The word “telegraph” was first coined by French inventor Claude Chappe, which is a device for transmitting and receiving messages over long distances. The word “telegraph” alone now generally refers to an electrical telegraph.
In old times, beacon-fires, smoke signals and drumbeats were used to exchange information in many countries and kingdoms, such as the approach of enemy and victories or defeat. In late 1700s to early 1800s, semaphore stations (or optical telegraphs) designed by Chappe were established. However, along with all previous methods, such early telecommunication was susceptible to weather and hindered visibility.
The first proposal of using electricity as a means of communication appeared in mid 1700s (Winston, 2008), and tons of early scientific studies and developments laid solid foundations for the invention of electric telegraph that enables regular and reliable long-distance communication.
The 1830s witnessed the birth of electric telegraph. Sir William Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone in England developed a telegraph system with five magnetic needles using an electric current for railway signaling. In the United States, Samuel Morse collaborated with Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail and developed a single-circuit telegraph. Operators push the key down to complete the electric circuit of the battery. The entire system was composed of a key, a battery, wire and a line of poles between stations (History.com, 2009). Besides the instrument, Morse and his assistant Vail created a set codes of dots and dashes encrypting each English alphabet and number (0-9) which has been adapted universally as International Morse Code (see figure below). On May 24, 1844, Morse sent Vail the historic first public message from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland, “What hath God wrought!” However, the invention of telegraph should not be ascribed to any one single person. Dozens of scientists and researchers contributed their parts and should bear the honor.
A clear social necessity behind the presence of telegraph was a remedy for railway safety. The earliest telegraph wire ran beside railway tracks and were used for operational purposes, transmitting information about the situation of engines, directions and speed of the running locomotives. Therefore, the first revolutionary consequence of telegraph is elucidated – allowing instantaneous information share despite long distance. As a matter of fact, on the New Year’s Day of 1850, a telegram even averted a catastrophic collision of a full speed running train by noticing crew at next stations immediately (Highton, 1852).
In addition, although patent and system ownership issues slowed its diffusion in the following years, telegraphy helped connect the world more efficiently. By 1866, a telegraph wire had been laid across the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S. to Europe (History.com, 2009), and that across the Pacific was completed in 1902, finally encircling the world. By the end of the 19th century, the telegraph was becoming an increasingly common medium of communication for ordinary people.
Thus, telegraph led to a fundamental changed in news (Carey, 2008). Due to the realization of instant travel of messages and information, telegraph demanded an objective language “stripped of the local, the regional; and colloquial” for people from different corners of the globe to understand. That standardization led to the gradual disappearance of “different forms of speech and styles of journalism and storytelling” (Carey, 2008). Moreover, the content of telegrams needed to be condensed to “bare facts” to save money on transmission in the era of commercial telegraphy.
In the late 19th century, wireless telegraphy was introduced, transmitting electric telegraphy signals radio waves instead of wires regardless of almost all physical restrictions. Wireless telegraphy is now mainly used among amateur radio operators and military communication and services.
The overall decline of telegraph occurred in the first decade of the 21st century as many countries successively suspended telegram services due to the inventions of telephone, fax, Internet and Email. However, the innovation of telegraph made it possible for the first time people exchanging information across continents and oceans almost instantly and was associated with widespread social and economic value.
Online-social-mobile Communication Technologies
What also comes up in the 21st century is one of the products that combine multiple emerging technologies – online-social-mobile communication. Social media applications (sometimes websites) installed on mobile devices enable people to check, post and respond to contents anywhere and anytime with plenty of functions and services given access to Internet. Being connected with each other all the time distracts people who have to more or less spare a slice of their everyday time on online-social-mobile communication.
People are also allowed to build, maintain and enlarge their social networks in no time and at much lower costs, compared to telegraph and other older forms of communication such as writing letters and radio broadcasting. Additionally, various formats of media contents can be produced, displayed and disseminated across the world thanks to advancement in media technologies. Besides the revolutions on the individual level, such technologies also bring tremendous changes to societies by accelerating communication in all aspects as well as in general, people’s life.
Meanwhile, wearable networked communication tools such as Apple Watch even more severely strengthen the availability of users as they can utilize functions more easily and effortlessly. These tools set our hands free, which further allows multitasking and serial attention switching. Finally, with the most recent wearable devices people are able to take better care of their physical well-being by detecting, collecting and sharing related data.
To some extent, different types of communicative tools can be indications of social eras due to its huge impacts, either direct or indirect, as people tend to divide recent centuries by industrial revolutions. The innovations of communication tools are largely based on societal needs at different points in history while the advanced communication methods and higher efficiency in turn led to further developments in other aspects of life. Therefore, similarly, it is reasonable to categorize time periods as, for example, primitive era, verbal era, script era, printing era, telecommunication era, Internet ear, mobile era and so on.
From a Hauberian perspective, the online-social-mobile media revolution means having Internet connections available publicly and potentially being connected to the world all day long. However, it does not solve the issue of commercialization and privatization. Social media companies are earning large amounts of money by “selling” its popularity and making use of its user data. Almost none of the users on online-social-mobile media is able to enjoy a completely private space whereas letters and correspondences can ensure privacy to the largest extent. Conversely, such media technology encourages publicity and engagement.
By Bochao Sun, BU Emerging Media Studies Graduate Student, firstname.lastname@example.org
Carey, J. (2008). Communication as Culture, Revised Edition: Essays on Media and Society. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=N2aRAgAAQBAJ
Hauben, M. (1994). What the Net Means to Me. Amateur Computerist Newsletter, 66(1).
Highton, E. (1852). The Electric Telegraph Its History and Progress by Edward Highton. Retrieved fromhttps://books.google.com/books?id=6SstLNS-s1gC&
History.com staff. (2009). Morse Code & the Telegraph. History.com. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/inventions/telegraph.
Winston, B. (1998). Media Technology and Society: A History: from the Telegraph to the Internet. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=T8YLfMsaAXAC