK’s largest state bureaucracy of the twentieth century. Between 1921 and 1975, the northwest London suburb of Dollis Hill was home to its engineering research facilities where Post Office engineers made many important technological developments in telecommunications and computing, the most famous of these being the world’s first programmable electronic computer: Tommy Flowers’ WW2 code-breaking ‘Colossus’ machine. Despite the station’s legacy, the history of its establishment and development has yet to be properly studied.

The station at Dollis Hill officially opened in 1933 with a filmed and publicly broadcast ceremony, including a speech from the Prime Minister, J. Ramsay MacDonald. This came nearly two decades after the GPO Engineer-in-Chief, William Slingo, first put forward the proposal for the station’s creation and identified Dollis Hill as the suitably suburban site. Once a celebrated prominent member of British society, Slingo’s contribution to early twentieth-century electrical engineering is now largely forgotten and his part as the key proponent of a centralised engineering research facility for the GPO has been written out of the station’s story.

This paper will begin by demonstrating how research became a recognised function of the GPO from the Engineering Department’s formation in 1870. It will identify the reasons behind Slingo’s 1914 proposal for establishing a separate, centralised research facility on the outskirts of London, against a background of burgeoning telecommunications technologies, the nationalisation of the telephone network, and World War 1. It will answer why the plan took seven years to be realised and why Slingo’s name is no longer connected to it. More generally, this paper will serve as an introduction to the three-part project: “Research is the Door to Tomorrow”: the networks and culture of the Post Office Research Stations, Dollis Hill and Martlesham, c. 1910-1983 of which CHSTM (along with University College London and the University of Leeds) is a part.

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