Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010
Ptarmigan military communications led to mobile phones
Ptarmigan was a portable mobile communications system

A military communications system first used in the 1980s, and now on show in a Dorset museum, provided the technology for the mobile network we know today.

The Ptarmigan system is one of ten objects chosen by Dorset's museums for the BBC's History of the World project.

It looks at significant or important objects that help tell the story of the world.

Ptarmigan provided secure and reliable communications to any user across a battlefield area for the first time.


The innovative and influential system was first used by the Army in the early 1980s and, after regular upgrades, has only just been replaced by a new system, called Bowman.

Military vehicle outside the Royal Signals Museum
Ptarmigan would have been housed in military vehicles

The original system - portable banks of dials, switches, computers and controls designed to go inside a military vehicle - is now installed in the Royal Signals Museum in Blandford Army Camp.

The museum exhibits many examples of military communications equipment from the Royal Signals Corps, the part of the British army responsible for developing and providing army communications.

The museum's business manager Adam Forty said: "The thing about Ptarmigan is that it's the whole mobile phone system, it's the mast, the backroom, and it's all transportable.

"It's like a mobile mobile system.

"The important thing to remember is that it was running computer networks, running digital information systems of all sorts of varieties so the extent you could communicate within the military was astonishing.

"The technology initiated the development of the mobile phone.

"Ptarmigan was the original digital concept that the civilian manufacturers caught wind of, and that set them off in thinking about civilian applications for it."


Tom Moncere and Michael Butler
Tom Moncere and Michael Butler were both involved in Ptarmigan

Tom Moncere, a former military project research officer and now Secretary of the Royal Signals Institute at Blandford Camp, was involved in the process of making the technology used for Ptarmigan accessible to the commercial telecommunications companies of the time.

He said: "Ptarmigan allowed communications to extend from the solider in the frontline trench to a whole network, and obviously, industry, who had been thinking along similar lines, got to hear about what we were doing.

"In fact, I remember we were approached by representatives of the two telecommunications companies, Vodafone and Cellnet, who asked us to help them with some [mobile phone] trials."

Several trial handsets were given out to military staff for them to test, with prearranged people and locations for them to contact, over the course of several months.

The trials proved so successful the testers were reluctant to return the equipment afterwards.

Secure and reliable

Ptarmigan at the museum
The Ptarmigan system was state-of-the-art communications technology

Michael Butler was also involved in the development of Ptarmigan.

He began working on it as early as 1975, when he was a technical officer for the Royal Signals Corp.

He said: "It was extremely important for the military, as without reliable communication, commanders can't control the battlefield.

"Ptarmigan was secure, and it was reliable.

"It was designed to go into the British Army of the Rhine (BOAR) before the Berlin War came down [in 1991), but when it did come down that threat diminished, so the first time it was used in battle was the Gulf War [in 1991], but using digital technology as opposed to radio technology.

"I was very proud to be a member of that team."

'Bringing information'

Ptarmigan technology
"The technology initiated the development of the mobile phone."

Ptarmigan has also been used in other operations including Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq.

Tom Moncere recognises the significant impact that the technology behind Ptarmigan has had:

He said:"The mobile phone has spread into every aspect of our lives.

"It's bringing information to people and the facility for people to interact with each other and to change things and to bring that about.

"It's marvellous stuff."


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific