The year the Queen was born, 1926, saw the first demonstration of the mechanical television, with the first electric telly to follow the year after.
It was an era when fewer than half of Britain’s homes had an electricity supply and that was delivered using an incompatible range of voltages and frequencies by a motley assortment of mostly coal-powered generators.
Ahead of her coronation in 1953, sales – and rentals – of televisions rocketed and the ceremony was broadcast to an average of 17 people per set by the BBC, although the pictures were in black and white.
By then, computers existed but they were rare, used just for calculations, and were often larger than cars. Today, of course, they are essential to almost every aspect of our lives, are smaller than shoes and just as if not even more ubiquitous.
Throughout her reign the Queen adapted to the greatest period of technological change in human history – using the opportunity to remind us that it is not our technology but our values that define us.
As the world adapted to technological change it was not just the monarchy which she strove to keep relevant – regularly using new inventions to address how she could “seem a rather remote figure […] someone whose face may be familiar […] but who never really touches your personal lives” as she described it – but also our image of ourselves in the face of this change.
Those quoted words were spoken in the Queen’s Christmas broadcast in 1957, which was the first to be televised. Her grandfather George V had his first ever broadcast over the radio 25 years before.
“I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct,” she said of the landmark.
She would reflect in 2017 how, “six decades on, the presenter of that broadcast has ‘evolved’ somewhat”, as has the technology she described but that original televised address seems enduringly relevant.
“It is not the new inventions which are the difficulty,” she said. “The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery.
“They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.
“At this critical moment in our history we will certainly lose the trust and respect of the world if we just abandon those fundamental principles which guided the men and women who built the greatness of this country and Commonwealth.”
In a 1962 broadcast, she spoke of the first communications satellite that had relayed live television pictures across the Atlantic – emphasising the need for good in the world regardless of the technological medium.
“The wise men of old followed a star: modern man has built one,” she said, referencing the nativity and the launch of the Telstar 1 satellite.
“But unless the message of this new star is the same as theirs, our wisdom will count for nought. Now we can all say the world is my neighbour and it is only in serving one another that we can reach for the stars.”
Technology itself continued to develop at pace. The Queen sent her first email on 26 March 1976 when using a military machine that had been connected to something called the ARPANET – a computer network that would ultimately lead to the internet as we know it – under the username HME2.
In her Christmas broadcast of 1983 – the year Apple released its first commercial personal computer with a graphical user interface – she noted how it took her grandfather George V three months to make the round trip to Delhi, a journey which she had recently completed in a matter of hours, and marvelled at the “communication revolution”.
“Yet in spite of these advances, the age-old problems of human communication are still with us,” she said. “We have the means of sending and receiving messages, we can travel to meetings in distant parts of the world, we can exchange experts; but we still have difficulty in finding the right messages to send, we can still ignore the messages we don’t like to hear and we can still talk in riddles and listen without trying to comprehend.
“Perhaps even more serious is the risk that this mastery of technology may blind us to the more fundamental needs of people. Electronics cannot create comradeship; computers cannot generate compassion; satellites cannot transmit tolerance.”
The World Wide Web would be launched a decade later, and the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast to be published on the internet was made in 1997. On the cusp of the new millennium in her 1999 message, the Queen said: “As I look to the future, I have no doubt at all that the one certainty is change – and the pace of that change will only seem to increase.”
On that date only a quarter of the country’s households had internet access. By 2012 when Her Majesty’s Christmas message was broadcast in 3D for the first time, only a quarter did not.
In 2014, while visiting the Science Museum, Queen Elizabeth II made her first post on Twitter and when visiting again in 2019 she made her first post on Instagram – featuring a letter sent by computer pioneer Charles Babbage to her great-great-grandfather Prince Albert in July 1842 – describing her pleasure in learning about children’s computer coding initiatives.
The date changed, the medium changed, but throughout her reign the message of welcoming the innovations of the future while cherishing the wisdom of the past did not. As she said in 1999: “I do not think that we should be over-anxious. We can make sense of the future – if we understand the lessons of the past.
“The future is not only about new gadgets, modern technology or the latest fashion, important as these may be. At the centre of our lives – today and tomorrow – must be the message of caring for others, the message at the heart of Christianity and of all the great religions.
“This message – love thy neighbour as thyself – may be for Christians 2,000 years old. But it is as relevant today as it ever was. I believe it gives us the guidance and the reassurance we need as we step over the threshold into the twenty-first century.
“And I for one am looking forward to this new millennium.”