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Optical Telegraph The rise of the electric telegraph is frequently identified as marking a revolutionary shift in the history of communications. Information could, for the first time, travel faster than the fastest horse-borne rider or ship, covering considerable distance nearly instantaneously. Early experiments with telegraphy, however, predated electricity. The French in particular constructed an elaborate and efficient telegraph system before the advent of electricity. In the late eighteenth century Claude Chappe developed a new system of long-distance communication, an optical telegraph that used T-shaped transmission posts that were located at the top of steeples, towers, or hills. By placing the regulateurs, the horizontal boards that topped the “T”, and the indicateurs, the smaller boards fastened at each of the regulateurs, in different positions, the operators of these transmission posts could relay encoded information at surprising speed. In 1794, under the direction of the Ministry of War, Chappe presided over the first telegraph line, a series of posts running from Paris to Lille. Although signaling required both good visibility and the

use of complex codebooks that deciphered the various combinations in which the regulateurs and induateurs were placed, it was a remarkably swift and efficient system. In good conditions a simple message could be conveyed the 180 miles between Paris and Lille in less than three minutes. With the assistance of his brothers, Chappe was responsible for the rapid expansion of the French optical telegraph system: by 1800, lines connected Paris to Dunkirk in the North, Marseilles in the South, and Brest in the West. These French networks soon encompassed other important European political and commercial centers, including Brussels, Milan, Venice, and Antwerp.

Electric Telegraph Although France both pioneered and dominated optical telegraphy before the 1840s, Britain and the United States championed the electric telegraph. The emergence of this new communication technology was enabled by progress in physics and in the development of the first reliable electric batteries. In 1837 Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone patented an electric telegraph in Britain that employed six wires and five needle pointers that responded to various electric transmissions by pointing to specific letters and numbers on their mounting plate. A simpler and more cost-effective system was developed by the American Samuel Morse, who devised a system of dots and dashes to represent letters and numbers. This “Morse code” was used in the electromagnetic telegraph he patented in 1837. In 1843 Morse obtained support from the U.S. government to build a demonstration telegraph system between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Telegraph operators valued the simplicity of the Morse system, and a modified form (that allowed for the use of diacritic marks) known as International Morse Code was adopted as standard in 1851. In Britain and the United States, electric telegraph networks proliferated from the early 1840s. Typically, telegraph lines were constructed alongside railway tracks, and rail companies were the first to adopt the new technology, using fast and efficient transmissions to regulate the movements of rail traffic. By the late 1840s dense telegraphic networks had been constructed in both Britain and the United States, while the French government, which had remained wedded to optical telegraphy, finally adopted the technology in 1850.

Commerce and Empire The speed and capacity of the electric telegraph—which was at least six times faster than optical telegraphy and could operate at night and under any weather conditions—was seen as a particularly important tool in an age of international commerce and


The Eastern Telegraph Company, established in 1872, oversaw the telegraphic networks that connected Britain to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. By the 1890s Britain controlled more than 65 percent of the world’s telegraphic networks through the Eastern Telegraph Company: the only region that was not under company domination was the Atlantic, where several companies laid cables linking Europe and the United States. Formed out of four companies that operated telegraph networks between India and Britain, Eastern telegraph extended these networks out into East Asia and the Pacific. The company connected Australia and New Zealand in 1876, and from 1879 to 1889 it laid the key submarine cables along the coasts of Africa, including the line running from the company’s base of operations in Aden (in present-day Yemen) to Durban in South Africa. The British government subsidized the company’s global reach as it emphasized the importance of “all-British” cable routes as a foundation of imperial strategy. The vast networks created and run by Eastern Telegraph were thus seen as fundamental to the empire, allowing the speedy movement of armed forces, ensuring the swift implementation of imperial policy, and enabling the rapid transmission of political and commercial intelligence. Moreover, as they connected distant parts of the empire into a shared web of communication, they were extolled by Parliamentarians and colonial officials as powerful instruments of imperial unity.

Source; Brian Winston, Media, Technology and Society: A History from the Tele graph to be Internet (London & New Yoric Routledge, 1998).

imperial expansion. Colonial administrators, migration agents, capitalists, and journalists were keen supporters of the construction of international telegraphic networks to promote the speedy transmission of news, prices, and military intelligence. This international interest in the application of the telegraph resulted in the formation of the International Telegraphic Union in 1865 to supervise and police international telegraphic communication. The foundation of the International Telegraphic Union came at a moment when international telegraphic networks were proliferating. After several failures, the first successful transatlantic underwater cables were laid in 1866, connecting Britain to Canada and the United States. Three years earlier, in 1863, the government of India sponsored the laying of a submarine cable from Karachi to Fao in the Persian Gulf, greatly reducing communication times between India and Europe. From 1865 Britai established its dominance over international telegraphic communication, sponsoring the construction of lines that were deemed of commercial or strategic importance. In the 1870s key submarine cables connected Bombay to Obok (in present-day Djibouti) and Aden (1870), Penang and Singapore to Madras (1875), Broome and Darwin (both in Australia) to Singapore (1875), Hong Kong and Jakarta to Singapore (1875), and Nelson (in New Zealand) to Sydney (1879). By 1890 Britain controlled more than two-thirds of the world’s submarine cables, reflecting the high value placed on using “all-British” cable networks by both the Colonial Office and various colonial governments. Telegraphic communication had revolutionized imperial communications in little more than two decades. Where a message sent from Singapore, Sydney, or Suva (in Fiji) would have taken weeks or months to reach London even in an age of steamships, the complex grid of electric telegraph routes spanning the

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globe in the 1880s ensured that such a message would reach London in a few days, or more frequently, just hours. The rapid dissemination of this technology made the world seem a much smaller place.


Lewis Coe, The Telegraph: A History of Morse’s Invention and its Predecessors in the United States (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993).

Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850 (Oxford …, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Gerald J. Holzmann and Bjorn Pehrson, The Early History of Data Networks (Los Alamitos, Cal.: IEEE Computer Society, 1995).

Brian Winston, Media, Technology and Society: A History from the Telegraph to the Internet (London & New York: Routledge, 1998).