Dot; Crackle; Dashing!
No one will ever know exactly how early man learned how to use the puffs of smoke that resulted from fires to communicate over distance. Early aboriginal and other native tribes adopted a “Live and Let Live” attitude regarding neighboring tribes usually. At some point, though, smoke signals became a way of communication. Lights atop lighthouses also were early means of communication as were the mariner flags used by sailors. Not all were ways to fully communicate, though.
The Frenchman Claude Chappe worked with his brother to assist their beloved government during the French Revolution. France was in danger of losing and needed a way to communicate across distances. Chappe used the word “Semaphore” as the name of a device that transmitted messages over distances, a French combination of two Greek words meaning sign and bearer. Like its precursors, though, Chappe’s semaphore required good weather and was practically useless at night. Nonetheless, it was considered quite the epiphany when, in 1791, the first message was sent via the semaphore: “If you succeed, you will bask in glory.” Chappe’s semaphore began to be duplicated once the French Revolution had ended but the weather conditions needed were still a hindrance.
The bright idea to use electricity appeared in a magazine in Scotland in the mid eighteenth century. A wire was used for each letter of the alphabet and the terminals were connected to an electrostatic machine. By observing the deflection of pith balls at the other end of the machine, the message could be transmitted. The pith ball was made from the spongy inner core of plant materials and conducted an electrical charge very well. Over all, the devices were considered impractical and became obsolete.
English inventor Francis Ronalds had an epiphany in the early nineteenth century and built the first electrostatic machine. In his garden he placed eight miles of wire inside insulated glass tubing. He then connected both ends to two clocks on which were written the letters of the alphabet. Electrical impulses sent along the wire transmitted the message but there was little enthusiasm for his device. Thus the first electrical telegraph was forgotten. Ten years later, Russian diplomat Pavel Schilling created another electromagnetic telegraph machine. He placed two of his designs in different room and employed a binary system of signal transmissions.
The telegraph lived up to its name by being both a transmitter and a receiver. Another combination of two Greek words, with a telegraph one could indeed write at a distance but then the receiver could also reply… immediately. Germans Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber improved on the telegraph design so that it could be used for regular transmissions and transmit over a distance of one kilometer. Their device consisted of a coil that moved up and down across the end of two magnetic bars. The induction current was then sent through two wires to the receiver which was a galvanometer. The direction of the current could also be reversed. Gauss and Weber also used a binary code for their alphabet.
Four years later American Samuel Morse demonstrated his epiphany and introduced the world to a new type of telegraph. Samuel Morse was the son of a Massachusetts Calvinist minister. A Yale graduate with noted intelligence, Morse gained a favorable reputation as a portrait artist. He traveled over Europe and was well known to the American Revolutionary heroes of the time. In 1825 he was commissioned by New York City to paint a portrait of his friend Lafayette. While doing so, a horse messenger arrived with a note informing him of his wife being critically ill. Before Morse could return home she had passed away and been buried.
The tragedy of his wife’s death led Morse to become determined to solve the riddle of fast long distance communication. A chance shipboard meeting with Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston led to Morse’s epiphany for a single-wire telegraph. Jackson was well-versed in electromagnetism and Morse used his electromagnet in his experiments. He developed the first Morse telegraph, applied for a patent and then devised a system of dots and dashes that, amid the electric crackle would replace letters of the alphabet in communicating. This rhythmic method of transmission is still used today.
The message sent on Morse’s telegraph or any electrical telegraph became known as a telegram. Later, those sent by submarine telegraph cable would be called cablegrams. Even later, a switched network of teleprinters developed a network for transmissions and a message sent over one of the teletype machines was called a telex.
It is said that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. The need for Napoleon to communicate with his troops led Frenchman Claude Chappe to his epiphany of the semaphore. Russian diplomat Pavil Schilling developed a system of on and off to duplicate the entire alphabet, a binary system used by computers today. Grief led Samuel Morse to his second career as an inventor and Morse Code which is not only used to send telegrams but also as distress codes for mariners, pilots, and anyone for whom the spoken word is not effective.
The telegraph is an invention that is universal in the contributions of those who made it the success it reached. From its early beginnings in prehistoric times as primitive smoke signals to electronic pulses of dots and dashes, it is a bright idea that shows what mankind can accomplish when the focus is on the creation and not personal greed or arrogance. Today we have quick response codes, better known as QR codes. They are black and white pixilated squares found on cereal boxes, library posters, advertisements, and receipts. A matrix barcode, the QR reader connects the printed image with digital information, a visual sort of telegraph for the twenty-first century. With one single QR code, an entire document’s worth of information can be relayed.
While QR codes are about twenty years old, there is an even older and quicker means of communicating. It is called behavior. Our actions really do speak louder than our words, even those sent over great distances or pixilated into square images. How we treat each other is a continuous epiphany, a stream of information conveying to others our intentions, our emotions, and most importantly, what we believe.