Author: David Hann

Telegram brief history. Stop

Updated Wednesday, 24th September 2014
What can the history of the telegram tell us about our own hopes and fears of modern technologies? 

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Fine specimen of a real antique Morse code telegraph machine. An antique Morse code telegraph machine

The word 'telegram' may conjure up the image of a frayed yellowing document, containing a message about a now distant historical event, something with little connection to today's world. However, many of the myriad ways by which we now communicate can be seen as the telegram's direct descendants. In order to trace this lineage and see where the telegram sits in the evolution of human communications, it is useful to start with the apparatus by which telegrams are sent - the telegraph. Its name comes from the Greek and can be broken down into 'tele', meaning 'at a distance' and 'graphein' - 'to write'. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the telegraph as 'an apparatus for transmitting messages to a distance, usually by signs of some kind'.

As this definition suggests, telegraphy goes beyond the transmission of written text to encompass other forms of non-verbal signalling. It is therefore something which predates the electrical telegraph with which we associate telegrams. Clearly, a telegraphic method of getting a message from A to B, such as the lighting of pyres, is much quicker than the exchange of a physical object between sender and receiver, however fleet of foot the carrier.

Telegraphy has probably been with us ever since we first got the hang of making fire. It was also widespread. For example, beacons were lit on the towers of the Great Wall of China as well as the  mountains of Wales (hence the name 'Brecon Beacons') to warn of invaders. The medium of fire was also used to send more complex communications than simply 'Here comes trouble!'.  For example, in about 150 BCE, the Greek historian Polybius devised an alphabetical signal system using pairs of torches, but this doesn't seem to have been widely adopted (the Ancient Greeks were clearly too clever for their contemporaries!).

Indeed, it wasn't until the late-18th century that a communications network widely regarded as the precursor to the electrical telegraph came into being. Claude Chappe devised a system of semaphore relay stations which sent messages using movable rods placed on the top of towers. As with many technological innovations, its use was primarily military. Napoleon, for example, employed it extensively to coordinate his armies' movements.

Rees's Cyclopaedia Chappe telegraph Rees's Cyclopaedia Chappe telegraph

Even while the first of Chappe's towers was being built, people were working on ways to transmit information using electricity. In the early-19th century, various inventors managed to send messages via insulated electrical wires. However, the American Samuel Morse is commonly regarded as ushering in the era of the telegram by sending his famous message 'WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT' down electrical wires from Washington to Baltimore in 1844. Within 20 years, the east and west coasts of the US were connected. By 1902, submarine cables encircled the globe.  

In the 20th century, the telegram's use slowly began to wane with the coming of the radio for mass communication and the telephone for one-to-one conversation. Nowadays, it is only ever used to mark special occasions like marriages or births, its significance lying largely in the effort of sending it (although, ironically, this service is now conveniently provided online).

However, the legacy of the telegram should not be forgotten. It began the process by which distance would become almost irrelevant when communicating with the fellow inhabitants of our planet. Furthermore, wireless telegraphy is at the heart of today's communicative landscape.  

Finally, the telegram, or rather, people's reaction to its arrival, provides a useful perspective on our own hopes and anxieties about technological innovation. It was variously seen as a means of civilising the world and of subjugating it, a medium which impoverished our language or enriched it. The parallels with today's discussions about the influences of modern technologies are clear. 




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