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.: Manx Telecom's beginnings
Manx Telecom's speaking tubesUntil 1981, the Isle of Man’s telephone network consisted of thousands of miles of underground pipes and “speaking tubes”.

Work began on the Manx All-Island Voice Intertransport System – MAVIS for short – in January 1876, just a month before Alexander Graham Bell patented his first telephone in the US.

Although the Isle of Man government had heard of advances being made in telecommunications, they were firmly of the opinion that voices carried by wires smacked of witchcraft, and so for three months hundreds of Irish migrants were put to work digging deep trenches and laying pipes ready for the technological wonder of the age.

In May 1876, the governor of the Isle of Man, Brigadier Duffus Willingteemy made the first call over the speaking tubes in front of an excited crowd who’d gathered at Government House.

A special pipe had been laid to Buckingham Palace for the call, which was to connect directly to Queen Victoria and help the Manx people feel as though they were a valuable part of the Empire.

But thanks to primitive exchange technology (the main exchange at Douglas is seen in the picture), the call was misdirected to a field on Magnetic Hill where a curious sheep held a short one-sided conversation with the governor.

The mistake wasn’t realised until the next day, as Willingteemy had assumed Her Majesty had been at the gin again. But when he realised he’d been duped, he ordered the sheep roasted and sent to the Queen’s court in London by way of apology.

Despite the shaky start, the speaking tubes continued to be used until in 1981 an enterprising computer hacker managed to connect a BBC Micro computer to the tubes with a home-made acoustic coupler. He then hacked into the computers of a major T-shirt supplier in America and ordered 10,000 shirts with the motto “Mann for the Manx – English Go Home”.

These were delivered to the Manx government’s Legislative Buildings in Douglas, sparking an outcry from the UK government which imagined the Isle of Man was about to secede from Britain.

An investigation was held, but the hacker was never caught because it was impossible to trace calls through the speaking tubes. Manx Telecom, which had been set up by the government to run the system in the 1880s, was ordered to put an end to it and install telephones instead.

This was duly done, but the tubes stay in use to this day as bundles of fibre-optic cables now run through them – connecting the Island along routes first laid down more than 130 years ago.

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Written at 16:11 by G
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