'Research is the Door to Tomorrow': the Post Office Engineering Research Station, Dollis Hill, 1933-1958

  • Rachel Boon

Student thesis: Phd


The Post Office Engineering Research Station in Dollis Hill, North West London, was Britain’s leading establishment for communications research in the mid-twentieth century. This thesis provides the first detailed study of the Research Station from its official opening in 1933 to 1958, the year senior staff of the General Post Office (GPO) decided to relocate the site. Following a chronological structure, I trace the development of Dollis Hill, its research activities and institutional culture. I reveal the aims and ambitions of senior Post Office staff in the context of the broader themes of this period, changing government policies, the wartime mobilisation of science and shifting attitudes to state-sponsored science. Two research questions guide this study: how did a civil state institution like the GPO use a technological research facility to further political and bureaucratic goals, and how did the staff at Dollis Hill negotiate boundaries and priorities between civilian and military requirements while working within governmental and industrial networks? In addressing these questions this thesis contributes to scholarship on, the history of state enterprise, state-funded research and development (R&D), conceptions of modernity and engineering culture. Dollis Hill was a unique establishment not accounted for by the patterns described in existing literature on state, academic or industrial research. I show that this uniqueness was shaped by being part of the Post Office, itself an anomalous component of the British state as an income-generating government department. The Post Office’s public identity as a customer service provider, offering largely familiar postal, banking, telegraph, telephone and counter services, meant that its role in the national research culture was easily overlooked. Many of these services relied on technologies developed at the Research Station. I demonstrate that the value of Dollis Hill as an anomalous research establishment lay in its freedom and flexibility of organisation and purpose to support the aims of patrons beyond the Post Office. Both its concrete achievements, in the form of new equipment and techniques, and its visions for future developments were key factors in securing and maintaining patronage at a time when government policies hindered Post Office aims and ambitions, to develop and improve public communication services. I show that national defence requirements had a far greater influence on the direction of Dollis Hill’s research activities than contemporary descriptions portray. This thesis is based principally on the archival holdings of BT (formally British Telecom) Archives and the archives held by the Postal Museum, including scientific and technical reports, board minutes, photographs, publicity material, publications and newspaper cuttings. Other resources include government files held by the National Archives and oral histories collected by the Brent Museum in Willesden, London, the Imperial War Museum and Science Museum.
Date of Award31 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJames Sumner (Supervisor) & Pratik Chakrabarti (Supervisor)


  • Colossus
  • telephone history
  • history of technology
  • Dollis Hill
  • Post Office Research Station
  • General Post Office
  • research and development
  • telecommunications
  • state-sponsored science

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