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Exploring the telecommunications wonderland

Technology has moved on since the days of the telephone operator. MfK

A fax machine created by a monk, the first-ever telephones and suitcase-sized mobiles are part of an exhibition celebrating 150 years of telecommunications in Switzerland.

This content was published on September 30, 2002 - 11:04

Visitors can take in the technology's humble beginnings and the wonders of cyberspace.

The layout of the exhibition - called "Telemagic" - is based on Lewis Carroll's fairytale, Alice in Wonderland, with tunnels, giant chess boards and bizarrely angled rooms leading the visitor through the changing - and often unsettling - world of telecommunications.

It takes as its starting point the first telegraph network, put in place in 1852.

"Every new era in communications was like the dawning of a new world for that generation and we wanted try to bring across how disorientated people initially felt about these innovations," Barbara Wenk of Bern's Museum of Communications told swissinfo.

"Even as late as the 50s, there was a need for instruction manuals and school classes to show people how to use phones," Wenk continues. "There was even a phone propaganda group to encourage the reluctant Swiss public to use phones!"

Top secret

The exhibition also shows artefacts from the earliest days of long-distance communication. It comes as a shock to learn that primitive methods, such as lighting fires, were used to signal danger, before the advent of telegraph technologies.

In the 1830s, the more sophisticated Shappe telegraph was installed on top of buildings to convey coded messages: the tree-shaped contraption included arms that could be bent by levers into different positions.

"There was a secret code to interpret the signs, which were usually for top-secret military use," Wenk explains. "The problem with early long distance communication was that it was also visible to the public, whereas it was meant for use only by key people."

Enigma

Another quirky exhibit is a fax machine from the mid-1850s, designed by a Swiss monk. It comes complete with original fax transmissions, printed on an elaborate, revolving mini-printing press.

"Sadly for the monk, his prototype was cast aside in favour of other machines being developed at the time," Wenk explains.

One of the star attractions is an enigma machine used by the German military during the Second World War, used to communicate in code. Wenk points out that neutral Switzerland also produced its own code machine, called Nema, meant for military use.

"But unfortunately, Washington figured out how it worked even before it was released!" Wenk says.

Bulky mobiles

Alongside these fascinating antiques are the first mobiles phones from the 1970s, which were lugged about in suitcases.

"These early mobiles were extremely expensive," Wenk says. "And their size meant that they were mostly used to phone from inside a car."

The exhibition then moves up a gear and zooms into the future, with high-tech interactive exhibits giving a taste of future telecommunications leaps. Visitors can even make their own online television programme.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

Telecommunications

An exhibition in Bern explores 150 years of telecommunications.
Exhibits include a fax machine created by a monk in 1850s and the first telephones ever used in Switzerland.

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