History of the telegraph

“Imagine, a dog whose tail is at Teheran and his muzzle in London; tread on his tail here and he will bark there.”

The telegraph in 1881 was described with “if the roads are the veins, these wires may be called the nerves of the world”. By this time too “only the burning sands of Africa and the frozen Arctic deserts are as yet a complete blank in the telegraphic map.” Small energetic signals were travelling the world beginning our first steps into the information age.

The Wonders of Electricity published in 1881 has insights from the time about the telegraph highlighting some of the challenges of this new technology, such as that an omnibus driver in London “was literally beheaded” by a wire and that residents were afraid that it would draw lightening to their houses.

The book mentions the challenges of the buffalos, tigers, bandicoots and monkeys playing havoc with the rollout of telegraphy to far flung corners of the globe. Moreover, the impact on communities who used some of the posts as firewood to the corruption of officials and even suggested communities in Spain believed that telegraph wires needed to be greased with the fat from the bodies of murdered children.

Despite the colonial nonsense, the book contains some rare insights of the amazement of the early trans-national connections such as the first submarine cable laid in 1850 between the UK and France which only worked for a few hours. Rumour had it that fisherman having caught the wire took a sample to Boulogne believing it to be an unusual type of seaweed! In 1858, the first cable was laid between the Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom, and Newfoundland in the United States of America. The President of the USA and Queen of the UK exchanged congratulations. Shortly thereafter the civil war reduced the focus on transatlantic communications for a period.
By the time of writing there were half a dozen cables to America from the UK, one from Portugal to Brazil, three cables to India and one being laid to the then war torn South Africa and many others crossing vast distances. The world had never been so interconnected.

The chapter goes on to discuss the technical challenges such as noting that copper being a favourable material to iron despite its cost and the complex structure of the wires. Obstacles like zoophytes, spike-backed sunfish and toredo worms were all described as challenges when designing the cables that laid at the bottom of the oceans.

While the chapter in this old book is great fun to read, telegraphic wires shrank the world and we take for granted the infrastructure of copper wires that still exist still today that act as “the nerves of the world” in our internet age. The chapter ends on a rather prophetic note highlighting the power of thoughts being able to circumnavigate the globe and that this new technology would be supplanted by radio and satellites in the future, which we may cover in a future article.

“When a cable is once laid from San Francisco to Japan, we shall have a girdle around the world, on which it will be slow work for thought to travel in forty seconds. And then – who knows? There may come some other amazing discovery, to render useless all this cobweb of wires and cables.”

Which innovations do you think are changing the world?

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