Origins of Telecommunications – The Telegraph vs the Smartphone: Two Devices that Changed Communications

While the smartphone has certainly changed how we communicate with others, the telegraph had a similar effect.

Two Devices that Changed CommunicationsWhen it comes to instant communications, nothing compares to the smartphone, right?

A quick tap or two and you’re instantly connected with other people around the world via voice, email, or text messaging.

While the smartphone has certainly changed how we communicate with others, the telegraph had a similar effect.

Here’s a quick look at these two devices and how they changed telecommunications.


The telegraph and the smartphone have a lot in common, despite the century between them. For example…

  • Text Messaging — The telegraph was used to send text messages, just as smartphones are often used today. In the case of the telegraph, messages were tapped out by an operator via a series of long and short pulses (the dots and dashes of Morse code) which were transmitted over wires, and later wirelessly, to a receiving station. An operater at the receiving station then translated the Morse code into text which was then made available to the recipient.
  • Abbreviated Format — Both the telegraph and text messaging are notable for their brevity. In October 1903, more than half of all telegrams sent from New York were 10 words or less in length. Only 4 percent consisted of more than 25 words. You probably use more words when texting simply because of the real-time nature of it, but texting remains a much more abbreviated format than other written forms of communication. Abbreviations, acronyms such as LOL, and emoticons evolved, much like the shorthand of yesteryear’s telegraph.


  • Instantaneous Communications — Whether placing a phone call, sending an email, or texting with your cell phone, your messages arrive nearly instantaneously. Prior to the telegraph, it took weeks, if not months, for international messages to arrive via postal services of the era. Intercontinental letters had to be transported by ship and then later dispatched overland via horseback rider, stagecoach, or railroad. When the telegraph arrived, an international message could be sent and responded to in about four minutes.


Obvious physical and technological differences aside, the telegraph and smartphone have several key differences…

  • Individual Usage — Most everyone you know owns a smartphone or has access to one. Smartphones are personal devices whereas telegraphs were not. In order to send or receive a telegram, you’d need to visit the local telegraph office.
  • Complexity — This should come as no surprise, but smartphones are much more complex than telegraphs.
  • Adoption — We use our smartphones everyday, all day, but telegrams were sent infrequently. Telegraph usage peaked during the WW II era, when it was used extensively in the military. Citizens also received news via telegram dispatched to telegraph or post offices. However, as telephones became more mainstream, the telegraph became largely obsolete and was phased out.

Social Effects

Both the telegraph and the smartphone have had profound effects on society. For example, Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph, which at the time was only about 20 years old, throughout the Civil War. The technology enabled him to communicate with generals remotely and instantaneously.

The telegraph also changed diplomacy, journalism, and business practices. It helped to fuel business growth, consolidate markets, and reduce information costs. It also changed media language, resulting in a more standardized language with fewer colloquiallisms. The world became a much smaller place with the arrival of the telegraph.

In 2012, the smartphone topped the list of Popular Mechanics’ list of 101 Gadgets that Changed the World. Indeed, it’s a “pocket PC” as the article explained. Smartphones are in the hands of the vast majority of people, with 7 out of 10 people worldwide projected to have smartphones by 2020.

Like the telegraph before it, smartphones are changing how we do business, consume information, and get our news. Even diplomacy is changing as world leaders tweet their views and rhetoric for the world to see.

While both technologies have had a profound impact on global communications, there are a few wide-ranging effects unique to smartphones, good and bad:

  • Information on demand — Where telegraphs were used to transmit and receive messages, smartphones are multifunctional devices with the world’s weath of information just a tap away at any given time.
  • Different types of communication — A single smartphone can deliver many different types of communications including traditional voice calls, email, texts, tweets, status updates, teleconferences, and video conferences.
  • Brain and memory changes — In a study published a 2011 issue of Science, the authors suggest that the brain and human memory are changing as a result of new computing and communications technology. It appears to be less about remembering information and more about knowing how to find information.
  • Distracted driving — While there certainly may have been traffic fatalities in the 1800s and 1900s related to driving to a telegraph office, they can’t possibly compare to the modern problem of distracted driving which claimed 3,477 Americans in 2015 alone.
  • Social interactions — While it’s easier than ever to connect with loved ones using a smartphone, there is a tendency to ignore people who are present in favor of whatever’s on the smartphone screen, leading to a social disconnect.
  • Social revolutions — The Arab Spring uprising in 2011 illustrates the power of the smartphones. Protesters were able to share first-hand information and video to observers near and far, applying in huge political pressure, and the ultimate removal of Egypt’s president in a matter of days.

Both the telegraph and the smartphone changed global communications — and the world itself — dramatically.


“7 in 10 of World’s Population Using Smartphones by 2020 – Telegraph.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“Communication Across the Nation – The History of the Telegraph.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“Connected Earth: How a Telegraph Was Sent – What Happened in the Post Office Room.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“Distracted Driving | NHTSA.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“Historical Impact – Samuel Morse.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“How Smartphones Revolutionized Society in Less than a Decade.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“Smart Media Tech: What the Telegraph and Social Media Have in Common – Digital Marketing – Social Media – Email Marketing – Chicago.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“Technology You Didn’t Know Still Existed: The Telegram – Atlas Obscura.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

“The Telegraph in America, 1832–1920 – David Hochfelder – Google Books.” 2017. Accessed September 25.

Library of Congress – Samuel Morse Collection

Morse Code Diagram
















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