Archive hunting at North Campus

James Peters discusses two archives recently uncovered during the clearance of the University of Manchester’s North Campus: the UMIST Radio Society archive and the David Edward Hughes telegram collection.

The University’s North Campus site is currently being cleared as departments based there move to new sites, primarily the new Manchester Engineering Centre (MEC) building.

The clearance has been a huge exercise, with thousands of rooms being emptied, some in areas which have been little used in the past twenty years. In the process, some interesting archival items have been uncovered.

Between 2004 and 2006 the institutional archives of the former UMIST were moved to the Library from North Campus. Following this sustained effort, I was not expecting major archive discoveries during this final clearance, and this has largely proved to be the case.  However, two small but noteworthy collections have been found: the UMIST Radio Society archive and the David Edward Hughes telegram collection.  

UMIST Radio Society Archive

University radio clubs flourished between the 1950s and 1980s and the UMIST Radio Society was one of the largest. It used the call sign G3CXX (it also used G6CXX), and operated from a  “shack” high up in the  UMIST main building. From here it sent and received radio messages across the globe, using a 60ft transmitter mast.

Radio Society members and the transmitting aerial on the roof of the Sackville St building, c.1958, UMIST Radio Society archive

When the Society became defunct, the shack was abandoned, but vigilant staff managed to salvage some of its records. These include a large collection of QSL cards. The QSL card was a standard form of exchange between amateur radio operators. Those receiving a particular call sign would respond to the sender with a card detailing the receipt of the transmission. These cards are often colourful and evoke the era in which they were produced. 

QSL cards, UMIST Radio Society archive

 What is particularly interesting about the cards is the significant number that were sent by radio clubs located in what were then ‘Iron Curtain’ countries.

David Edward Hughes Telegram Collection

This collection relates to an earlier mode of international communication – the telegraph. It is a small collection of telegraph tapes and cables connected to the telegraph entrepreneur David Edward Hughes.

The David Edward Hughes Telegram Collection

The telegraph has not unreasonably been described as the “Victorian Internet”. It revolutionised communications and radically changed how people conducted diplomacy, war and commerce, as well as their more personal business. By the late nineteenth century, vast networks of telegraph lines encircled the globe, including inter-continental submarine cables.   

Telegraphs moved information quickly and for decades the telegram was used for the most vital and essential communications. Samuel Morse invented an encoding language – Morse code – which facilitated these communications. However, Morse communications could only really be undertaken by specialists operating in a network of linked telegraph offices.

David Edward Hughes (1831-1900) was one entrepreneur who tried to develop a more user-friendly system than Morse. Born in Wales, but raised in the USA, Hughes was originally a musician, who invented a machine that mechanically transcribed musical notation. This then evolved into an automated printing telegraph, with piano-type keys to represent different letters. Messages could be encoded directly by punching keys on the sending machine, and these would relayed by cable to the receiving machine where they were printed on strips of paper. The connection worked by having clockwork-synchronised typewheels on both machines so messages were transcribed identically, and as there was no need for code, they could be understood immediately on receipt.

Telegram sent by a Hughes machine, Belgium, 1870, Hughes Telegram Collection

Although the Hughes machines did not supplant Morse telegraphy, they were extensively used in the US and Europe. The collection discovered at North Campus includes telegram messages and printed tapes sent at the commencement of services in Belgium, France, Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

Hughes was also interested in the electromagnetic transmission of sound and developed an early microphone. He became a wealthy man, and on his death left substantial legacies to the Royal Society and several London hospitals.

1 comment on “Archive hunting at North Campus

  1. Great blog with some excellent images.

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