The Chemical Telegraph

These early chemical telegraphs set the stage for future devices that would later include the modern fax machine.

Origins of Telecom: The Chemical Telegraph

When you think of telecommunications, it’s really quite magical, isn’t it? Sending and receiving messages from around the globe in real-time (or close to it) is nothing short of amazing. But it’s not magic. Telecommunications is built on the imaginations of inventors who tinkered with wires, devices, and even chemicals in order to make their magic work.

One of these inventors was Samuel Thomas von Sömmering who, in 1809, improved on an earlier design by Francisco Salva Campillo for transmitting letters over a telegraph. Their designs used a series of wires to represent letters of the alphabet and numbers. Sömmering placed the wires on the receiving end into tubes of acid.

When an electric current was sent, the receiving wires electrolyzed the acid in the tubes in sequence. This released hydrogens bubbles next to the corresponding letter or number. An operator on the receiving end would observe the bubbles and then record the transmission. This technology was known as an electrochemical telegraph rather than the electromagnetic telegraph which opens and closes a circuit to establish a magnetic field, which then causes a mechanical movement.

Another one of these inventors was Alexander Bain, who invented the first technology believed to transfer images over a wire. His chemical telegraph, which you could consider an early fax machine, was patented in 1843 — still long before the telephone. It was an offshoot of the telegraph, intended to draw letters on one end and then re-draw them on the receiving end. Bain, a professor, philosopher, and amateur clockmaker, accomplished this by synchronizing two pendulums with a stylus to a clock. The motion scanned a flat metal plate containing letters of the alphabet line by line and then projected outlines of the letters onto a cylinder. The image quality was poor, but it certainly was proof of concept.

Bain faced what an article in Scientific America claimed was “unjust opposition” to his patent application by a rival caveat, Professor Morse’s chemical telegraph, which “…is not worth a single straw, and which cannot operate as a telegraph at all, that is as it is represented in his drawings, we humbly believe that the Chemical Telegraph of Prof. Morse was set up merely to blockade the path of another rival Telegraph.” Bain appealed the patent rejection and was ultimately awarded the patent. Bain eventually went bankrupt, and Scientific America observed a notable change in the inventor’s appearance “From being so much harassed and persecuted.”

The “image telegraph” soon followed, invented by Frederick Bakewell as an improvement to Bain’s chemical telegraph. Bakewell’s version replaced the pendulums with rotating cylinders and a metal stylus that travel across the cylinder as it rotated. The receiving end featured a similar setup, but with a chemical paper that was marked with the stylus as the cylinder rotated. He presented his invention at the 1851 World’s Fair in London. Not only could his device transmit text, it could also transmit simple lines. His version was not a commercial success, but the possibilities had certainly become apparent.

These early chemical telegraphs set the stage for future devices that would later include the modern fax machine.

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