Call for Applications – Beaming the British Empire: the Imperial Wireless Chain, c. 1900-1940: AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award

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AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with the University of Exeter and BT Archives

Beaming the British empire: the Imperial Wireless Chain, circa 1900-1940

Ref: 2583

About the award

Applications are invited for an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with the University of Exeter and BT Archives to research and study the origins, development and impact of the Imperial Wireless Chain, the global network of shortwave radio stations that reputedly played a critical role in British colonial integrity from the 1920s to the 1940s.

This project focuses on one of the most extraordinary milestones in the history of global telecommunications and represents an exciting opportunity for students with backgrounds in the history of science, technology, and modern British and imperial history.  First conceived by Guglielmo Marconi in 1906 to use long-wave transmitters, the Imperial Wireless Chain (IWC) was postponed following a political scandal and the outbreak of the First World War.    In the early 1920s, and at some financial risk, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company developed its innovative ‘beam’ short-wave system and this was eventually adopted by the British government for the IWC.  The first pair of ‘beam’ stations opened in Britain and Canada in 1927 and within a few years similar stations followed in Australia, India, New Zealand, South Africa and South America.  It soon became one of the most widely used forms of long distance communication in the British empire and posed such a threat to the ageing submarine cable business that had constituted the ‘nervous system’ of the British empire that the British government was eventually forced to amalgamate the newer and older forms of telegraphy into one of the largest telecommunication firms of the 1930s: Cable and Wireless.  Despite its importance, the history of the Imperial Wireless Chain has not been the subjects of systematic scholarly study.

The overall aim of the project is to plug this significant gap in the secondary literature, but there is much scope within this project for the post holder to develop their own research questions.  Among the areas that might be explored are: the role of the IWC in fostering or obstructing technical developments in wireless and radio, including those not associated with Marconi and his business; how IWC stations around the globe were constructed and operated; the role of the IWC in encouraging the emergence of local cultures of professional and amateur wireless activity; differences in perceptions of the IWC in different British colonies and dominions; the conflicts between and alignments of the diverse interests involved in the scheme, including the commercial, political, legal, scientific and technological; the successes and failures of the IWC as an instrument of British imperial and colonial integrity.  All these questions will be underpinned by a critical knowledge of historical and sociological interpretations of technology and a critical perspective on the IWC that questions the extent to which the scheme as a whole, and Marconi’s specific proposals for it, were necessarily seen as improvements on existing systems of global communication.

The most important relevant collections of research materials are at BT Archives (London), Porthcurno Telegraph Museum (Cornwall), the Bodleian Library (Oxford), the British Library (London) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (London).

The project offers exciting opportunities for students considering careers in the archives and museums sectors.  The successful applicant will be spending a considerable amount of time in BT Archives where they will be studying some of the collection’s underexplored and uncatalogued materials and gaining experience of professional archive management and public engagement activities associated with BT Archives and the Science Museum.  They will also be expected to present aspects of their research in workshops, seminars and conferences organised by the University of Exeter, BT Archives and the Science Museum.  Since much of the research for this project will take place in London it is not necessary for the post holder to live in or near Exeter.

The thesis supervisors are Dr Richard Noakes and Professor Richard Toye (University of Exeter) and Mr. David Hay (BT Archives, London).  The successful applicant will also receive support from Ms. Bergit Arends and Dr. Alison Hess at the Science Museum.


Application deadline: 17th March 2017
Number of awards: 1
Value: £14,553 per year plus UK/EU tuition fees for eligible students
Duration of award: per year
Contact: Postgraduate Administrator 01392 725306

How to apply

We invite applications from candidates with a strong academic background in modern history, preferably the history of modern science and/or technology or British imperial history. Successful applicants should normally have a good first degree (at least 2.1, or international equivalent) in a relevant field of humanities, and have obtained, or are currently working towards a Masters degree at Merit level, or international equivalent, in modern history, preferably the history of modern science and/or technology or British imperial history.  If English is not a candidate’s native language, he or she will also need to satisfy the English language entry requirements of the University of Exeter.

Please note that the award is subject to the AHRC’s terms, to which applicants should refer before applying (see the Research Funding Guide at the bottom of this page on the AHRC website. Note that overseas students are not eligible for AHRC awards (except under specific circumstances) and EU students need to assess whether they are eligible for fees and maintenance or fees only. Details of current maintenance and fee rates can be found on the ‘Current Research Awards’ page on the AHRC website

To apply

Applicants should complete an online web form and upload a full CV, a sample of recent work (please upload this in the reserach proposal section of the application form) and details of two referees and, if relevant, proof of English language proficiency, by 17 March 2017.

Applicants should ensure that the referees email their references in the form of a letter to the Postgraduate Administrator at by 17 March 2017. The responsibility for ensuring that references are received by the deadline rests with the candidates. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts (references sent from personal/private email accounts will not be accepted unless in the form of a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee).

It is anticipated that shortlisted candidates will be notified at the end of March and that interviews will take place in April. The interviews will take place at the Science Museum.

More information

If you have any queries or would like to discuss this opportunity before applying, please contact Dr. Richard Noakes at

If you have any queries regarding the application process please contact:

Postgraduate Administrator at:
College of Humanities Graduate School, University of Exeter
Queen’s Building, The Queen’s Drive
Exeter, Devon, EX4 4QH

Visit for more information.


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