Early Communications from Semaphores and Wired Signals to Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph

What Hath God Wrought!

Industry & InventionIn a world where we’re instantly connected to others via smartphones, text messaging, web chats, and international conference calls, it’s hard to imagine the old days. Going back just a decade or so, our devices were clunky and calling costs relatively high. Calling someone on the other side of the planet was something you might do once a year due to the difficulty and huge price tag; now it’s routine, easy and cheap. But what about 100 or even 200 years ago? Though quaint by modern standards, early telecom is fascinating — and it changed the world!

Le Systeme Chappe — The Semaphore as an Early Telegraph

While Samuel Morse is credited as the inventor of the telegraph (from Greek, telegraph means “distance writing”), another telegraph system came before it, Claude Chappe’s nationwide semaphore system in France which had its heyday from 1793 to 1854.

Le Systeme Chappe consisted of 534 hilltop stations with large movable arms and telescopes spanning more than 3100 miles. The arms were used to signal letters and numbers while the telescopes were used to view the signals sent from other stations. Prior to semaphores, it would take horseback riders several days to dispatch a message from Paris to the outer fringes of France. With the semaphore network, it would take just three or four hours.

Chappe Semaphore

The fastest message sent over Le System Chappe took just 60 minutes from Paris to Strasbourg, relaying news of the birth of Napoleon’s son.

The Telegraph Revolutionizes Telecommunications

No doubt, the semaphore was far more efficient than dispatch riders, but its usefulness was short-lived thanks to the invention of the telegraph and electrical signals that traveled across wires.

Several inventors were involved in the development of the telegraph. Samuel Morse receives most of the credit for this invention. His single circuit telegraph sent an electrical signal across a wire to a receiver located on the other end. He also developed a code, Morse code, of long and short dots to represent letters and numbers.

On the receiving end, the receiver initially made actual pen marks on paper as the message was received. These marks were later translated and transcribed by the operator. Since the operators could hear and understand the electrical signals, the receiver was later updated to produce a more distinct beeping sound and the pen and paper mechanism phased out.

The first message ever sent on a telegraph was sent by Samuel Morse to co-inventor Alfred Vail. It said simply, “What hath God wrought!”

Where the semaphore took hours to send a message across thousands of miles, the telegraph sent messages almost instantly once the infrastructure was in place. Western Union Telegraphy Company laid the first transcontinental line in 1861. By 1866, the first permanent transatlantic telegraph cable was placed in the Atlantic Ocean, making international telegraphy a reality.

As you can imagine, near-instant telecommunications changed how business was conducted, how wars were fought, and even how money was exchanged.


Atlantic telegraph cable being laid

The Land Line Arrives

Alexander Graham Bell would invent yet another world-changing invention. He wanted to improve telegraphy, dispensing with the codes and the required trip to a telegraph office in order to receive a message in favor of the transmission of audible words. His experiments worked, and Bell patented the telephone in 1876.

A year later, President Hayes had the first telephone installed in the telegraph office of the White House, which was down the hall from the Oval Office. His first phone call was reportedly with Alexander Graham Bell located 13 miles away. According to the Providence Journal, after listening to the caller, he examined the receiver and said, “That is wonderful.”

As wonderful as it may have been, it took 52 years before the telephone was finally moved from the telegraph room into the Oval Office.

The Telegraph Goes Wireless

Meanwhile, scientists were theorizing on another topic, electromagnetic waves. In 1888, Heinrich Hertz proved that radio waves existed, a theory originally put forth by James Clerk Maxwell. He also proved that the velocity of electromagnetic waves was the same as the velocity of light — and thus, could circle the earth eight times in a single second.

According to the book, Historic Inventions by Rubert Holland,

“Wireless signals are in reality wave motions in the magnetic forces of the earth, or, in other words, disturbances of those forces. They are sent out through this magnetic field, and follow the earth’s curvature, in the same way that tidal waves follow the ocean’s surface. Everywhere about us there is a sea of what science calls the ether, and the ether is constantly in a state of turmoil, because it is the medium through which energy, radiating from the sun, is carried to the earth and other planets. This energy is transmitted through the free ether in waves, which are known as electromagnetic waves.”

TelegraphyHertz tinkered with an oscillator that would send out waves of a certain length and a receiver that would tune in and receive only waves of that same length. To produce the electromagnetic waves, Hertz combined metal’s capacity to retain a charge of electricity with inductance which involves sending a constantly changing current through a coil of wire. He adjusted the capacity and inductance so that the waves had the same frequency of motion, or oscillations. The receiving station (typically a tall mast with a single wire or set of wires, aka an antenna) would be tuned to vibrate to those waves. Once tuned, it could then intercept those waves and transform them back into their original electrical oscillations.

This early wireless technology was improved upon in the late 1880s by Guglielmo Marconi of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. His wireless telegraph company could handle transmissions spanning distances of ten miles or more — including a wireless transmission across the English Channel and between ships. The company had agreements with several governments and Lloyd’s to erect coastal stations to complement the wireless stations used on shipping lines.

Having studied Hertz’s theories, Marconi understood the potential for long distance wireless transmissions. He was the first to connect an antenna to the transmitter (and not just the receiver), allowing for a much larger wireless field. He demonstrated his theories with a wireless telegraph located on Signal Hill near St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1901. The apparatus had an ordinary telephone receiver at its side. A wire from the machine led outdoors to a large kite flying 400 feet above. He held the receiver to his ear, waiting for the Morse code signal to arrive from Poldhu, England. The tapper struck the coherer on the apparatus, signaling that a message was coming. Indeed, soon after, the sounds of Morse code could be heard over the telephone receiver. The transatlantic wireless transmission was a success!

Turns out, that while transmission worked, Marconi’s theory that the radio waves would follow the earth’s curvature was incorrect. The signal was actually headed to outer space, but deflected by the ionosphere back to Newfoundland.

The wireless telegraph was an immediate hit, and Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize for “the most important invention in physical science.”

From ancient smoke signals, dispatch riders, and semaphores to the telegraph, telephone, and wireless and Internet technologies, mankind has a long tradition of telecommunications. Whether used for staying on top of the latest news, conducting business, diplomatic purposes, or simply staying in touch, we can thank the long line of inventors such as Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Heinrich Hertz, and Guglielmo Marconi, just to name a few, for the technologies we use today.

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