Lunchtime seminar – 20th October: Jacob Ward (UCL)

“Machines must be servants not masters”: From the Post Office to British Telecom, 1959-84

This paper explores the relationship between technological change and organisational reform in the post-war Post Office, and highlights how management of a nationalised technological system necessitates management of the relationship between man and machine. In 1955, the British government issued a White Paper outlining new reforms for the Post Office, giving it greater freedom from the Treasury, so that it might act with more commercial freedom. In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II unveiled Subscriber Trunk Dialling in Bristol – the Post Office’s new mechanised trunk network for British telephone users. Technological development and organisational reform were early foci for the Post Office in the post-war period, but it soon became apparent that this concentration on the machinery of government and infrastructure had led to a neglect of the humans – subscribers and staff alike – in the system.

Drawing on a broad range of Post Office and other government documents, this paper addresses the changes to the telecommunications system in Britain on three levels: technological change in the development of the network; organisational change as the Post Office slowly hived off from the Civil Service; and the human changes necessitated by these prior developments. The history of Post Office telecommunications in post-war Britain has been neglected in the wider literature, and I will argue that a broad view of this history highlights the tensions unique to a government department that had to balance its duty to the taxpayer and subscriber with its duty to develop the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure.

This is part of my larger thesis project (in progress), “Research Transplanted and Privatised: Post Office/British Telecom R&D in the Digital and Information Era”

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