The History of the Telegraph - Communication at its Best!

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By Tanya Wozniaki

Samuel Morse is credited with starting electronic telegraphy in 1837, but early forms of this communication have been present for centuries. Telegraphy is the process of using a form of communication known to both sender and receiver to transmit data. Early examples of the telegraph include smoke signals and creative uses of reflected light. Electrical telegraphs are also referred to as telegrams and during the middle and late parts of the 19th century, telegrams were a highly popular form of communication. Though Samuel Morse is considered the inventor of the telegraph, other scientists greatly contributed to its use. Nikola Tesla helped cause other scientists to recognize its great use. By the end of the 19th century, the importance of using the telegraph for military purposes was greatly recognized.

Early forms of long distance communication

Several forms of communication are considered forerunners or predecessors to the telegraph. Fire and smoke signals were some of the earliest forms used to communicate. The system was not very advanced and was left wanting. A fire usually signaled trouble or danger and the absence of a fire would indicate something was wrong. The Greeks were strong proponents for fire and smoke signals. Other methods included flags, reflected light, and the French based Chappe system.

The Electric Telegraph

Two forms of the telegraph use electricity. These include the electrical and electromagnetic telegraphs. The electrical telegraph is one that uses electric pulses to send communications over a line or radio. Electromagnetic telegraphs are systems that use a device to transmit signals and data from one person to another. The electrical telegraph is often referred to simply as the “telegraph,” and is the first form of electric based telecommunications invented.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse is considered as the inventor of the telegraph system and he helped invent the Morse code system. In addition to his inventors, he was also a critically appraised artist. Born on April 27, 1791, Samuel Morse was the son of a pastor, Jedidiah Morse, and was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Pastor Morse held strong Calvinist teachings and sent his son to Yale to receive religious training. While studying at Yale, Samuel Morse attended a lecture on electricity, still an accomplished artist; Samuel Morse supported himself through college with his paintings.

After graduating, Samuel Morse continued his career as an artist and in 1825, New York City commissioned him to paint a portrait of Gilbert de Motier. The painting was left incomplete as days later, Samuel Morse received a message delivered by horseback that his wife was in grave condition. By the time Samuel Morse received the message and went home, his wife had passed away. It was then that Samuel Morse decided he had to find a method of communication that was faster and more efficient than those currently available. Samuel Morse met with Charles Thomas Jackson, who was an expert in electromagnetic technology, and the two began conversing about a telecommunications system powered by electricity. As Samuel Morse moved forward with his inventions, he found that there were many competitors that sought to gain recognition of being the inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph. Samuel Morse worked with Leonard Gale and on January 11, 1838, the first electromagnetic telegraph made its public display.

Morse Code

Samuel Morse, Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail continued to work on the electrical telegraph system, making advancements and developments. One year after they released their system in 1836, the British team of Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke developed an electrical telegraph that could use electric currents with a hammer to type out letters. Though the system was innovative, it failed to find a market. By 1844, the Morse telegraph began using paper type and electric currents that would leave imprints on paper. The team developed the Morse code as a way to make the movable type readable by those who received it. Morse code consists of a series of dashes and dots, arranged in a way that represents the letters of the alphabet. Morse code has continued to advance over the years and is still in use today.

Rise and decline of the telegraph system

The telegraph system enjoyed a long, lengthy history as Morse code and telegrams continued to be used well into the 1960s. Things changed for the system, once the military began exploring the use of what would become the Internet and e-mail systems. The first Internet system, ARPANET, was developed in 1965 and by the year 2000, the possibilities of near instantaneous communication over the Internet was a reality. In the year 1971, the first E-Mails were sent between two computers that were on different networks. This proved that one day, E-Mail could be used to send and transmit data on an international scale. Due to the advancements of the Internet and the E-Mail system, the telegraph system failed to remain relevant. The last commercial U.S. ship to shore telegram message was sent to President Bill Clinton on July 12, 1999. That date marked the end of the rise of the telegraph system and ushered in the new wave of Internet communications.