Henry VIII saw the need for the Royal Mail and thereafter postal watersheds seem to be in the nation's blood. Rhymer Rigby on our innovatory communications industry.
One of the nice things about living in a country with plenty of rich imperious history - especially one that had the prescience to come up with the industrial revolution - is that, during the 19th century at least, most inventions worth inventing hailed from these shores. The field of communications is certainly no exception. Among other firsts, the UK can claim a telegraph network, a submarine cable link, and, of course, we invented the postage stamp.
Although message delivery in the UK is almost certainly as old as the human presence, truly organised communication - in the form of a nascent postal service dates back to the reign of Henry VIII. Concerned about the safety of the royal post, his majesty appointed Sir Brian Tuke Master of the Posts in 1516. And, although this was the Royal Mail in a very literal sense, outsiders would occasionally avail themselves of the Tudor postie's services. Over a century later, 1635 saw the service officially opened to the public and the Post Office proper was founded in 1657 when the Crown granted itself a monopoly on letter delivery. The General Post Office, as it had become known by 1680, expanded rapidly over the next 150 years, but by the early 19th century was coming under heavy fire for its exorbitant, complex pricing.
Reform was found in the shape of Rowland Hill, a postal visionary, who introduced a superior means of payment: the first postage stamp. The stamp was the post-it of the 19th century: a brilliantly simple idea that everybody else wished they'd thought of first. And, although, other nations were quick to follow, the UK, in recognition of this philatelic first, is the only country not required by international law to carry its name on stamps.
But technological advance was throwing up other, swifter forms of communication.
Telegraphy - marketed as the telegram - began in the 1830s and came under GPO control in the 1870s. The telegram, however was never more than a niche player. Expensive, not greatly superior to the letter and doomed from the telephone's first ring, it limped on until the 1980s when - on the grounds that the average Brit sent considerably less than one telegram per year - the Post Office killed it off. The phone was a different matter: it appeared here in the 1880s and, by the end of the decade, there were seven telephone companies, all busily competing with each other. But this Thatcherite idyll was not to last and in 1912, as their licences expired, the government nationalised all bar one. This was the company operating in Hull, which to this day resolutely paints its phone boxes cream. Meanwhile, the volume of post continued its strong growth until the second world war, with the GPO buying a fleet of lorries in 1919. With hostilities came an appreciable fall in postal traffic, but peace saw both mail and telephone traffic pick up again.
Surprisingly, until the early 1970s we were still a nation of scribblers, not diallers: in late 1960s most private homes lacked a telephone; 15 years later few were without one. The 1966 introduction of the electronic exchange allowed this explosion and it was here that the phone took over as the nation's favourite means of communication. Unexpectedly though - after a two-decade fall - the post perked up again, helped, one suspects, by the burgeoning junk mail industry. The number of phonecalls, meanwhile, has continued to grow apace, accelerating after BT's 1984 privatisation and, thanks to faxes, mobiles and e-mail traffic, looks unlikely to slow down.
To try and guess what the future holds is to risk looking stupid five years on, but here goes. Post will always be with us; the fax, a 'stop gap' technology will die a lingering death. E-mail and Internet use will increase as will mobile phones. And, finally, every five years or so video phones will flop, if only because it's difficult to mouth unpleasantries at a boring caller when they're staring you in the face.