“FROM A DISTANCE”
Beginning 1830 AD
|Early telegraph key and receiver from the 1870’s, which was used at a U.S. train depot at that time.
Credit: Photo by Kathy Schick, courtesy of the Stone Age Institute. All rights reserved.
Communicating across some distance had long been desired among human societies, and many developed ingenious ways to get some kind of message transmitted to people some distance away. Smoke signals, drum beats, and semaphores (visual communication through lights or flags) are some of the ways people have tried to transmit information across space. Obviously, such means are limited, can’t transmit very far, and depend on the observer happening to be watching while the signaler is transmitting the information. This problem was also focused on by ingenious inventors of the 1800’s, who quickly devised some major ways of communicating across very long distances – by electric telegraph, telephone, and radio. Of these, the latter two, the telephone and telegraph, are still very, very important to us even today.
Experiments in developing the telegraph followed very quickly after Sturgeon’s discovery of the electromagnet in 1825, as the electrical properties of this discovery very soon led to experiments in transmitting information along wires. Subsequent inventions were made in 1830 by Joseph Henry in America, and in 1837 by Cooke and Wheatstone in England, who developed early telegraphs by sending electric currents along wires to activate an electromagnet. Samuel Morse, a professor at New York University, started experimenting in 1835 and developed a system that wrote dots and dashes on a strip of paper, the birth of the Morse Code. In the 1840’s he received funding from Congress to construct a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, and the first telegraph message it carried was the result of a national political convention in Baltimore in 1844. By the 1860’s a transatlantic cable had been laid, and by the early 1900’s the transpacific cable, thus linking the major continents. The telegraph was important for over 100 years, but has largely dropped from use today.
The telephone built upon experiments with the electrical telegraph, and by the latter part of the 1800s many inventors were trying to figure out how to transmit voice over the telegraph. The fact that so many inventors have been credited with the invention of the telephone, or at least with crucial steps in its development, shows how the technological developments of that century were leading to this now very necessary tool of our modern world. Contributions were made by Meucci, Reis, Bell and Gray, among others, but it was Alexander Graham Bell who file the patent on the invention in 1876.
By the late 1890’s, different inventors were working on versions of the radio, including Tesla, Popov, Turpain, and Marconi. Most of these early effort built on the work of later 19th Century physicists, including the prediction of radio waves by Maxwell in the 1860’s and the demonstration by Hertz in the 1880’s that radio waves can be transmitted into space by varying electrical currents. First Tesla and then Marconi took out patents on radio technology in the 1990’s. Radio depended on transmission across electromagnetic waves, changing or modulating these as they are sent by a transmitter so that the receiver will obtain information such as sound, images, or other data.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Which of you wants to do without the telephone? Well, if the telephone hadn’t been invented, we wouldn’t have it now! Even though modern telephone technology has changed vastly from the early days of this invention, its beginnings were in the latter part of the 1800s in the hands and minds of these ingenious inventors. Radio has also transformed over time, with much of our transmissions transferred via satellites, but more conventional radio transmission remains very important in many people’s lives here and over much of the world.
This is a video clip about the impact of the Morse telegraph on communications in the United States.
This website contains links to some great articles on the history of the telegraph, with pictures.
This is an outline of the history of the telephone.
This is a webpage about the history of fiber optics.
This is a Wikipedia webpage about the history of communication, from the earliest evidence to modern times.