The electric telegraph was the first form of long distance communication that transferred complex messages instantaneously from the sender to the receiver and was a key landmark in mankind’s history. Previous communications over long distances were largely irrelevant because they took hours, days and oftentimes months to reach their destinations. However, the telegraph connected people around the world by the press of a few buttons. The invention of the telegraph marked a pivotal point in world history because it inspired the Industrial Revolution by increasing the speed and efficiency of business and politics, and has been credited to bringing about World War I because it created conflict between countries. World communication gave rise to powerful allies, as well as enemies as the electric telegraph enabled global negotiations and disagreements. On May 24, 1844, the electrically telegraphed words, "What hath God Wrought?" passed through wires from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington D.C. signifying one of the most significant inventions in modern communications.
Early Forms of Long Distance Communication
Earlier forms of long distance communication include pendulum clock telegraphy, heliographic light flashes or optical telegraphy, handwritten letters and the printing press. The Chappe brothers experimented with different telegraphic designs from 1790 to 1791, one of which was constructed using two modified pendulum clocks and referred to as the “pendulum system” or synchronized system. Although historical descriptions fail to accurately describe how it worked, the most reliable and surviving illustration states that the two pendulum clocks were synchronized and that the face of the clocks were divided into 10 parts, with each being assigned a numeral. As the hand of one clock passed over a number, a sound was made, which represented words through the transmission of successive numbers and therefore, communicated thought. Claude Chappe invented the semaphore network, which was a method of sending mildly complex messages at approximately two words per minute using light reflections on shutters, blades or paddles from towers 20 miles apart. The position of the mechanical elements encoded messages using the sun’s rays and was an unsophisticated system of sending messages by using visual signals from pivoting shutters on towers. Generally referred to as optical telegraphy, it’s also called a semaphore telegraph, shutter telegraph chain or Napoleonic semaphore. It was expensive, limited by geography and required good weather to operate effectively, therefore, it wasn’t practical. Although it was never used commercially, Napoleon Bonaparte drew upon its capabilities from 1792 to 1846 and was also used until the early 19th century by the military, and those performing surveys and forest
protection work. It was also used until the 1960s by Australian and British armies. Hand written letters were sent over long distances by messengers, but critical communications, such as those involving crises and family emergencies were received too late. Until the invention of the electronic telegraph, the printing press was used to communicate messages to the masses. Joseph Henry, a college professor from New York began performing telegraphy experiments using batteries, wires and relays at regular intervals a few years before Samuel F. B. Morse perfected what became known as the electric telegraph.
The Electric Telegraph
Drawing upon earlier experiments, as well as those with Joseph Henry, Morse invented the electric telegraph in 1843, which sent electric signals across copper wires using a battery in a glass jar filled with a chemical copper sulfate solution; brass or copper keys, which when pressed together, formed the electrical circuit, and by which the information traveled through electromagnetic wires that were insulated by iron coils to prevent decay. The wires were strung across poles that were placed underground approximately two hundred feet apart. Morse received a patent in 1838 and additional financing in 1844 from the U.S. Congress. As he continued to perfect the telegraph other companies began using their own telegraphic systems in other parts of the United States, which led to Western Union building its first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. By the turn of the 20th century, long distance communication became reliant on the device and by 1902, the entire world was communicating by electric telegraphs from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Samuel Morse, a professor from New York University, began developing Morse Code in 1835 and perfected it alongside his assistant, Alfred Vail, in 1837, who subsequently became his partner in Morse’s electric telegraph project. Morse Code that is a series of sounds or signals that translate into alphabetic characters that create messages. Opening and closing relays produce dots and dashes that represent letters and numbers. Morse Code uses a technique of recording these signals through a sequence of short dots and long dashes, which are pulses of electric currents separated by time intervals.
Samuel Morse was born 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts and was the son of an author and a minister. He studied to become an artist at Yale College and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He graduated in 1810 and became a well-known painter and portrait artist. Morse was also a professor of painting and sculpture at New York University. In 1825, he founded and was the first president of the National
Academy of Design of New York. He ran for mayor of New York twice, but was defeated in both campaigns. Samuel Morse died in New York on April 2, 1872 of pneumonia.
Rise and Decline of the Telegraph System
By the time World War II began, electronic telegraph systems were undergoing heavy use as military troops and leaders required a means of communicating quickly and inconspicuously over long distances. The majority of post offices were furnished with electronic telegraph machines to enable the public to easily send and receive messages. When telephones were invented in the 1870s, the telegraph system declined and was eventually phased out.
Resources on the History and Use of the Electronic Telegraph