The telecommunication stamps in the PK collection teach us about the history of communication. They tell us not only about the events that they commemorate but also about the time that they were issued. If you think about it there are lots of events that stamps could celebrate, but only a few are chosen by each country each year. Stamps are a form of propaganda – they may seem insignificant and a functional form of communication, but these little pieces of art can tell us a vast amount about the people that created them, as well as the events they symbolise. All the stamps in this blog were issued by the countries attending the 2021 G7 summit in Cornwall.
The Trans-Atlantic cable: the United States 1112
The first stamp I want to show you was issued in 1958, commemorating Cyrus Field’s and John Pender’s 1858 Trans-Atlantic cable. This was the first undersea cable laid from
Valentia in western Ireland to Bay of Bulls, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Despite this cable only lasting a few weeks, it alerted the world to the possibility of an intercontinental cable. After a couple of other attempts at laying cables, by 1866 there was a successful cable laid across the Atlantic. This stamp marks the first communication via telegram across the Atlantic. It is interesting to note how different countries choose to mark their achievements. The next stamp shows how India decided to mark the commencement of the work on a cable rather than when it first opened for business.
Indo-European Telegraph Line: India 456
In 1870, a cable came ashore at Porthcurno, and India and Britain were connected by an undersea cable. The stamp India 456 issued in 1967 tells the story of another cable intended to join Britain and India by landline. In 1866 the Indo-European Telegraph Company was formed to build and operate an overland route. 1867 marks the year of the commencement of this project. The line opened for cable traffic in January 1870 and gave good but slow service. Six months later Pender’s submarine cable connecting India and Britain opened, which was much faster and safer and so took on most of the traffic.
Broadcasting Anniversaries: Britain and Germany
As well as stamps commemorating cables, there are also sets of stamps that celebrate other anniversaries, such as the 1972 set of 4 stamps issued by Britain titled Broadcasting Anniversaries. In the PK archive, these stamps are in The Stamp Album of Telecommunications, which is divided into sections such as Satellites, Radio, and Space.
Commonwealth Pacific Cable (COMPAC)
Some stamps are issued at the time that a cable is laid. This was the case with the COMPAC cable in 1963 linking Sydney with Vancouver, via Auckland, Suva, and Hawaii, which created a Commonwealth round-the-world telephone cable system. The idea of a stamp being used to celebrate the cable started in 1961. The postal administrations of the UK, Australia, and New Zealand exchanged many telegrams discussing whether they were going to produce a stamp. At the same time, the British Post Office asked if the Canadian Post Office was issuing a stamp, learning that it was not. No country would move until the others did. It was Australia who decided first and then the UK and New Zealand followed. In the UK, the artist Peter Gauld won the commission to design the stamp based on the Australian design. After the stamp was completed the UK postal administration asked the Australian branch if they would like payment, to which W H Wilcock, General Manager of Note Printing Branch responded:
“We were pleased and flattered … that the British Post Office is using the design … For our part, it is sufficient to know that the British Post Office appreciated the design enough to use it, and we would not think of raising the question of any payment.”
Although this is a nice example of countries sharing a stamp design. As a stamp collector myself I can’t help thinking where I would put these in a stamp album organised by country. On the one hand, it would be a shame to split them up, on the other, it would be inconsistent not to do so.
TPC.1 Telephone Cable: Japan 818
A year after COMPAC (1963), the first American Trans-Pacific telephone cable was laid from California to Guam via Hawaii, Midway, and Wake Island. It was called TPC.1. Japan 818, issued in 1964, celebrated the laying of the TPC.1 telephone cable with an unusual design – a cross-section of a cable superimposed on a map of the Pacific.
OLUHO Cable: Scott 1311.
In 1977, Japan issued another telecommunication stamp with a delightful design of a girl on the telephone, alluding to the high number of speech channels this cable carried. It was issued to mark the completion of the OLUHO cable which went from Okinawa to Hong Kong via the Philippines. In 1965, the SEACOM cable had a capacity of 80 speech channels which, by 1977, had increased to 1380 for the OLUHO cable.
The stamps in the PK archive have not only taught me about the history of telecommunication but also, through their categorisation, about archiving itself. These stamps are just a glimpse into the large collection of stamps in the PK archive. Let’s hope that in 50 years’ time a stamp is issued to commemorate the positive decisions made by the leaders of the G7 this week in Cornwall.
I would like to thank the Postal Museum in London for kindly answering my emails and providing information on the stamps issued in the UK.
Author: Alice Howard, Archive Research Facilitator and Learning Facilitator Arts, PK Porthcurno