--- Dashes & dots ··· the modernization of Iceland by telegraphy

Telecommunication heralds the arrival of modern times in Iceland.

By Technical Museum of East Iceland

Hannes Hafstein, Iceland ministerTechnical Museum of East Iceland

In 1904 Iceland, colonized by Denmark since the late middle ages, gained home-rule.

Icelandic politician and poet, Hannes Hafstein, was appointed to the Danish Cabinet as the Minister for Iceland.

One of his first projects was to instigate the connection of Iceland to the international telegraph network with a submarine cable and construct a landline between Seyðisfjörður in East-Iceland and the capital, Reykjavík in the south.

Surveying the path of modern times.Technical Museum of East Iceland

Norwegian engineer, Olav Forberg, was hired to manage the difficult task of putting up the telephone poles and lines.

In the summer of 1905 Forberg traveled all around Iceland to determine the best location for the lines.

This photograph was taken on Fjarðarheiði, the mountain pass between Seyðisfjörður and Egilsstaðir.

Cableship CambriaTechnical Museum of East Iceland

The Great Nordic Telegraph Company was contracted to install the telegraph cable to Iceland.

The 534 nautical mile long cable was laid on the seabed from the Shetland Islands to the Faroe Islands and then to Iceland.

A cable-ship named Cambria was used for this job.

Once the cable had been brought ashore in Seydisfjordur, sheriff Jóhannes Jóhannesson asked for silence and addressed the gathered crowd:

"I find it appropriate, as Icelanders connect to the world with this telegraph cable taken ashore here, that we the people of Seyðisfjörður, gathered here today, shout out in joy.

"That should signify our hope that telecommunications between Iceland and the external world will be the stimulus towards progress in our beloved motherland, that we all hope for and expect.

"Long live the telegraph cable connection between Iceland and all other countries."

The Cable HouseTechnical Museum of East Iceland

If the cable was damaged it had to be repaired by a cable ship.

Then the cable houses at both ends of the cable were manned around the clock by telegraphists that could supply technical information from instrument readings.

So the cable house also had a bed, a telephone and a stove for the staff member on duty.

Inside the Cable HouseTechnical Museum of East Iceland

The Cable House, near to the cable's landing place, sheltered accurate instruments to monitor and tune the cable.

Telegraph poles during construction of landline to Reykjavik.Technical Museum of East Iceland

A landline was constructed between Seydisfjordur and the Icelandic capitol, Reykjavík.

The wires had to be strung a distance of 614 km. In a country with almost no roads at the time, the project is often called the greatest feat of engineering in Icelandic history.

Line building team at work.Technical Museum of East Iceland

To help complete the monumental task of erecting 14,000 telegraph poles in three months more than 200 Norwegians, common workers and executives, came to Iceland to install the telephone lines and poles.

Iceland's first telegraph station in Wathneshouse.Technical Museum of East Iceland

The telegraph service was inaugurated on August 25th, 1906 and Iceland was finally capable of telecommunications with other countries.

Iceland Minister, Hannes Hafstein intended to be at the inauguration ceremony and send the first telegram to the king in Copenhagen.

But he was delayed due to bad weather. The sheriff of Seyðisfjörður, Jóhannes Jóhannesson, instead sent the first telegram.

The opening of the telegraph cable was a major event in the history of Iceland, which deserved a splendid feast.

Just over a month later, telegraph and telephone lines connected Seyðisfjörður to the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík.

First telegrams to and from IcelandTechnical Museum of East Iceland

Transcripts of the first telegrams to and from Iceland in August 1906.

Iceland's first telegraphists.Technical Museum of East Iceland

Pioneering modernity, they launched a new occupation at the Seydisfjordur telegraph station in 1906.

Halldor Skaptason, Dagmar Wathne, Borghild Hansen and Björn Magnusson.

Iceland's first telegraph table.Technical Museum of East Iceland

Stick punch, receiver, morse key and transmitter on Iceland's first telegraph table.

The machines were driven by weighted clockwork.

Wheatstone "Stick Punch"Technical Museum of East Iceland

Used to punch holes in tape for automated telegraph transmission.

Morse TransmitterTechnical Museum of East Iceland

Automatic transmitters for sending messages punched on paper tape were developed by Charles Wheatstone.

These were often used on sub-marine cables.

This one was produced by the Great Northern Telegraph Company and used in Seydisfjordur.

goomorsevidTechnical Museum of East Iceland

Watch this video of an automatic morse transmitter for sending messages punched on paper tape.

The method was introduced by Charles Wheatstone in 1857.

Iceland's first telegraph table.Technical Museum of East Iceland

Wheatstone receivers were used to transcribe Morse code signals.

An ink pen marked a moving strip of paper.

Towerhouse Kiosk.Technical Museum of East Iceland

The telephone brought a new form of instant communication over long distances. When the "kiosk" idea was introduced in Icelandic towns around 1900, small shops soon became centers for social interaction and of course had to have, besides necessities, refreshments and postcards - a telephone booth.

Telephone booth in the Towerhouse kiosk.Technical Museum of East Iceland

Those that didn't have telephones in their house could use the telephone booth in the town's kiosk.

Telephone set from the early years.Technical Museum of East Iceland

"This is a great day with me. I feel that I have at last struck the solution of a great problem — and the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water or gas — and friends converse with each other without leaving home."

- From a letter by Alexander Graham Bell to his father in 1876.

Telegraph staff of both sexes.Technical Museum of East Iceland

The new technology opened up many previously unknown job opportunities for young people.

Emil Jónasson (born 1889) describes the job of a telegraphist in his article Gentlemen-like Behaviour and Telegraphing in Seyðisfjörður:

"It was considered a good position if one was a telegraphist.

And Seyðisfjörður was a fancy place where good manners were thought to be of high importance.

I used to talk respectfully to women my age, lifted my hat for all women I crossed in the street, as well as for those men who wore a hat!

It was fun to be a young telegraphist in those days. Telegraphists were considered to be upper class."

Telegraph tableTechnical Museum of East Iceland

Like all technology, telegraphy evolved as time followed its path.

As electricity came to power machines the old wind-up devices became outdated, and alongside emerging wireless technology for long distance communication, the telegraph machines were powered by electrical motors invented by Tesla under the light produced by Edison's light bulbs.

This table is from around 1930.

Credits: Story

Narrative,texts and translation: Pétur Kristjánsson
Color photographs: Litten Nyström
Artefacts and b/w photographs: Technical Museum of East Iceland

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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