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Acquaintances made by the telegraph key
August 4, 2011 3:54 AM   Subscribe

From 1890: The First Text Messages I’m not sure what “Wl hrs a fu” is supposed to mean. But it sounds like “min pen” is an 1890 equivalent of today’s instant messager’s “afk brb."

Telegraph operators on opposite sides of the country had some time to get to know each other when they weren’t busy sending other people’s messages. “Metaphorically they shake hands cordially twice a day — when they begin work and when they end it. And when business is dull they hold long conversations, with hundreds of miles — perhaps thousands — separating them, as two friends might do over a dinner table.”
posted by Omnomnom (29 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nearly all women have a habit of rattling off a lot of meaningless dots before they say anything.

QFT.
posted by nathancaswell at 4:50 AM on August 4, 2011


oh wow, that was really amazing. I've read about this before, of course, but this was very timely for me. Yesterday I was forced to sit through a few very pointed comments from an older woman about how "people don't bother to learn how to write proper any more, and you people think you can get by with just your junky abbreviations etc."

Next time, I will be vr hppy to respond with "Interesting that you say that, because as it turns out..."
posted by rebent at 4:56 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Operators laugh over a wire, or rather, they convey the fact that they are amused. They do this by telegraphing “ha, ha.” Very great amusement is indicated by sending “ha” slowly and repeating it several times, and a smile is expressed by sending “ha” once or perhaps twice. Transmitting it slowly and repeating it tells the perpetrator of the joke at the other end of the wire that the listener is leaning back in his chair and laughing long and heartily.

This article is AWESOME. Thanks so much!
posted by Judith Butlerian Jihad at 5:52 AM on August 4, 2011


LBIMCLLH
posted by griphus at 6:08 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was eagerly reading for something about the late C19th equivalent of sexting. Alas.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 6:16 AM on August 4, 2011


I cannot wait to send “I’m nt flg vy wl; fraid I’ve gt t mlaria.” the next time someone texts about my health!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:19 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm impressed by the fact that "ga" (go ahead) and "r u" (are you) are abbreviations still in use today.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:23 AM on August 4, 2011


What's interesting is that the article doesn't mention any of the standardized, arbitrary Morse code abbreviations, which aren't just cut-down English words. Wikipedia says they developed from 1845 onwards, so they definitely should have been in use at the time the article was written. (Q-codes are even more compact, but were a later radiotelegraph invention, I think.)

Even better, Morse allows for prosigns, which are basically additional "letters" that have more complex meanings than just a normal Roman-alphabet letter. E.g., "·-·-·" is defined as "stop" but it's not S-T-O-P written out. In computer terms, the prosigns are analogous to the non-printing/control parts of the ASCII character set. The cool part about Morse is that, unlike ASCII, there's no fixed length for each character: there's literally no limit (other than the number of signs that you want operators to memorize) to the number of prosigns that you can define.

Telegraph abbreviations were a lot more advanced than just textspeak vowel-dropping.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:27 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


you are now imagining a "facebook" consisting of a book full of pictures of faces

each has a name in morse code

each has a striking facial expression
posted by LogicalDash at 6:29 AM on August 4, 2011


I cannot wait to send “I’m nt flg vy wl; fraid I’ve gt t mlaria.” the next time someone texts about my health!

There must be a way to start a meme of responding with FIGM ("'fraid I've got malaria") as the response to "WHAT UP?" or similar meaningless conversational dots.
posted by The Bellman at 6:32 AM on August 4, 2011 [3 favorites]



Many abbreviations in use throughout the 20th Century and still in use (amateurs, military, and until a few years ago, maritime) were adapted from landline telegraphers.

One difference between 'texting' and telegraphy abbreviations
is the cause by the fact that the code for characters varies considerably in length from [.] for 'e' to [..--..] for a question mark.

An additional motivation is rhythm and familiarity, which is probably how 'c' => 'si' [-.-.] came to stand for "yes" rather than 'y' [-.--]

So 'ha' or even 'ha ha ha' has a better chance of being adopted than 'lol' to indicated unheard laughter via CW.

Once telegraphy moved to radio, an added motivation was the need to be as clear as possible against high levels of background static or interference from other transmissions. So 'e' tend to be left out, a lone dit being easy to lose against a noisy background.

Much the way the '@' was repurposed for email addresses, telegraphers repurposed the French preposition 'de' for the much longer "from" in station to station calls and periodic station IDs, thus:

"W1AW DE K9ABC W1AW DE K9ABC W1AW DE K9ABC k"

where station K9ABC is calling for station WIAW.

In Engish this would be rendered something like:

"W1AW from K9ABC W1AW from K9ABC W1AW this is K9ABC over"

Here's a pretty comprehensive list of CW abbreviations, including international Morse Code character codes.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:32 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Two more things:

A person's distinctive pattern of keying is referred to as his or her fist, and an experienced operator can definitely distinguish other operators by their fist. Radar could probably tell immediately whether it was Sparky or one of his colleagues on the other end of the line within a few words.

One explanations for how ham radio got its name is from ham-fisted, an alternative term to 'ham-handed' already in use for someone lacking in skill. You can see how easily an amateur with a sloppy 'fist' could come to be called a ham-fist, and eventually a ham.

= = =

Also, the system in use today International Morse Code is somewhat different from the American Morse Code system originally used in landline telegraphy.

Here's a handy comparison chart.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:45 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I love the fight circuit story.
posted by absalom at 6:59 AM on August 4, 2011


There's a brilliant book about this - The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage
posted by mamagrainne at 8:09 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


oh god, the fighting chatbot story is incredible.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:59 AM on August 4, 2011


I’m not sure what “Wl hrs a fu” is supposed to mean.

"Well, here's a few [messages]." Surely?
posted by rusty at 9:00 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another interesting feature hidden in there is in the phrase "fraid I’ve gt t mlaria", which we're all taking to mean "Afraid I've got the malaria".

"The malaria"? That's Herman T. Zweibel and Montgomery Burns talk! Did people really use the word 'the' more often back then? I've got the curiosity to find out.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:04 AM on August 4, 2011


I've got the curiosity to find out.

ISWYDT
posted by Omnomnom at 9:41 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love the fight circuit story.

I know. First flame wars?
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:30 AM on August 4, 2011


> I love the fight circuit story.

First rule of fight circuit is not to talk about ..-. .. --. .... - / -.-. .. .-. -.-. ..- .. -
posted by mmrtnt at 12:33 PM on August 4, 2011


> Did people really use the word 'the' more often back then?

This is why Unforgiven and (both versions of) True Grit are my favorite westerns.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:37 PM on August 4, 2011


Re True Grit: The language employed there was certainly my favorite part of the movie. But did people really talk like that back then? I can imagine that they would've written like that, but did they really talk that way? Is there any way to know?
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 1:19 PM on August 4, 2011


That's what's so great about this article. It was written in 1890, and, despite what conventions there may have been about written American that might not have reflected how people actually spoke, there's no reason the article's author would have come across
fraid I’ve gt mlaria
and fixed it up to read
fraid I’ve gt t mlaria
I take this as evidence that people (well, telegraph operators, at least) actually spoke that way.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:52 PM on August 4, 2011


Re True Grit: The language employed there was certainly my favorite part of the movie. But did people really talk like that back then? I can imagine that they would've written like that, but did they really talk that way? Is there any way to know?

That's talked about in this A Way With Words episode. I think the conclusion was that it was mostly stylized for the book/movie.
posted by kmz at 2:00 PM on August 4, 2011


Is there any way to know?

Court transcripts, maybe? Shorthand was quite prevalent then, so you'd probably be getting a transcript that was pretty close to what people actually said, as opposed to a written version. Of course there's no reason why the stenographer might not have changed it later, besides honesty, but that sounds like unnecessary work.

But back on topic: What has WYSIWYG Done to Us (PDF) is a pretty interesting look back on several decades of typography and printing, from the midst of the 90s DTP revolution. I found it interesting because I tend to really only think about HTML and SGML in the context of web publishing, but SGML has some of its roots in the very-much-nonstandardized markup languages used by early computerized typesetting machines, specifically in avoiding them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:50 PM on August 4, 2011


What gets me is how much CW is used on the ham bands. I cheat and get my computer to key for me, but I've had a few confirmed contacts even tho' I don't know code and have Fldigi do the sending and the parsing.
posted by scruss at 4:35 PM on August 4, 2011


> What has WYSIWYG Done to Us

Heh. I open this up and find it's by my old friend Conrad. A couple of years after that article was published, he came up and worked on my employer's SGML workflow. One of the proprietary tag systems we used had >tags< >that< >looked< >liked< >this< (in other words, the opposite of the familiar (SG|HT|X)ML convention) and Conrad's work helped sort out the mess.
posted by scruss at 4:42 PM on August 4, 2011


One of the proprietary tag systems we used had >tags< >that< >looked< >liked< >this<

Ah, good old LMX.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:32 PM on August 4, 2011


scruss: What gets me is how much CW is used on the ham bands. I cheat and get my computer to key for me, but I've had a few confirmed contacts even tho' I don't know code and have Fldigi do the sending and the parsing.

CW is low speed but often more effective than voice in very noisy band conditions.

Also, as long as the messages you want to send are short and simple, CW can be faster than voice, which makes it good for contests. During peak periods, high-performance contesters might log two contacts each minute with voice, but three with CW!
 
posted by Herodios at 10:14 PM on August 4, 2011


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