It’s a small world: Pioneers and privacy at the Science Museum’s Information Age

If there is one key message to take away from the Science Museum's new exhibition, "Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World," it's that the Earth is a smaller place than it's ever been before.

In the first half of the nineteenth century messages between the US and the UK took ten days to make via ship. Then, in August 1858 the construction of a 2,500 mile cable between Ireland and Canada changed the history of human communication forever.

Back then, Queen Victoria sent the first official transatlantic telegraph, congratulating US President James Buchanan "upon the successful completion of this great international work." Last Friday, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened "Information Age," with her first tweet. The main difference: Queen Victoria's telegraph took 16 hours to arrive, while the present incumbent of the throne was able to share her message with thousands of people in mere seconds.

Network pioneers

A section of that pioneering transatlantic telegraph cable is displayed at the new exhibition, which focuses on six broad innovations that have brought humanity closer together.

The first, and perhaps most humble, of these innovations is the cable itself, which, in terms of telegraph communications, was soon replaced by wireless signals, highlighting that with the birth of new technology often comes the death of an old one.

Landmark pieces across the exhibition's five other sections: The Broadcast, The Exchange, The Constellation, The Web and The Cell, reveal the infrastructure and devices that enable us to send more information further and faster than ever before.

Visitors to the museum can view the black NeXT computer used by Sir Tim Berners Lee to develop the early version of the Internet, complete with the a roughly drawn note stating, "This machine is a server. Do not power down!!"

The microphone used to transmit the BBC's earliest radio broadcasts from the 1920s is also present. Dubbed "the meat safe" because it resembled a kitchen cupboard used to store meat, the intimidatingly large microphone stand serves as a reminder that the compact devices we take for granted today, usually have a more cumbersome forefather.

Hidden Infrastructure

The exhibition also reveals the unseen hardware, past and present, which makes everyday communication possible.

Today, being able to contact family members on the other side of the world at the click of a button often leaves us ignorant of the complex technological processes that are taking place behind the scenes. The Enfield Exchange on display at the museum, and many other similar switchboards, had to be manually operated in order to connect callers, using electrical cords or switches to establish the connections.

Related: Fake mobile phone towers could be spying on US citizens

Mobile telecoms firms have also come up with secretive ways of keeping up with consumer demands for improved network coverage. The museum's mobile phone tower disguised as a cactus highlights the lengths companies will go to in order to keep the less aesthetic aspects of network communication tucked away.

The cost of communication

However, while some things remain hidden, the pervasive nature of networks has meant that privacy is now a luxury rather than a right.

The section of the exhibition devoted to satellite technology tellingly includes pieces on both Cold War-era spying and Google's Street View service. Whereas aerial views of the Earth were once the preserve of governments and the military, often used to photograph territories whose airspace was closed, now anyone with an Internet connection can access amazingly detailed images of our planet.

While this is undoubtedly a valuable and welcome resource, the threat of surveillance is intrinsically connected with the idea of local, national and international networks. Recent reports of widespread government spying programmes suggest that a loss of privacy is the price we have to pay in order to remain connected.

Related: A closer look at how friendly Google is with the NSA

Bringing us together

It is one of the strange quirks of technology, that machines often help us to express our common humanity.

The Information Age displays a number of objects that demonstrate the life-saving potential of network technology. In 1912, for example, wireless telegraphy was responsible for saving 721 lives on board the Titanic, after the RMS Carpathia responded to the liner's distress signals.

Similarly, the military communication system Ptarmigan used by the British Army in the 1980s, helped save lives on the battlefield, while also playing a key role in the development of the civilian mobile phone.

It may bear an uncanny resemblance to the Death Star, but Telstar helped unite American and European TV audiences by providing the first live transatlantic television feed. In 1962, the satellite broadcast a short segment of a baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs and history was made.

Just as the transatlantic cable shortened the distanced between the US and Europe to just a few minutes, the Telstar satellite showed that by sharing our experiences, networks can bring us closer together than we've ever been before.

With more than 800 objects showcasing technological innovations from the 1800s right up to the present day, the new exhibition suggests that the Information Age is here to stay.

Image Credit: The Science Museum