How Birmingham changed the history of the world

By on 18/01/2010 in News

The fascinating story of how a company of wire makers from Yardley in Birmingham helped to connect Europe and America and revolutionise communications, is one of the many highlights of  'A History of the World' – a major BBC Radio, TV and online project.

In 1865, Birmingham wire-makers Webster and Horsfall developed a revolutionary armoured wire to create the first successful communications cable to be laid across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting Europe with America. Over 4,000 miles of cable, containing over 30,000 miles of wire, weighing more than 1600 tons were laid between Valentia Island off the west coast of Ireland and Heart's Content in Newfoundland. It took 250 men 11 months to make the cable and a whole area of east Birmingham was taken over with the manufacture and storage of this huge amount of wire.

A small section of the cable is on display in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and is one of 10 items selected by the BBC to tell a history of Birmingham and its place in the world. Other objects include the magnificent Sultanganj Buddha, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, as well as the Steam Engine Clock Barometer on display at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and William Murdock's innovative Locomotive steam engine on display at ThinkTank – Birmingham Science Museum. 

The list of all 10 objects can be seen on the link below:

The list of 10 objects for Birmingham is part of the wider A History of the Worldproject formed out of a unique partnership between the BBC, the British Museum and 350 museums and institutions across the country. Listeners and viewers will also be able to suggest further objects and can actively participate by uploading photographs of their own objects that have a local or global appeal.  Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery will be holding a special event in February half-term to celebrate A History of the World. 

Cllr Martin Mullaney, Cabinet Member for Leisure Sport and Culture said: “Birmingham's museums and collections are internationally renowned.  They help tell the story of the city's role in world history and how it helped shaped the place we live in today.  

“I am delighted that we are working with the BBC on what promises to be an engaging and informative initiative for people of all ages.   Hopefully many people will discover what a rich heritage Birmingham has.”

For further details on Birmingham Museum and art Gallery please visit


Media contact:
Jason Lewis on 0121 303 4266

Notes to Editors

• The list of 10 objects is as follows:

1. A Section of the Transatlantic Cable  Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Webster & Horsfall, Yardley, c.1865. Given by Mr & Mrs Markson as part of the Hay Mills Project. A story of a communications revolution, engineering invention, industrial panache and local pride.

2. Steam Engine Clock Barometer  Museum of the Jewellery Quarter
Made by the Birmingham firm of Elkington & Co, this clock barometer was
presented to the chief engineer of the Buenos Aires Western Railway
company as a retirement gift. With its model steam engines, it represents
the world-wide range of engineering activity at the turn of the19thcentury.The story of the little engine is especially interesting. Called 'La Porteña', it was made in England in 1854, destined for the new railways being built in India. However, the train was diverted to help the allied troops in the Crimea, and after the war, it was purchased by the Birmingham engineer, William Bragge. He had just received a commission to build the first railway in Argentina, and shipped the engine to Buenos Aires, where the first 10 miles of track were opened in 1857. The engine was designed for the wide gauge of the Indian railways, which explains why railways in Argentina still run on the same gauge as those of India and Pakistan.

3. The Sultanganj Buddha  Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
The Sultanganj Buddha is the largest known complete Indian metal sculpture. It's a reminder of the extraordinary talents of the sculptors and metal craftsmen in ancient India. Buried for safe-keeping some 700 years after it was made, the statue was discovered and excavated by EB Harris, a railway engineer, during railway construction in 1862. It was visited by 30,000 local people in the first week, but its excavation was reported around the world and Samuel Thornton, a Birmingham MP lobbied for it to come to the city even funding funded its removal and transport. The Buddha arrived safely in Birmingham only - allegedly – after a narrow escape from ambush near London docks by curators of the British Museum! The first object to enter the city's collections, it has inspired generations of Birmingham people. The statue now plays a new role in the museum's work with Buddhist communities in the city.

4. The Glascote Torc  Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
This torc, a neckpiece made of gold alloy and weighing exactly 1lb (454 gm), was made for a Celtic chieftain, to be worn as a symbol of wealth, status and political power two thousand years ago. It was found by a canal worker in Glascote in Tamworth, Staffordshire in 1943. Thinking it was an old coffin handle, he was told to keep it as a souvenir, and it was not until 1970 that he realised its true worth. The torc was declared as treasure, and the museum was invited to purchase it. Raising the money was only possible through the generosity of the people of Birmingham, who launched a massive public appeal. The torc is not perfect; there are several manufacturing imperfections, which suggests that it was a reject set aside to be re-worked. We know little about ancient Celtic life in this part of the country, but there must have been a major metalworking industry, and a significant Celtic society existing in the area to have sustained such a luxury craft.

5. The Luckock Shield of Buttons Luckock Collection, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Making buttons out of shell was a specialist Birmingham industry dominating world production. In the 18th century, they were an expensive luxury and worn exclusively by men. Women's clothes were instead fastened with laces or hooks. Shell was imported from the South Pacific, Australia, Malaysia and the Americas and great skill was needed to work it. The shell was fragile, and up to 80 separate processes were required to make the best buttons. So much waste shell was produced that great pits were dug in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter to bury it. Many buildings today are said to have their foundations built on mother of pearl. These buttons were collected by a Birmingham jeweller in the 1780s, and are rare survivors. At its height, over 8,000 people - mainly women and children - worked in the button industry, but today only one pearl button maker, George Hook in Smethwick, is still in operation.

6. Fijian Ancestor Figure   Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Ancestor figures were physical representations of the dead, which could be occupied by their spirits from time to time. They lived in the spirit house set aside for the dead in Fijian villages. This female figure comes from the central highlands of the island of Viti Levu. Tattooing is an important mark of puberty and social status for women in traditional Fijian society; and her tattooed face and pubic region indicate that she was married. Fewer than 20 such figures are known to exist today. The figure was collected by Walter and Herbert Chamberlain, brothers of the politician Joseph, in the 1870s when they bought the island of Naitauba as a cotton plantation. The figure was bequeathed to the museum by Herbert's son Norman after his death in the Cambrai offensive of 1917. His horrific death had a great impact on his cousin Neville, whose desire to avoid the dreadful consequences of war became so significant in 1939.

7. Prayers in the Desert   Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
The artist William Muller travelled to Egypt in the 1830s and, on his return, produced paintings from sketches made on his travels. This piece may represent a personal memory of stopping on journeys for his Muslim companions to perform Salat, the ritual prayer. It is important as it is the first British painting to show Islamic religious practice, illustrating some of the postures adopted during Salat. The painting has been given a new meaning through the stories which the Museum's Muslim visitors bring to the work in their own memories and responses.

8. William Murdock's Locomotive  ThinkTank - Birmingham Science Museum
William Murdock was a brilliant Scottish engineer and inventor. In 1777, he walked from his home in Ayrshire to Birmingham to follow his dream of working with Matthew Boulton and James Watt. They employed him as an erector of steam engines in Cornwall, pumping water from the tin mines. He was fascinated by steam power and, while living in Redruth, he experimented with the idea of using steam to power vehicles. He built this model engine around 1784, and set it running around his living room and, eventually, on the road outside! Boulton considered the idea of steam engines too ambitious and Murdock was too useful to him and Watt as their engine specialist to risk losing him to such a risky venture. They persuaded Murdock to abandon the project. Yet, if he had persevered, who knows what the outcome could have been? Instead, he contented himself with developing gas lighting and, by 1792, his cottage and office in Redruth were gaslit.

9. Pattern Penny   Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Matthew Boulton's development of steam-powered minting machinery convinced him that he could make better finished and better designed coinage more efficiently than anyone in the world. He created his Soho Mint in 1787, certain of receiving a government contract. In the end, he had to wait another decade, before finally, in 1797, receiving the official licence to supply coinage for the nation. During the next two years he turned 1,250 tons of copper into nearly 44 million pennies. He shipped out thousands of barrels from the Soho factory, packed with coins and loaded onto canal boats for distribution around the country. He received contracts from governments around the world, and the technology he developed created the first truly modern coinage. This pewter pattern is a trial design, which was never used. It is a good example of the care which Boulton took in developing the clarity of design for which his coinage, nicknamed 'cartwheel' after its heavy rim, was known

10. The Last of England (Painting) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
This painting tells the story of the emigration of a young family from England; part of the great emigrating movement of the 1850s, as people sought new lives around the British Empire. Here, compelled to leave all they knew and loved, they are portrayed with stoicism. The Last of England also tells the story of the artist, Ford Madox Brown. In 1852, he was, he said: “intensely miserable, very hard up and not a little mad”. The main figures are portraits of Brown himself and his beloved model, Emma Hill, whom he married in 1853. They form a solid unit, bound together in their love. It is a painting full of human emotion, incident and drama; from the vulnerability of their baby's tiny hand to the savage anger of the figures in the background. The painting is also part of the story of Birmingham's cultural life. Now the most famous painting in the museum, it has inspired generations of Birmingham people.

• A History of the World is a unique partnership between the BBC, the British Museum and 350 museums and institutions across the country. At its heart is a landmark series on BBC Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast from Monday 18 January.  The series, written and presented by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum will feature 100 objects from the British Museum's collection and will tap in to the unique power of objects to tell stories and make connections across the globe.  The project also includes: a CBBC series Relic: Guardians of the Museum broadcast from January 2010; large-scale activity across the Nations and English regions including lists of 10 museum objects on each BBC Local site telling the story of that region; an exciting and interactive digital proposition live from 18 January at; plus an invitation to audiences to offer objects they own to create a unique digital museum online.  The important legacy of A History of the World will be secured through the website and through the work and partnerships across the Nations and English Regions.

For more information on the rest of A History of the World go to:  Contact  Liz Hyder, BBC Publicity at  or telephone 07939 372 865

• For more detailed information on the ten objects, please contact: Jason Lewis, Marketing and PR: / 0121 303 4266

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