Telegraph History - A Trip Back in Time

An electric telegraph uses electrical signals conveyed through a series of telecommunication lines. The electromagnetic telegraph was used for the transmission of coded messages. The electric telegraph replaced the optical semaphore telegraph system, a communication system that designed by Claude Chappe for the French military. After its inception, an interwoven telegraph network permitted people to transmit messages across continents and oceans. This technological explosion had widespread social and economic impacts.

Early Forms of Long Distance Communication

Mankind has attempted to transmit long distance communication since the advent of its technology. Earlier telecommunications prototypes resembled modern technological developments. In fact, the earliest forms were the greatest achievements for the pioneers of the time. Some of the earliest forms of long distance communication included smoke signals, which were transmitted via signal towers across the world. Smoke signal towers used polished glass mirrors to relay messages along a chain of towers positioned in strategical places. This form of communication was the precursor to the light system used during the Revolutionary War. In a matter of decades, people across the globe knew what these coded messages meant. For instance, “one if by land, two if by sea,” became a notable message across a distance. People also used carrier pigeons to deliver messages across long distances. The simplicity of these communication methods allowed for the development of sophisticated tools used in modern telecommunication.

The Electric Telegraph

The electric telegraph is an outdated communication that transmitted messages over a relay of wire signals. Based on the non-electric prototype invented by Claude Chappe in 1794, the electrical telegraph emerged to dominate the way the world communicated from long distances. The non-electrical telegraph used a visual system based on the flag alphabet. This optical telegraph was replaced by the crude telegraph of 1809. The crude telegraph was invested by Samuel Soemmering, and it used 35 wires with gold electrode placed in water. The receiving party interpreted the message based on the amount of gas caused by the electrodes. The first electric telegraph reached the United States in 1828. It was invented by Harrison Dyar who transmitted electrical sparks via chemically treated paper tape that would burn dots and dashes.

The electromagnet laid the foundations for large-scale electronic communications. It was invented by William Sturgeon in 1825. Sturgeon developed a reputation as world-renowned British inventor. He showcased the power of the electromagnet by lifting 9 pounds with a 7 ounce wire-wrapped piece of iron that was connected to a single cell battery. The electromagnet became the core of countless telegraph inventions after its inception. For instance, Joseph Henry sent electrical impulses over one mile to activate the electromagnet that caused the bell to strike. In addition, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented their own electrical telegraph based on electromagnetism.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse fine-tuned the electromagnet and subsequently improved the Joseph Henry's earlier invention. Morse sketched a “magnetized magnet” based off Henry's work. He invented an electrical telegraph system that was practical and easy to understand. Morse demonstrated that signals could be transmitted by wire. He deflected electrical pulses with an electromagnet, which later produced written codes on a strip of paper. This form of communication become commonly known as Morse Code. After this discovery, Morse modified his device to emboss the paper with dots and dashes. His public notoriety eventually prompted Congress to fund a thirty thousand dollar experimental telegraph line that connected form Washington D.C. to Baltimore. Six years after installing this telecommunication line, the first message was delivered by electric telegraph. It carried the nomination of Henry Clay to the Whig Party in 1844.

Morse Code

Samuel Morse developed a telegraph transmission system consisting of dots and dashes that communicated important messages across long distances; however, it did not make an impact until his collaborative effort with Alfred Vail manifested. The emergence of “American Morse” in 1844 drastically changed the way people communicated within the United States. “American Morse” slightly differed from “International Morse” with nearly every letter morphing from a small change. Advanced versions of Morse's telegraph system included an advanced key. The first Morse device used ridged slugs that represented a single letter. Morse's earliest telegraph receiver contained a device that resembled a pendulum with dots and dashes. Each of these dots and dashes were deciphered by a qualified operator. Modified hand-held devices became popular. Operators eventually learned to read the messages based off the sound of the marking lever. Manufacturers would add a “sounder” later to covert Morse Code into an acoustic system.

The Rise and Decline of the Telegraph System

The telegraph system revolutionized long distance communication during the 1830s and 1840s. Samuel Morse and other inventors helped establish this mainline of communication by transmitting electrical signals over a series of connected wires between stations. Samuel Morse developed a code consisting of dots and dashes assigned to each letter in the English alphabet that allowed for the simple transmission of complex messages across telegraph lines. After succeeding in telegraphing Henry Clay's nomination, the electrical telegraph became a sensation and led to the construction of a telegraph line that stretched across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe. The telegraph started its decline with the advent of the telephone, and completely phased out as technology evolved exponentially to include fax machines and the Internet. It laid the groundwork for the communications revolution that led to the aforementioned innovations.

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