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Replica of Claude Chappe's optical telegraph on the Litermont near Nalbach, Germany OptischerTelegraf.jpg
Replica of Claude Chappe's optical telegraph on the Litermont near Nalbach, Germany

Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of messages where the sender uses symbolic codes, known to the recipient, rather than a physical exchange of an object bearing the message. Thus flag semaphore is a method of telegraphy, whereas pigeon post is not. Ancient signalling systems, although sometimes quite extensive and sophisticated as in China, were generally not capable of transmitting arbitrary text messages. Possible messages were fixed and predetermined and such systems are thus not true telegraphs.


The earliest true telegraph put into widespread use was the optical telegraph of Claude Chappe, invented in the late 18th century. The system was used extensively in France, and European nations occupied by France, during the Napoleonic era. The electric telegraph started to replace the optical telegraph in the mid-19th century. It was first taken up in Britain in the form of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph, initially used mostly as an aid to railway signalling. This was quickly followed by a different system developed in the United States by Samuel Morse. The electric telegraph was slower to develop in France due to the established optical telegraph system, but an electrical telegraph was put into use with a code compatible with the Chappe optical telegraph. The Morse system was adopted as the international standard in 1865, using a modified Morse code developed in Germany in 1848. [1]

The heliograph is a telegraph system using reflected sunlight for signalling. It was mainly used in areas where the electrical telegraph had not been established and generally used the same code. The most extensive heliograph network established was in Arizona and New Mexico during the Apache Wars. The heliograph was standard military equipment as late as World War II. Wireless telegraphy developed in the early 20th century became important for maritime use, and was a competitor to electrical telegraphy using submarine telegraph cables in international communications.

Telegrams became a popular means of sending messages once telegraph prices had fallen sufficiently. Traffic became high enough to spur the development of automated systems—teleprinters and punched tape transmission. These systems led to new telegraph codes, starting with the Baudot code. However, telegrams were never able to compete with the letter post on price, and competition from the telephone, which removed their speed advantage, drove the telegraph into decline from 1920 onwards. The few remaining telegraph applications were largely taken over by alternatives on the internet towards the end of the 20th century.


The word telegraph (from Ancient Greek: τῆλε ( têle ) 'at a distance' and γράφειν ( gráphein ) 'to write') was first coined by the French inventor of the semaphore telegraph, Claude Chappe, who also coined the word semaphore . [2]

A telegraph is a device for transmitting and receiving messages over long distances, i.e., for telegraphy. The word telegraph alone now generally refers to an electrical telegraph. Wireless telegraphy is transmission of messages over radio with telegraphic codes.

Contrary to the extensive definition used by Chappe, Morse argued that the term telegraph can strictly be applied only to systems that transmit and record messages at a distance. This is to be distinguished from semaphore, which merely transmits messages. Smoke signals, for instance, are to be considered semaphore, not telegraph. According to Morse, telegraph dates only from 1832 when Pavel Schilling invented one of the earliest electrical telegraphs. [3]

A telegraph message sent by an electrical telegraph operator or telegrapher using Morse code (or a printing telegraph operator using plain text) was known as a telegram. A cablegram was a message sent by a submarine telegraph cable, [4] often shortened to "cable" or "wire". Later, a Telex was a message sent by a Telex network, a switched network of teleprinters similar to a telephone network.

A wirephoto or wire picture was a newspaper picture that was sent from a remote location by a facsimile telegraph. A diplomatic telegram, also known as a diplomatic cable, is a confidential communication between a diplomatic mission and the foreign ministry of its parent country. [5] [6] These continue to be called telegrams or cables regardless of the method used for transmission.

Early signalling

Great Wall of China 20090529 Great Wall 8219.jpg
Great Wall of China

Passing messages by signalling over distance is an ancient practice. One of the oldest examples is the signal towers of the Great Wall of China. In 400 BC, signals could be sent by beacon fires or drum beats. By 200 BC complex flag signalling had developed, and by the Han dynasty (200 BC – 220 AD) signallers had a choice of lights, flags, or gunshots to send signals. By the Tang dynasty (618–907) a message could be sent 1,100 kilometres (700 mi) in 24 hours. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) added artillery to the possible signals. While the signalling was complex (for instance, different-coloured flags could be used to indicate enemy strength), only predetermined messages could be sent. [7] The Chinese signalling system extended well beyond the Great Wall. Signal towers away from the wall were used to give early warning of an attack. Others were built even further out as part of the protection of trade routes, especially the Silk Road. [8]

Signal fires were widely used in Europe and elsewhere for military purposes. The Roman army made frequent use of them, as did their enemies, and the remains of some of the stations still exist. Few details have been recorded of European/Mediterranean signalling systems and the possible messages. One of the few for which details are known is a system invented by Aeneas Tacticus (4th century BC). Tacticus's system had water filled pots at the two signal stations which were drained in synchronisation. Annotation on a floating scale indicated which message was being sent or received. Signals sent by means of torches indicated when to start and stop draining to keep the synchronisation. [9]

None of the signalling systems discussed above are true telegraphs in the sense of a system that can transmit arbitrary messages over arbitrary distances. Lines of signalling relay stations can send messages to any required distance, but all these systems are limited to one extent or another in the range of messages that they can send. A system like flag semaphore, with an alphabetic code, can certainly send any given message, but the system is designed for short-range communication between two persons. An engine order telegraph, used to send instructions from the bridge of a ship to the engine room, fails to meet both criteria; it has a limited distance and very simple message set. There was only one ancient signalling system described that does meet these criteria. That was a system using the Polybius square to encode an alphabet. Polybius (2nd century BC) suggested using two successive groups of torches to identify the coordinates of the letter of the alphabet being transmitted. The number of said torches held up signalled the grid square that contained the letter. There is no definite record of the system ever being used, but there are several passages in ancient texts that some think are suggestive. Holzmann and Pehrson, for instance, suggest that Livy is describing its use by Philip V of Macedon in 207 BC during the First Macedonian War. Nothing else that could be described as a true telegraph existed until the 17th century. [9] [10] :26–29 Possibly the first alphabetic telegraph code in the modern era is due to Franz Kessler who published his work in 1616. Kessler used a lamp placed inside a barrel with a moveable shutter operated by the signaller. The signals were observed at a distance with the newly invented telescope. [10] :32–34

Drum telegraph

In several places around the world, a system of passing messages from village to village using drum beats was developed. This was particularly highly developed in Africa. At the time of its discovery in Africa, the speed of message transmission was faster than any existing European system using optical telegraphs. The African drum system was not alphabetical. Rather, the drum beats followed the tones of the language. This made messages highly ambiguous and context was important for their correct interpretation. [11]

Optical telegraph

Schematic of a Prussian optical telegraph (or semaphore) tower, c. 1835 Construction-pruss-opt-tele.png
Schematic of a Prussian optical telegraph (or semaphore) tower, c. 1835
19th-century demonstration of the semaphore Chappe semaphore.jpg
19th-century demonstration of the semaphore

An optical telegraph is a telegraph consisting of a line of stations in towers or natural high points which signal to each other by means of shutters or paddles. Signalling by means of indicator pointers was called semaphore. Early proposals for an optical telegraph system were made to the Royal Society by Robert Hooke in 1684 [12] and were first implemented on an experimental level by Sir Richard Lovell Edgeworth in 1767. [13] The first successful optical telegraph network was invented by Claude Chappe and operated in France from 1793. [14] The two most extensive systems were Chappe's in France, with branches into neighbouring countries, and the system of Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz in Sweden. [10] :ix–x,47

During 1790–1795, at the height of the French Revolution, France needed a swift and reliable communication system to thwart the war efforts of its enemies. In 1790, the Chappe brothers set about devising a system of communication that would allow the central government to receive intelligence and to transmit orders in the shortest possible time. On 2 March 1791, at 11 am, they sent the message "si vous réussissez, vous serez bientôt couverts de gloire" (If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory) between Brulon and Parce, a distance of 16 kilometres (10 mi). The first means used a combination of black and white panels, clocks, telescopes, and codebooks to send their message.

In 1792, Claude was appointed Ingénieur-Télégraphiste and charged with establishing a line of stations between Paris and Lille, a distance of 230 kilometres (140 mi). It was used to carry dispatches for the war between France and Austria. In 1794, it brought news of a French capture of Condé-sur-l'Escaut from the Austrians less than an hour after it occurred. [15] A decision to replace the system with an electric telegraph was made in 1846, but it took a decade before it was fully taken out of service. The fall of Sebastopol was reported by Chappe telegraph in 1855. [10] :92–94

The Prussian system was put into effect in the 1830s. However, they were highly dependent on good weather and daylight to work and even then could accommodate only about two words per minute. The last commercial semaphore link ceased operation in Sweden in 1880. As of 1895, France still operated coastal commercial semaphore telegraph stations, for ship-to-shore communication. [16]

Electrical telegraph

Cooke and Wheatstone's five-needle, six-wire telegraph (1837) Cooke and Wheatstone electric telegraph.jpg
Cooke and Wheatstone's five-needle, six-wire telegraph (1837)

The early ideas for an electric telegraph included in 1753 using electrostatic deflections of pith balls, [17] proposals for electrochemical bubbles in acid by Campillo in 1804 and von Sömmering in 1809. [18] [19] The first experimental system over a substantial distance was by Ronalds in 1816 using an electrostatic generator. Ronalds offered his invention to the British Admiralty, but it was rejected as unnecessary, [20] the existing optical telegraph connecting the Admiralty in London to their main fleet base in Portsmouth being deemed adequate for their purposes. As late as 1844, after the electrical telegraph had come into use, the Admiralty's optical telegraph was still used, although it was accepted that poor weather ruled it out on many days of the year. [21] :16,37 France had an extensive optical telegraph dating from Napoleonic times and was even slower to take up electrical systems. [22] :217–218

Eventually, electrostatic telegraphs were abandoned in favour of electromagnetic systems. An early experimental system (Schilling, 1832) led to a proposal to establish a telegraph between St Petersburg and Kronstadt, but it was never completed. [23] The first operative electric telegraph (Gauss and Weber, 1833) connected Göttingen Observatory to the Institute of Physics about 1 km away during experimental investigations of the geomagnetic field. [24]

The first commercial telegraph was by Cooke and Wheatstone following their English patent of 10 June 1837. It was demonstrated on the London and Birmingham Railway in July of the same year. [25] In July 1839, a five-needle, five-wire system was installed to provide signalling over a record distance of 21 km on a section of the Great Western Railway between London Paddington station and West Drayton. [26] [27] However, in trying to get railway companies to take up his telegraph more widely for railway signalling, Cooke was rejected several times in favour of the more familiar, but shorter range, steam-powered pneumatic signalling. Even when his telegraph was taken up, it was considered experimental and the company backed out of a plan to finance extending the telegraph line out to Slough. However, this led to a breakthrough for the electric telegraph, as up to this point the Great Western had insisted on exclusive use and refused Cooke permission to open public telegraph offices. Cooke extended the line at his own expense and agreed that the railway could have free use of it in exchange for the right to open it up to the public. [21] :19–20

A Morse key (c. 1900) Morsetaste.jpg
A Morse key (c. 1900)

Most of the early electrical systems required multiple wires (Ronalds' system was an exception), but the system developed in the United States by Morse and Vail was a single-wire system. This was the system that first used the soon-to-become-ubiquitous Morse code. [25] By 1844, the Morse system connected Baltimore to Washington, and by 1861 the west coast of the continent was connected to the east coast. [28] [29] The Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph, in a series of improvements, also ended up with a one-wire system, but still using their own code and needle displays. [26]

The electric telegraph quickly became a means of more general communication. The Morse system was officially adopted as the standard for continental European telegraphy in 1851 with a revised code, which later became the basis of International Morse Code. [30] However, Great Britain and the British Empire continued to use the Cooke and Wheatstone system, in some places as late as the 1930s. [26] Likewise, the United States continued to use American Morse code internally, requiring translation operators skilled in both codes for international messages. [30]

Railway telegraphy

An early Cooke and Wheatstone double-needle railway telegraph instrument at the National Railway Museum GWR Cooke and Wheatstone double needle telegraph instrument.jpg
An early Cooke and Wheatstone double-needle railway telegraph instrument at the National Railway Museum
A block signalling instrument as used in Britain in the 20th century Block instrument.jpg
A block signalling instrument as used in Britain in the 20th century

Railway signal telegraphy was developed in Britain from the 1840s onward. It was used to manage railway traffic and to prevent accidents as part of the railway signalling system. On 12 June 1837 Cooke and Wheatstone were awarded a patent for an electric telegraph. [31] This was demonstrated between Euston railway station—where Wheatstone was located—and the engine house at Camden Town—where Cooke was stationed, together with Robert Stephenson, the London and Birmingham Railway line's chief engineer. The messages were for the operation of the rope-haulage system for pulling trains up the 1 in 77 bank. The world's first permanent railway telegraph was completed in July 1839 between London Paddington and West Drayton on the Great Western Railway with an electric telegraph using a four-needle system.

The concept of a signalling "block" system was proposed by Cooke in 1842. Railway signal telegraphy did not change in essence from Cooke's initial concept for more than a century. In this system each line of railway was divided into sections or blocks of varying length. Entry to and exit from the block was to be authorised by electric telegraph and signalled by the line-side semaphore signals, so that only a single train could occupy the rails. In Cooke's original system, a single-needle telegraph was adapted to indicate just two messages: "Line Clear" and "Line Blocked". The signaller would adjust his line-side signals accordingly. As first implemented in 1844 each station had as many needles as there were stations on the line, giving a complete picture of the traffic. As lines expanded, a sequence of pairs of single-needle instruments were adopted, one pair for each block in each direction. [32]


Wigwag is a form of flag signalling using a single flag. Unlike most forms of flag signalling, which are used over relatively short distances, wigwag is designed to maximise the distance covered—up to 32 km (20 mi) in some cases. Wigwag achieved this by using a large flag—a single flag can be held with both hands unlike flag semaphore which has a flag in each hand—and using motions rather than positions as its symbols since motions are more easily seen. It was invented by US Army surgeon Albert J. Myer in the 1850s who later became the first head of the Signal Corps. Wigwag was used extensively during the American Civil War where it filled a gap left by the electrical telegraph. Although the electrical telegraph had been in use for more than a decade, the network did not yet reach everywhere and portable, ruggedized equipment suitable for military use was not immediately available. Permanent or semi-permanent stations were established during the war, some of them towers of enormous height and the system for a while could be described as a communications network. [33] [34]


Australian troops using a Mance mk.V heliograph in the Western Desert in November 1940 Australian Heliograph in Egyptian Desert 1940.png
Australian troops using a Mance mk.V heliograph in the Western Desert in November 1940
US Forest Service lookout using a Colomb shutter type heliograph in 1912 at the end of a telephone line 11903A LO with Heliograph CA 1912 (22762702845).jpg
US Forest Service lookout using a Colomb shutter type heliograph in 1912 at the end of a telephone line

A heliograph is a telegraph that transmits messages by flashing sunlight with a mirror, usually using Morse code. The idea for a telegraph of this type was first proposed as a modification of surveying equipment (Gauss, 1821). Various uses of mirrors were made for communication in the following years, mostly for military purposes, but the first device to become widely used was a heliograph with a moveable mirror (Mance, 1869). The system was used by the French during the 1870–71 siege of Paris, with night-time signalling using kerosene lamps as the source of light. An improved version (Begbie, 1870) was used by British military in many colonial wars, including the Anglo-Zulu War (1879). At some point, a morse key was added to the apparatus to give the operator the same degree of control as in the electric telegraph. [35]

Another type of heliograph was the heliostat or heliotrope fitted with a Colomb shutter. The heliostat was essentially a surveying instrument with a fixed mirror and so could not transmit a code by itself. The term heliostat is sometimes used as a synonym for heliograph because of this origin. The Colomb shutter (Bolton and Colomb, 1862) was originally invented to enable the transmission of morse code by signal lamp between Royal Navy ships at sea. [35]

The heliograph was heavily used by Nelson A. Miles in Arizona and New Mexico after he took over command (1886) of the fight against Geronimo and other Apache bands in the Apache Wars. Miles had previously set up the first heliograph line in the US between Fort Keogh and Fort Custer in Montana. He used the heliograph to fill in vast, thinly populated areas that were not covered by the electric telegraph. Twenty-six stations covered an area 320 by 480 km (200 by 300 mi). In a test of the system, a message was relayed 640 km (400 mi) in four hours. Miles' enemies used smoke signals and flashes of sunlight from metal, but lacked a sophisticated telegraph code. [36] The heliograph was ideal for use in the American Southwest due to its clear air and mountainous terrain on which stations could be located. It was found necessary to lengthen the morse dash (which is much shorter in American Morse code than in the modern International Morse code) to aid differentiating from the morse dot. [35]

Use of the heliograph declined from 1915 onwards, but remained in service in Britain and British Commonwealth countries for some time. Australian forces used the heliograph as late as 1942 in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. Some form of heliograph was used by the mujahideen in the Soviet–Afghan War (1979–1989). [35]


A Baudot keyboard, 1884 Clavier Baudot.jpg
A Baudot keyboard, 1884
A Creed Model 7 teleprinter, 1931 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2008-0516-500, Fernschreibmaschine mit Telefonanschluss.jpg
A Creed Model 7 teleprinter, 1931

A teleprinter is a telegraph machine that can send messages from a typewriter-like keyboard and print incoming messages in readable text with no need for the operators to be trained in the telegraph code used on the line. It developed from various earlier printing telegraphs and resulted in improved transmission speeds. [37] The Morse telegraph (1837) was originally conceived as a system marking indentations on paper tape. A chemical telegraph making blue marks improved the speed of recording (Bain, 1846), but was delayed by a patent challenge from Morse. The first true printing telegraph (that is printing in plain text) used a spinning wheel of types in the manner of a daisy wheel printer (House, 1846, improved by Hughes, 1855). The system was adopted by Western Union. [38]

Early teleprinters used the Baudot code, a five-bit sequential binary code. This was a telegraph code developed for use on the French telegraph using a five-key keyboard (Baudot, 1874). Teleprinters generated the same code from a full alphanumeric keyboard. A feature of the Baudot code, and subsequent telegraph codes, was that, unlike Morse code, every character has a code of the same length making it more machine friendly. [39] The Baudot code was used on the earliest ticker tape machines (Calahan, 1867), a system for mass distributing stock price information. [40]

Automated punched-tape transmission

Creed paper tape reader at The National Museum of Computing Creed model 6S-2 paper tape reader.jpg
Creed paper tape reader at The National Museum of Computing

In a punched-tape system, the message is first typed onto punched tape using the code of the telegraph system—Morse code for instance. It is then, either immediately or at some later time, run through a transmission machine which sends the message to the telegraph network. Multiple messages can be sequentially recorded on the same run of tape. The advantage of doing this is that messages can be sent at a steady, fast rate making maximum use of the available telegraph lines. The economic advantage of doing this is greatest on long, busy routes where the cost of the extra step of preparing the tape is outweighed by the cost of providing more telegraph lines. The first machine to use punched tape was Bain's teleprinter (Bain, 1843), but the system saw only limited use. Later versions of Bain's system achieved speeds up to 1000 words per minute, far faster than a human operator could achieve. [41]

The first widely used system (Wheatstone, 1858) was first put into service with the British General Post Office in 1867. A novel feature of the Wheatstone system was the use of bipolar encoding. That is, both positive and negative polarity voltages were used. [42] Bipolar encoding has several advantages, one of which is that it permits duplex communication. [43] The Wheatstone tape reader was capable of a speed of 400 words per minute. [44] :190

Oceanic telegraph cables

The first message is received by the Submarine Telegraph Company in London from Paris on the Foy-Breguet instrument in 1851. The equipment in the background is a Cooke and Wheatstone set for onward transmission. Submarine Cornhill 1852.jpg
The first message is received by the Submarine Telegraph Company in London from Paris on the Foy–Breguet instrument in 1851. The equipment in the background is a Cooke and Wheatstone set for onward transmission.
The Eastern Telegraph Company network in 1901 1901 Eastern Telegraph cables.png
The Eastern Telegraph Company network in 1901

A worldwide communication network meant that telegraph cables would have to be laid across oceans. On land cables could be run uninsulated suspended from poles. Underwater, a good insulator that was both flexible and capable of resisting the ingress of seawater was required. A solution presented itself with gutta-percha, a natural rubber from the Palaquium gutta tree, after William Montgomerie sent samples to London from Singapore in 1843. The new material was tested by Michael Faraday and in 1845 Wheatstone suggested that it should be used on the cable planned between Dover and Calais by John Watkins Brett. The idea was proved viable when the South Eastern Railway company successfully tested a three-kilometre (two-mile) gutta-percha insulated cable with telegraph messages to a ship off the coast of Folkstone. [45] The cable to France was laid in 1850 but was almost immediately severed by a French fishing vessel. [46] It was relaid the next year [46] and connections to Ireland and the Low Countries soon followed.

Getting a cable across the Atlantic Ocean proved much more difficult. The Atlantic Telegraph Company, formed in London in 1856, had several failed attempts. A cable laid in 1858 worked poorly for a few days (sometimes taking all day to send a message despite the use of the highly sensitive mirror galvanometer developed by William Thomson (the future Lord Kelvin) before being destroyed by applying too high a voltage. Its failure and slow speed of transmission prompted Thomson and Oliver Heaviside to find better mathematical descriptions of long transmission lines. [47] The company finally succeeded in 1866 with an improved cable laid by SS Great Eastern, the largest ship of its day, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. [48] [47]

An overland telegraph from Britain to India was first connected in 1866 but was unreliable so a submarine telegraph cable was connected in 1870. [49] Several telegraph companies were combined to form the Eastern Telegraph Company in 1872. Australia was first linked to the rest of the world in October 1872 by a submarine telegraph cable at Darwin. [50]

From the 1850s until well into the 20th century, British submarine cable systems dominated the world system. This was set out as a formal strategic goal, which became known as the All Red Line. [51] In 1896, there were thirty cable-laying ships in the world and twenty-four of them were owned by British companies. In 1892, British companies owned and operated two-thirds of the world's cables and by 1923, their share was still 42.7 percent. [52] During World War I, Britain's telegraph communications were almost completely uninterrupted while it was able to quickly cut Germany's cables worldwide. [51]


Alexander Bain's facsimile machine, 1850 Bain improved facsimile 1850.png
Alexander Bain's facsimile machine, 1850

In 1843, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain invented a device that could be considered the first facsimile machine. He called his invention a "recording telegraph". Bain's telegraph was able to transmit images by electrical wires. Frederick Bakewell made several improvements on Bain's design and demonstrated a telefax machine. In 1855, an Italian abbot, Giovanni Caselli, also created an electric telegraph that could transmit images. Caselli called his invention "Pantelegraph". Pantelegraph was successfully tested and approved for a telegraph line between Paris and Lyon. [53] [54]

In 1881, English inventor Shelford Bidwell constructed the scanning phototelegraph that was the first telefax machine to scan any two-dimensional original, not requiring manual plotting or drawing. Around 1900, German physicist Arthur Korn invented the Bildtelegraph widespread in continental Europe especially since a widely noticed transmission of a wanted-person photograph from Paris to London in 1908 used until the wider distribution of the radiofax. Its main competitors were the Bélinographe by Édouard Belin first, then since the 1930s, the Hellschreiber , invented in 1929 by German inventor Rudolf Hell, a pioneer in mechanical image scanning and transmission.

Wireless telegraphy

Marconi watching associates raising the kite (a "Levitor" by B.F.S. Baden-Powell ) used to lift the antenna at St. John's, Newfoundland, December 1901 Marconi at newfoundland.jpg
Marconi watching associates raising the kite (a "Levitor" by B.F.S. Baden-Powell ) used to lift the antenna at St. John's, Newfoundland, December 1901
Post Office Engineers inspect the Marconi Company's equipment at Flat Holm, May 1897 Post Office Engineers.jpg
Post Office Engineers inspect the Marconi Company's equipment at Flat Holm, May 1897

The late 1880s through to the 1890s saw the discovery and then development of a newly understood phenomenon into a form of wireless telegraphy, called Hertzian wave wireless telegraphy, radiotelegraphy, or (later) simply "radio". Between 1886 and 1888, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz published the results of his experiments where he was able to transmit electromagnetic waves (radio waves) through the air, proving James Clerk Maxwell's 1873 theory of electromagnetic radiation. Many scientists and inventors experimented with this new phenomenon but the general consensus was that these new waves (similar to light) would be just as short range as light, and, therefore, useless for long range communication. [56]

At the end of 1894, the young Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi began working on the idea of building a commercial wireless telegraphy system based on the use of Hertzian waves (radio waves), a line of inquiry that he noted other inventors did not seem to be pursuing. [57] Building on the ideas of previous scientists and inventors Marconi re-engineered their apparatus by trial and error attempting to build a radio-based wireless telegraphic system that would function the same as wired telegraphy. He would work on the system through 1895 in his lab and then in field tests making improvements to extend its range. After many breakthroughs, including applying the wired telegraphy concept of grounding the transmitter and receiver, Marconi was able, by early 1896, to transmit radio far beyond the short ranges that had been predicted. [58] Having failed to interest the Italian government, the 22-year-old inventor brought his telegraphy system to Britain in 1896 and met William Preece, a Welshman, who was a major figure in the field and Chief Engineer of the General Post Office. A series of demonstrations for the British government followed—by March 1897, Marconi had transmitted Morse code signals over a distance of about 6 km (3+12 mi) across Salisbury Plain.

On 13 May 1897, Marconi, assisted by George Kemp, a Cardiff Post Office engineer, transmitted the first wireless signals over water to Lavernock (near Penarth in Wales) from Flat Holm. [59] The message sent was "ARE YOU READY". From his Fraserburgh base, he transmitted the first long-distance, cross-country wireless signal to Poldhu in Cornwall.[ when? ][ citation needed ] His star rising, he was soon sending signals across the English Channel (1899), from shore to ship (1899) and finally across the Atlantic (1901). [60] A study of these demonstrations of radio, with scientists trying to work out how a phenomenon predicted to have a short range could transmit "over the horizon", led to the discovery of a radio reflecting layer in the Earth's atmosphere in 1902, later called the ionosphere. [61]

Radiotelegraphy proved effective for rescue work in sea disasters by enabling effective communication between ships and from ship to shore. In 1904, Marconi began the first commercial service to transmit nightly news summaries to subscribing ships, which could incorporate them into their on-board newspapers. A regular transatlantic radio-telegraph service was finally begun on 17 October 1907. [62] [63] Notably, Marconi's apparatus was used to help rescue efforts after the sinking of RMS Titanic. Britain's postmaster-general summed up, referring to the Titanic disaster, "Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi...and his marvellous invention."

Telegram services

Western Union telegram (1930) 1930 Western Union telegram Millsaps College Mississippi State University.jpg
Western Union telegram (1930)

A telegram service is a company or public entity that delivers telegraphed messages directly to the recipient. Telegram services were not inaugurated until electric telegraphy became available. Earlier optical systems were largely limited to official government and military purposes.

Historically, telegrams were sent between a network of interconnected telegraph offices. A person visiting a local telegraph office paid by-the-word to have a message telegraphed to another office and delivered to the addressee on a paper form. [64] :276 Messages sent by telegraph could be delivered by telegram messenger faster than mail, [40] and even in the telephone age, the telegram remained popular for social and business correspondence. At their peak in 1929, an estimated 200 million telegrams were sent. [64] :274

In 1919, the Central Bureau for Registered Addresses was established in the financial district of New York City. The bureau was created to ease the growing problem of messages being delivered to the wrong recipients. To combat this issue, the bureau offered telegraph customers the option to register unique code names for their telegraph addresses. Customers were charged $2.50 per year per code. By 1934, 28,000 codes had been registered. [65]

Telegram services still operate in much of the world (see worldwide use of telegrams by country), but e-mail and text messaging have rendered telegrams obsolete in many countries, and the number of telegrams sent annually has been declining rapidly since the 1980s. [66] Where telegram services still exist, the transmission method between offices is no longer by telegraph, but by telex or IP link. [67]

Telegram length

As telegrams have been traditionally charged by the word, messages were often abbreviated to pack information into the smallest possible number of words, in what came to be called "telegram style".

The average length of a telegram in the 1900s in the US was 11.93 words; more than half of the messages were 10 words or fewer. [68] According to another study, the mean length of the telegrams sent in the UK before 1950 was 14.6 words or 78.8 characters. [69] For German telegrams, the mean length is 11.5 words or 72.4 characters. [69] At the end of the 19th century, the average length of a German telegram was calculated as 14.2 words. [69]


ITT Creed Model 23B teleprinter with telex dial-up facility ITT Creed Model 23B teleprinter (46479610772).jpg
ITT Creed Model 23B teleprinter with telex dial-up facility

Telex (TELegraph EXchange) was a public switched network of teleprinters. It used rotary-telephone-style pulse dialling for automatic routing through the network. It initially used the Baudot code for messages. Telex development began in Germany in 1926, becoming an operational service in 1933 run by the Reichspost (Reich postal service). It had a speed of 50 baud—approximately 66 words per minute. Up to 25 telex channels could share a single long-distance telephone channel by using voice frequency telegraphy multiplexing, making telex the least expensive method of reliable long-distance communication.[ citation needed ] Telex was introduced into Canada in July 1957, and the United States in 1958. [70] A new code, ASCII, was introduced in 1963 by the American Standards Association. ASCII was a 7-bit code and could thus support a larger number of characters than Baudot. In particular, ASCII supported upper and lower case whereas Baudot was upper case only.


Telegraph use began to permanently decline around 1920. [21] :248 The decline began with the growth of the use of the telephone. [21] :253 Ironically, the invention of the telephone grew out of the development of the harmonic telegraph, a device which was supposed to increase the efficiency of telegraph transmission and improve the profits of telegraph companies. Western Union gave up their patent battle with Alexander Graham Bell because they believed the telephone was not a threat to their telegraph business. The Bell Telephone Company was formed in 1877 and had 230 subscribers which grew to 30,000 by 1880. By 1886 there were a quarter of a million phones worldwide, [64] :276–277 and nearly 2 million by 1900. [44] :204 The decline was briefly postponed by the rise of special occasion congratulatory telegrams. Traffic continued to grow between 1867 and 1893 despite the introduction of the telephone in this period, [64] :274 but by 1900 the telegraph was definitely in decline. [64] :277

There was a brief resurgence in telegraphy during World War I but the decline continued as the world entered the Great Depression years of the 1930s. [64] :277 After the Second World War new technology improved communication in the telegraph industry. [71] Telegraph lines continued to be an important means of distributing news feeds from news agencies by teleprinter machine until the rise of the internet in the 1990s. For Western Union, one service remained highly profitable—the wire transfer of money. This service kept Western Union in business long after the telegraph had ceased to be important. [64] :277 In the modern era, the telegraph that began in 1837 has been gradually replaced by digital data transmission based on computer information systems. [71]

Social implications

Optical telegraph lines were installed by governments, often for a military purpose, and reserved for official use only. In many countries, this situation continued after the introduction of the electric telegraph. Starting in Germany and the UK, electric telegraph lines were installed by railway companies. Railway use quickly led to private telegraph companies in the UK and the US offering a telegraph service to the public using telegraph along railway lines. The availability of this new form of communication brought on widespread social and economic changes.

The electric telegraph freed communication from the time constraints of postal mail and revolutionized the global economy and society. [72] [73] By the end of the 19th century, the telegraph was becoming an increasingly common medium of communication for ordinary people. The telegraph isolated the message (information) from the physical movement of objects or the process. [74]

There was some fear of the new technology. According to author Allan J. Kimmel, some people "feared that the telegraph would erode the quality of public discourse through the transmission of irrelevant, context-free information." Henry David Thoreau thought of the Transatlantic cable "...perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." Kimmel says these fears anticipate many of the characteristics of the modern internet age. [75]

Initially, the telegraph was expensive, but it had an enormous effect on three industries: finance, newspapers, and railways. Telegraphy facilitated the growth of organizations "in the railroads, consolidated financial and commodity markets, and reduced information costs within and between firms". [73] In the US, there were 200 to 300 stock exchanges before the telegraph, but most of these were unnecessary and unprofitable once the telegraph made financial transactions at a distance easy and drove down transaction costs. [64] :274–275 This immense growth in the business sectors influenced society to embrace the use of telegrams once the cost had fallen.

Worldwide telegraphy changed the gathering of information for news reporting. Journalists were using the telegraph for war reporting as early as 1846 when the Mexican–American War broke out. News agencies were formed, such as the Associated Press, for the purpose of reporting news by telegraph. [64] :274–275 Messages and information would now travel far and wide, and the telegraph demanded a language "stripped of the local, the regional; and colloquial", to better facilitate a worldwide media language. [74] Media language had to be standardized, which led to the gradual disappearance of different forms of speech and styles of journalism and storytelling.

The spread of the railways created a need for an accurate standard time to replace local arbitrary standards based on local noon. The means of achieving this synchronisation was the telegraph. This emphasis on precise time has led to major societal changes such as the concept of the time value of money. [64] :273–274

During the telegraph era there was widespread employment of women in telegraphy. The shortage of men to work as telegraph operators in the American Civil War opened up the opportunity for women of a well-paid skilled job. [64] :274 In the UK, there was widespread employment of women as telegraph operators even earlier – from the 1850s by all the major companies. The attraction of women for the telegraph companies was that they could pay them less than men. Nevertheless, the jobs were popular with women for the same reason as in the US; most other work available for women was very poorly paid. [39] :77 [21] :85

The economic impact of the telegraph was not much studied by economic historians until parallels started to be drawn with the rise of the internet. In fact, the electric telegraph was as important as the invention of printing in this respect. According to economist Ronnie J. Phillips, the reason for this may be that institutional economists paid more attention to advances that required greater capital investment. The investment required to build railways, for instance, is orders of magnitude greater than that for the telegraph. [64] :269–270

The optical telegraph was quickly forgotten once it went out of service. While it was in operation, it was very familiar to the public across Europe. Examples appear in many paintings of the period. Poems include Le Telégraphe, by Victor Hugo, and the collection Telegrafen: Optisk kalender för 1858 by Elias Sehlstedt  [ sv ] [76] is dedicated to the telegraph. In novels, the telegraph is a major component in Lucien Leuwen by Stendhal, and it features in The Count of Monte Cristo , by Alexandre Dumas. [10] :vii–ix Joseph Chudy's 1796 opera, Der Telegraph oder die Fernschreibmaschine, was written to publicise Chudy's telegraph (a binary code with five lamps) when it became clear that Chappe's design was being taken up. [10] :42–43

An illustration declaring that the submarine cable between England and France would bring those countries peace and goodwill Effect of the submarine telegraph; or peace and good-will between England and France LCCN2016649188.jpg
An illustration declaring that the submarine cable between England and France would bring those countries peace and goodwill

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in praise of submarine telegraph cables; "And a new Word runs between: whispering, 'Let us be one!'" [77] Kipling's poem represented a widespread idea in the late nineteenth century that international telegraphy (and new technology in general) [78] would bring peace and mutual understanding to the world. [79] When a submarine telegraph cable first connected America and Britain, the Post declared;

It is the harbinger of an age when international difficulties will not have time to ripen into bloody results, and when, in spite of the fatuity and perveseness of rulers, war will be impossible. [80]

Newspaper names

Numerous newspapers and news outlets in various countries, such as The Daily Telegraph in Britain, The Telegraph in India, De Telegraaf in the Netherlands, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in the US, were given names which include the word "telegraph" due to their having received news by means of electric telegraphy. Some of these names are retained even though different means of news acquisition are now used.

See also

Related Research Articles

Electrical telegraph Early system for transmitting text over wires

An electrical telegraph was a point-to-point text messaging system, used from the 1840s until the late 20th century when it was slowly replaced by other telecommunication systems. At the sending station switches connected a source of current to the telegraph wires. At the receiving station the current activated electromagnets which moved indicators, providing either a visual or audible indication of the text. It was the first electrical telecommunications system and the most widely used of a number of early messaging systems called telegraphs, that were devised to communicate text messages more rapidly than by physical transportation. Prior to the electric telegraph, semaphore systems were used, including beacons, smoke signals, flag semaphore, and optical telegraphs for visual signals to communicate over distances of land.

Morse code Transmission of language with brief pulses

Morse code is a method used in telecommunication to encode text characters as standardized sequences of two different signal durations, called dots and dashes, or dits and dahs. Morse code is named after Samuel Morse, one of the inventors of the telegraph.

Teleprinter Device for transmitting messages in written form by electrical signals

A teleprinter is an electromechanical device that can be used to send and receive typed messages through various communications channels, in both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint configurations. Initially they were used in telegraphy, which developed in the late 1830s and 1840s as the first use of electrical engineering, though teleprinters were not used for telegraphy until 1887 at the earliest. The machines were adapted to provide a user interface to early mainframe computers and minicomputers, sending typed data to the computer and printing the response. Some models could also be used to create punched tape for data storage and to read back such tape for local printing or transmission.

Wireless telegraphy Method of communication

Wireless telegraphy or radiotelegraphy is transmission of telegraph signals by radio waves. Before about 1910, the term wireless telegraphy was also used for other experimental technologies for transmitting telegraph signals without wires. In radiotelegraphy, information is transmitted by pulses of radio waves of two different lengths called "dots" and "dashes", which spell out text messages, usually in Morse code. In a manual system, the sending operator taps on a switch called a telegraph key which turns the transmitter on and off, producing the pulses of radio waves. At the receiver the pulses are audible in the receiver's speaker as beeps, which are translated back to text by an operator who knows Morse code.

Optical telegraph Communication along a chain of towers using mechanically operated paddles or shutters

An optical telegraph is a line of stations, typically towers, for the purpose of conveying textual information by means of visual signals. There are two main types of such systems; the semaphore telegraph which uses pivoted indicator arms and conveys information according to the direction the indicators point, and the shutter telegraph which uses panels that can be rotated to block or pass the light from the sky behind to convey information.

Optical communication Use of light to convey information

Optical communication, also known as optical telecommunication, is communication at a distance using light to carry information. It can be performed visually or by using electronic devices. The earliest basic forms of optical communication date back several millennia, while the earliest electrical device created to do so was the photophone, invented in 1880.

A continuous wave or continuous waveform (CW) is an electromagnetic wave of constant amplitude and frequency, typically a sine wave, that for mathematical analysis is considered to be of infinite duration. Continuous wave is also the name given to an early method of radio transmission, in which a sinusoidal carrier wave is switched on and off. Information is carried in the varying duration of the on and off periods of the signal, for example by Morse code in early radio. In early wireless telegraphy radio transmission, CW waves were also known as "undamped waves", to distinguish this method from damped wave signals produced by earlier spark gap type transmitters.

A telegraph code is one of the character encodings used to transmit information by telegraphy. Morse code is the best-known such code. Telegraphy usually refers to the electrical telegraph, but telegraph systems using the optical telegraph were in use before that. A code consists of a number of code points, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, a numeral, or some other character. In codes intended for machines rather than humans, code points for control characters, such as carriage return, are required to control the operation of the mechanism. Each code point is made up of a number of elements arranged in a unique way for that character. There are usually two types of element, but more element types were employed in some codes not intended for machines. For instance, American Morse code had about five elements, rather than the two of International Morse Code.

American Morse code Morse code variant used on landline telegraph systems in the U.S.

American Morse Code — also known as Railroad Morse—is the latter-day name for the original version of the Morse Code developed in the mid-1840s, by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail for their electric telegraph. The "American" qualifier was added because, after most of the rest of the world adopted "International Morse Code," the companies that continued to use the original Morse Code were mainly located in the United States. American Morse is now nearly extinct—it is most frequently seen in American railroad museums and American Civil War reenactments—and "Morse Code" today virtually always means the International Morse which supplanted American Morse.

History of telecommunication Aspect of history

The history of telecommunication began with the use of smoke signals and drums in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In the 1790s, the first fixed semaphore systems emerged in Europe. However, it was not until the 1830s that electrical telecommunication systems started to appear. This article details the history of telecommunication and the individuals who helped make telecommunication systems what they are today. The history of telecommunication is an important part of the larger history of communication.

Prosigns for Morse code Predefined Morse code patterns with meanings distinct from the letters the patterns normally represent

Procedure signs or prosigns are shorthand signals used in Morse code radio telegraphy procedure, for the purpose of simplifying and standardizing radio communication protocol. They are several from Morse code abbreviations, which consist mainly of brevity codes that convey messages to other parties with greater speed and accuracy.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to telecommunication:

Flag semaphore System to transmit information by hand

Flag semaphore is a semaphore system conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands. Information is encoded by the position of the flags; it is read when the flag is in a fixed position. Semaphores were adopted and widely used in the maritime world in the 19th century. It is still used during underway replenishment at sea and is acceptable for emergency communication in daylight or using lighted wands instead of flags, at night.

History of telegraphy in Australia Aspect of history

Australia was a relatively early adopter of electrical telegraph technology in the middle of the nineteenth century, despite its low population densities and the difficult conditions sometimes encountered in laying lines. From 1858 onwards, the major capitals were progressively linked, culminating in the addition of Perth in 1877. Australia was linked to the rest of the world for the first time in 1872, through the Overland Telegraph which ran some 3,200 kilometres (2,000 mi) from Adelaide through to Darwin. The network continued to expand in size and sophistication until 1959 and in heavy usage until 1945, after which time telephone usage began to erode public patronage of telegraphy services. The final publicly provided telegraphy service was closed in 1993.

Prussian semaphore system

The Prussian Semaphore System was a telegraphic communications system used between Berlin and the Rhine Province from 1832 to 1849. It could transmit administrative and military messages by optical signal over a distance of nearly 550 kilometres (340 mi). The telegraph line comprised 62 stations each furnished with a signal mast with six cable-operated arms. The stations were equipped with telescopes that operators used to copy coded messages and forward them to the next station. Three dispatch departments located in Berlin, Cologne and Koblenz handled the coding and decoding of official telegrams. Although electric telegraphy made the system obsolete for military use, simplified semaphores were still used for railway signals.

Semaphore Mechanical apparatus used to send messages

Semaphore is the use of an apparatus to create a visual signal transmitted over distance. A semaphore can be performed with devices including: fire, lights, flags, sunlight and moving arms. Semaphores can be used for telegraphy when arranged in visually connected networks, or for traffic signalling such as in railway systems, or traffic lights in cities.

Needle telegraph Type of electrical telegraph

A needle telegraph is an electrical telegraph that uses indicating needles moved electromagnetically as its means of displaying messages. It is one of the two main types of electromagnetic telegraph, the other being the armature system as exemplified by the telegraph of Samuel Morse in the United States. Needle telegraphs were widely used in Europe and the British Empire during the nineteenth century.

Foy–Breguet telegraph Type of electrical telegraph

The Foy–Breguet telegraph, also called the French telegraph, was an electrical telegraph of the needle telegraph type developed by Louis-François-Clement Breguet and Alphonse Foy in the 1840s for use in France. The system used two-needle instruments that presented a display using the same code as that on the optical telegraph of Claude Chappe. The Chappe telegraph was extensively used in France by the government, so this arrangement was appealing to them as it meant there was no need to retrain operators.

Electrical telegraphy in the United Kingdom History of electrical telegraphy in the United Kingdom

In the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom had the world's first commercial telegraph company. British telegraphy dominated international telecommunications well into the twentieth. Telegraphy is the sending of textual messages by human operators using symbolic codes. Electrical telegraphy used conducting wires to send messages, often incorporating a telegram service to deliver the telegraphed communication from the telegraph office. This is distinct from optical telegraphy that preceded it and the radiotelegraphy that followed. Though Francis Ronalds first demonstrated a working telegraph over a substantial distance in 1816, he was unable to put it into practical use. Starting in 1836, William Fothergill Cooke, with the scientific assistance of Charles Wheatstone, developed the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph. The needle telegraph instrument suggested by Wheatstone, the battery invented by John Frederic Daniell, and the relay invented by Edward Davy were important components of this system.

Wigwag (flag signals) Method of flag signaling

Wigwag is an historical form of flag signaling that passes messages by waving a single flag. It differs from flag semaphore in that it uses one flag rather than two, and the symbols for each letter are represented by the motion of the flag rather than its position. The larger flag and its motion allow messages to be read over greater distances than semaphore. Messages could be sent at night using torches instead of flags.


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Further reading


  • Armagnay, Henri (1908). "Phototelegraphy". Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution: 197–207. Retrieved 7 August 2009.
  • Dargan, J. "The Railway Telegraph", Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, March 1985 pp. 49–71
  • Gray, Thomas (1892). "The Inventors Of The Telegraph And Telephone". Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution: 639–659. Retrieved 7 August 2009.
  • Pichler, Franz, Magneto-Electric Dial Telegraphs: Contributions of Wheatstone, Stoehrer and Siemens, The AWA Review vol. 26, (2013).
  • Ross, Nelson E. HOW TO WRITE TELEGRAMS PROPERLY The Telegraph Office (1928)
  • Wheen, Andrew;— DOT-DASH TO DOT.COM: How Modern Telecommunications Evolved from the Telegraph to the Internet (Springer, 2011) ISBN   978-1-4419-6759-6
  • Wilson, Geoffrey, The Old Telegraphs, Phillimore & Co Ltd 1976 ISBN   0-900592-79-6; a comprehensive history of the shutter, semaphore and other kinds of visual mechanical telegraphs.