Communication Across the Nation - The History of the Telegraph

Communication Across the Nation - The History of the Telegraph

Since the early days of long distance communication, the technology we use has come a very long way. We may even take our pocket-sized cell phones for granted but there was a time when telephone technology was not nearly as readily available to the masses. In the case of telegraphy, messages had to be decoded using a special language and it was viewed as a rather complicated tool. Read on to learn about this fascinating form of communication.

Early forms of long distance communication

Before electric communication methods were developed, people used very archaic ways of communicating. To send a message over a long distance, they would sometimes use flame beacons or light flashes with a heliograph. Civilians would often only have hand-written letters or word by a messenger to learn about family news. Imagine what would happen in emergency situations. The family would only learn about a crisis several days later when it was too late.

The Electric Telegraph

The telegraph was a machine invented in the early 1800s. It made use of electricity, which was still somewhat of a novelty at the time, to transmit messages. A very early version, created by a German inventor called Samuel Sommering, was an electrochemical telegraph. It was a very complicated machine, and required the analysis of bubbles that were released to correspond with certain letters. In 1833, two other men, Carl Gauss and Wilhelm Weber built an electromagnetic telegraph that could manage to send messages at a distance of one kilometer. In America, this success was followed by Dr. David Alter, who created an American version of the electric telegraph. Despite this, his invention never took off commercially, until Sir William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone built a more practical model in England. Finally by 1837 another American inventor, Samuel Morse, developed a new model of an electric telegraph along with a very unique way of communicating with it. There were several other inventors at the time who were also trying to get recognition for their telegraph prototypes, but in the end it was Morse who succeeded in the legal battle.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse, a native of Massachusetts, was heavily involved in math and science studies, specifically those relating to electricity. When he received a note delivered by a messenger one day, he was horrified to read that she was seriously ill. By the time he arrived to see her, his dear wife had already died. Despite the tragedy, this grave incident inspired Morse to develop a better and faster system of communication. After learning about electromagnets, Morse used them to develop a telegraph system. He filed a patent for it and also came up with a system of Morse code to communicate through his new machine.

Morse Code

Unlike earlier telegraph communication languages and codes, Morse code was so simple that it could be duplicated in audio, light flashes, or print. It was essentially a system of dots and dashes (in print) that corresponded with each letter of the alphabet. When a message was sent in audio format, it used a short tone for dots or a long tone for dashes. Similarly, lights could flash long for a dash or short for dot. The dots and dashes were called “dits” and “dahs”. Morse code became such a successful way to communicate that it became the main way that telegraphs functioned around the world.

Rise and decline of the telegraph system

When World War II broke out, telegraph systems experienced a massive surge as they allowed troops and leaders to communicate discreetly over very long distances. Many post offices were also outfitted with a telegraph machine so that they could receive and deliver telegrams for citizens. However, by the time telephones started to come into public use, the need for telegrams started to decline and eventually the technology was largely phased out.