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A Trip Back in Time - The History of the Telegraph

The different methods of communication found today have evolved over the years. The internet is a powerful tool which helps people reach across the world in a matter of seconds. Telecommunication systems are highly advanced and speaking to someone halfway across the globe is an easy and inexpensive task compared to what it was merely a couple of decades ago. Then, writing letters and sending telegraphic messages were the most inexpensive options available. The advance in technology has rendered these two methods of communication obsolete.

Early Forms of Long Distance Communication

In primitive times, signals, carvings, pictograms, and ideograms pre-dated writing as modes of communication. Smoke signals and reflecting mirrors were forms of long distance communication. Sending messengers to far off places and using carrier pigeons for the purpose was also common. However, messages sent in this manner failed to reach their destination in a timely manner especially when great distances were involved. The discovery of electricity led to more sophistication in the means of communication and the telegraph was one of the inventions that came into being as a result.

The Electric Telegraph

The electric telegraph uses electric signals to transmit messages in code. The idea of the telegraph came into being in the 18th century, but it was not until the early 19th century that this was actually implemented. A telegraph system is made of an electrical circuit comprising a battery, a key, and an electromagnet. All these parts are linked together with the help of a wire. The battery supplies the voltage while the key helps make or break the electric circuit. The electromagnet, which is a coil of insulated wire with an iron at its core, pulls on a piece of metal. Various inventors came up with different versions of the telegraph but it was Samuel Morse who gained the most fame.

 Samuel Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791, is known for developing a practical and usable electric telegraph. He built his first experimental version in 1837, but the one that came to be popularly used was constructed only in 1844. In 1837, he also filed for a patent for the printing telegraph. But before he could do this, Morse had to struggle for many years to get assistance from the government to put in place a working line across a greater distance. Morse died of pneumonia in 1872. What is lesser known about Morse is that he was also a professor of painting and sculpture at New York University.

Morse Code

The language used to send messages in the form of long and short electrical signals, also known as ‘dots and dashes’, was used when communicating with the help of telegraphs. The dots and dashes indicate the length of each signal and various combinations are used for letters. Also know as an ‘on-off’ code, the speed here is specified in terms of words per minute. The original Morse code has undergone modifications over the years and the one currently used is significantly different from what its inventor used.

Rise and Decline of the Telegraph System

The invention of the telegraph was a momentous event of its time. This is because it brought the world closer, overcoming the boundaries of geography. Information could be accesses and conveyed at greater speeds than ever before. This was particularly useful during war time. Telegraphs became the vital link to the war and tremendously helped politicians, soldiers, and citizens in making decisions, saving lives, and bringing news of loved ones. The police and fire departments also made use of the telegraph to disseminate information quickly.

In 1851, more than 50 different telegraph companies were functioning in the United States. In 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph system was completed. However, the 20th century saw the glory of the telegraph start to fade. The invention of the telephone along with the Great Depression further contributed to the downfall of telegraphy. Variants of the telegraph such as teletypewriters and telexes still continue to exist.