The Telegraph: The First Internet

The telegraph started it all. It was the first electronic communications system and the first network. And we got it before the telephone, electrical power wiring, and radio. What reminded me of that profound development was an announcement I saw recently about October 24, 2011 being the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental telegraph.

The telegraph was actually invented by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1837 and the first commercial message was sent on May 24, 1844. This was the famous line “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT” from Washington to Baltimore. In the subsequent decades, the telegraph was widely deployed with Western Union being formed in 1851. The coast to coast connection was finally completed in 1861. That rapidly put the Pony Express out of business. It was those coast to coast connections that provided President Lincoln with very up-to-date information on the progress of the Civil War.

As for the telephone, that didn’t come along until 1876 and after. We got the light bulb in about 1880 and shortly thereafter electrical power wiring started. We did not get radio until after 1900. The telegraph lasted in some form until it was phased out by Western Union in 2006. Yes, 2006. Amazing, huh?

Incidentally, the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph was completed in 1866. The Pacific connection was completed in 1902. The resistance was obviously high on that line but one can only imagine the delay or latency caused by that much inductance. Of course, the first radio was wireless telegraphy.

Telegraph Technology

The telegraph was a truly primitive technology. It consisted of a battery and a telegraph key on one end of a link and an electromagnetic sounder on the other end with and initially a pair of connecting wires. Closing the key switch completed a circuit and activated the sounder. Messages were sent by a unique Morse code of dots (short pauses of the sounder) and dashes (long pauses of the sounder). Initially there were no punctuation marks or upper/lower case letters.

Later it was discovered that you could complete the loop from transmitter to receiver with only one wire by using the earth as the other connection. This saved considerable cost in wiring but required more, larger batteries with higher voltages to overcome the high resistance of the ground and its wide variability over different areas of the earth.

Many thought that the telegraph was impractical because of the code, but operators learned the code quickly. Most telegraph operators became quite proficient and speedy in a short time. Speed was everything back then as it still is today.

Eventually the telegraph morphed into an automated system where Teletype machines became the transmitters and receivers. The 5-bit Baudot code replaced Morse code and typewriters eliminated the need to learn the dots and dashes. Then ASCII was invented. Remember those ASR-33 Teletype machines with the paper tape reader/punches that served as terminals for the earliest hobby personal computers in the 1970s? Radio still uses the dots and dashes even today.

Short messages have always been to the telegraph as they are to Twitter today. Every word in the message added more cost therefore most telegrams were very terse. Today we still keep our Tweets short to fit in the 140 character limit.

World Wired

By the end of the 19th century, telegraph was available worldwide. It was indeed our first Internet and it changed the world. The ability to communicate almost instantaneously opened doors and simplified our lives like never before. It is hard to put a value on how it changed everything.

And so began the repeated rewiring of the world, first with telegraph lines, next telephone lines, then the power grid. Then along came cable TV and fiber optical cable. Not to mention all manner of special networks and connections. What’s next? Maybe wireless is the new wired.

Anyway, I had an extra glass of wine to celebrate that coast to coast connection milestone that serves as reminder as to where our industry came from.

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