The triumph of the telegraph

The arrival of the telegraph in the mid-1800s was a significant event in the development of the signal systems that humans have used to communicate with each other.

The earliest signaling systems were based on light or sound, such as smoke signals and drums. The first telegraph, which was not electric but optic, was created in 1794 by the Frenchman Claude Chappe who that year succeeded in sending a telegraph message over a distance of 15 kilometers. Chappe’s telegraph consisted of a series of semaphores placed in elevated locations about ten kilometers apart. A message was sent from one semaphore to the next, where it was then repeated and sent on to the next and so on to the final destination.

A Swedish pioneer in optic telegraphy was Abraham Niklas Edelcrantz, who somewhat later than Chappe developed a more advanced and faster optic telegraph system. This system included ten moveable shutters mounted on two posts. The various positions of the shutters created combinations of digits that could be translated with signal books into words and sentences. The combination 2-4-0, for example, meant “general.” As in Chappe’s system, the stations were located about ten kilometers apart.

The optic telegraph was important in military applications but the rest of society was little affected by this innovation. The electric telegraph, on the other hand, had a great impact on all parts of society – in business, for news distribution and for private correspondence.

The foundation for this invention was provided by the Danish H C Örsted’s discovery of electromagnetism in 1820. Advances in this field then occurred rapidly. In 1832, a Russian diplomat named Schilling von Cannstadt came upon the idea of using an electric current produced by a magnetized needle. Five years later, two Brits, Cooke and Wheatstone, using Cannstedt’s experiments as their starting point, constructed a working electric telegraph. At about the same time, the American Samuel Morse presented an even more sophisticated telegraph in which an electromagnet registered pulses of current on a strip of paper. The registration was based on an alphabet created by Morse that consisted of various combinations of short and long pulses. Letters were formed by switching an electric current on and off using what was called a telegraph key. By using a metal wire, Morse messages could be transmitted over long distances in an instant.
Although Great Britain and the US continued to lead development of the electric telegraph for the rest of the century, interest for the invention was great throughout the entire western world, and telegraph poles quickly became a natural part of the landscape. In 1851, an underwater cable was laid between Dover in Great Britain and Calais, France that connected the two countries’ telegraph networks. In Sweden, the electric telegraph was introduced in 1853, and four years later, the telegraph network extended from Ystad at the southern tip to Haparanda in the far north of Sweden. By 1855, Sweden established contact with the European telegraph network via a cable across Öresund.

The major underwater cable project was otherwise the Atlantic cable, which was drawn between Ireland, which at that time belonged to Great Britain, and the US. After several complete and partial failures, a working link across the Atlantic was established in 1866. The first message sent over the new link was about share prices on Wall St. During the premier year, only one telegram was sent from Sweden to America. It was just 20 words but cost no less than 378 riksdaler, an amount estimated to correspond to about SEK 17,000 in today’s money.

In 1870, an Indo-European cable link was opened over land from London to Calcutta. A Danish telegraph company combined a trans-Siberian telegraph line from St Petersburg to Vladivostock with an underwater cable to China and Japan. This long connection was completed in 1871. By the early 1870s, the electric telegraph network had been built out to encompass nearly the entire world.

Author: K V Tahvanainen & Mats Wickman

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