In the 1840s, three huge scientific, technical and engineering innovations helped Britain dominate world trade. Steamships made Britain the leading maritime power; on land, railways transformed society and the economy; and the electric telegraph started the communications revolution.
In 1837 William Cooke (1806–1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875) had developed a way to control magnetic needles at the end of a wire using electric currents. By making the needles point to letters, messages could be sent instantly, whatever the length of wire. The first working system sent signals between Euston station and Camden town in north London in 1837. The telegraph then developed rapidly alongside the railway network, carrying messages and controlling signalling.
In 1851, a cable was laid across the Channel; in 1866, across the Atlantic; and by 1878, there were three links to India. News, intelligence and commands could be dispatched immediately, electronically, instead of taking days or weeks on a piece of paper. It started the modern era of instant mass communication, developing into the phone network and ultimately the internet.