By modern standards, the telegraph seems extremely primitive, only capable of sending small pieces of coded messages that require a fair amount of manpower to interpret and transcribe. But 200 years ago, the telegraph was a marvel of communication, allowing people across great distances to send messages to each other almost instantaneously.
The telegraph changed the world forever, and many people feel that it was the true precursor to the internet as we know it today, and the first example of how powerful electrical devices could really be.
How It Started
The very first telegraph, invented in 1794 by Claude Chappe, did not rely on electricity, but rather semaphore, which is a special alphabet based on flags. It required line-of-sight to work, which meant that it was extremely limited in terms of overall distance of communication.
It wouldn’t be until 1809 that the first crude telegraph was created by Samuel Soemmering, who was able to send a message over 600 metres away using a process of electrolysis. Some 20 years later Harrison Dyar would produce the first telegraph in the USA, which used dots and dashes burned on treated paper to send messages.
The First Telegraph Systems
Joseph Henry was one of the first people to show the world the potential of electromagnets for distance-based communications, which he did by sending a current over the distance of one mile. Some patents were taken out on this system, such as the one by Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke – but it would be Samuel Morse who would take the system to an entirely new level of complexity and practicality.
In fact, Morse is considered the father of the electrical telegraph, and it was his invention that would ultimately be used for mass communication – and it was his unique alphabet that made this possible: Morse code.
Lines were opened up between cities around the USA, and telegraph companies would begin opening their doors and start sending messages using Morse’s electrical telegraph system. By the time that the 1860s had come around, it was one of the main forms of long-distance communication within the United States, with lines being built along national railroad lines.
Advancements would continue to be made over the next few decades, and by 1900, telegraph machines were able to automatically change Morse code into text.
The Rise Of The Telephone
The telegraph was the only real means of instant communication in the late 1800s, but another technology had begun to emerge: the telephone, which could be argued was the true start of what would become modern smartphones, allowing us to browse the internet, send messages, play NZ mobile pokies, and much more.
For a while, the telephone – still in its infancy – was stuck in several patent battles, but in 1879, an agreement was made that would allow the technology to begin real development and production. Although it took some time, it was quickly apparent that the telephone was the future, and it didn’t take too long for more and more people to adopt it.