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Overview of ITU's History

History of ITU Portal

For a century and a half since 1865, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been at the centre of advances in communications – from telegraphy through to the modern world of satellites, mobile phones and the Internet.

The story of ITU is one of international cooperation, among governments, private companies and other stakeholders. The continuing mission is to achieve the best practical solutions for integrating new technologies as they develop, and to spread their benefits to all.

From telegraph to telephone

​​​​​​​​See also: Pre-1865 International Telegraph Agreements
                The First International Telegraph Conference (Paris, 1865)

For thousands of years, the quickest method of sending complex messages over long distances was with a courier on horseback. At the end of the 18th century, Claude Chappe inaugurated a network of visual semaphore stations across France. Then came the electrical revolution. Experiments were conducted in sending electric signals along wires, and in 1839, the world’s first commercial telegraph service opened in London with a system created by Charles Wheatstone. In the United States, Samuel Morse used the new Morse code to send his first telegraph message in 1844. Already in 1843, a precursor of the fax machine for transmitting images had been patented in the United Kingdom by Alexander Bain.

Delegates at the first International Telegraph Conference (Paris, 1865) (Source: ITU)

Telegraph wires soon linked major towns in many countries. A submarine telegraph wire (coated in protective gutta percha) was laid between Britain and France in 1850, and a regular service inaugurated the following year. In 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid. But there was a problem. Where lines crossed national borders, messages had to be stopped and translated into the particular system of the next jurisdiction.To simplify matters, regional agreements began to be forged, and in Europe, representatives of 20 States gathered in Paris at an International Telegraph Conference to find ways to overcome barriers and make services more efficient. They would create a framework to standardize telegraphy equipment, set uniform operating instructions, and lay down common international tariff and accounting rules.  

The first Convention of the International Telegraph Union signed in 1865 (Source: ITU)

On 17 May 1865, the first International Telegraph Convention was signed in Paris by its twenty founding members, and the International Telegraph Union (the first incarnation of ITU) was established to supervise subsequent amendments to the agreement. That significant date – 17 May – eventually became World Telecommunication and Information Society Day.


​ITU based in Switzerland

The 1868 International Telegraph Conference, in Vienna, decided that ITU would operate from its own bureau in Berne, Switzerland. It began with just three members of staff.

In 1948, the headquarter​​s of ITU were moved from Berne to Geneva.

Only a decade later, the next leap forward in communications occurred with the patenting of the telephone in 1876. At the International Telegraph Conference held in Berlin in 1885, ITU began to draw up international legislation governing telephony. An article added to the Telegraph Regulations specified five minutes as a unit of charge, and the length of a call was limited to ten minutes if there were other requests to use the telephone line.

             One of the earliest illustrations of Graham Bell's telephone in 1877           (Source: From Semaphore to Satellite, ITU)








Telephones meant you could actually speak to another person over long distances, as well as sending Morse code telegraphs. But what if a wire could not reach them, for instance, on a ship? In 1880 at the Royal Society in London, David Edward Hughes demonstrated what was later to be recognized as wireless signaling. Practical experiments began to be made in the 1890s by such inventors as Nikola Tesla, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Alexander Stepanovich Popov and Guglielmo Marconi. Radio, known as “wireless telegraphy,” was born.

               Inventors of "wireless telegraphy" [clockwise from top left] David Edward Hughes, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Stepanovich Popov, Guglielmo Marconi, and Jagadish Chandra Bose.

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