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150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Telegraph
October 23, 2011 6:42 PM   Subscribe

150 years ago, a primitive Internet united the USA. "Long before there was an Internet or an iPad, before people were social networking and instant messaging, Americans had already gotten wired. Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental telegraph. From sea to sea, it electronically knitted together a nation that was simultaneously tearing itself apart, North and South, in the Civil War. Americans soon saw that a breakthrough in the spread of technology could enhance national identity and, just as today, that it could vastly change lives."
posted by homunculus (49 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have news for Boston.com: People were social networking a long time before the transcontinental telegraph.
posted by DU at 6:46 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


"A primitive Internet"? Why not a very advanced carrier pigeon?
posted by RogerB at 6:47 PM on October 23, 2011 [14 favorites]


From a technological view, the telegraph is unlike the Internet and the Internet Protocol suite. It was a lot closer to another paradigm: the public switch telephone network. Unlike the Internet, the telegraph had reserved bandwidth for each conversation, and it could not multiplex individual datagrams of information on the same wire. It's no coincidence that AT&T stands for American Telephone and Telegraph.
posted by Tristram Shandy, Gentleman at 6:51 PM on October 23, 2011


-... .-. . .- -.- .. -. --. -. . .-- ... .-.. --- .-.. -.-. .- - ... .- .-.. .-.. - .... . .-. .- --. . .. -. -. . .-- -.-- --- .-. -.- -.-. .. - -.-- .-.-.- --. --- .- - ... . .. -. .- -.-. .-.. --- ... . ... . -.-. --- -. -..
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 6:52 PM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting these. There was a very readable book on this subject a while ago by Tom Standage.
posted by carter at 6:58 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Commenting on post stopLooking for favoritesstop
PMstop
posted by pianomover at 6:58 PM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


What hath God wrought?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:58 PM on October 23, 2011


Was just coming to say that it reads like he cribbed "The Victorian Internet", but carter beat me to it.
posted by briank at 7:00 PM on October 23, 2011


-.-- -.- .-- .--. .-.-.- / -.-. .- -. -. --- - / . -- .- .. .-.. / . ..-. ..-. . -.-. - .. ...- . .-.. -.-- .-.-.- / .--. .-.. . .- ... . / .- - - . -. -.. / -... .. .-. - .... .--. .-.. .- -.-. . / .- ... .- .--. .-.-.- / -.-. --- -. - .. -. ..- . / - --- / .-- .- .. - / --- -. / --. .-. .- -. -.. -.-. .... .. .-.. -.. .-.-.- / -- --- -- .-.-.-
posted by youknowwhatpart at 7:08 PM on October 23, 2011


Thanks, Bighappyfunhouse, now I have a second use for Wolfram|Alpha!

(the first is current stellar/planetary positions for stargazing)
posted by Earthtopus at 7:09 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I prefer the the clacks.
posted by kmz at 7:15 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Standage's book is most amusing. Worth a look.

Morse is still going strong. Tune low in the 40, 30 and 20m bands (7.0, 10.1 and 14.0 MHz) and you'll hear it all night.
posted by scruss at 7:16 PM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


DEAREST GRANDCHILD STOP I WRITE TO YOU WITH THE UTMOST URGENCY STOP I HAVE RECEIVED DISTURBING NEWS FROM AN UNIMPEACHABLE SOURCE STOP THE PRESIDENT IS A MUSLIM STOP
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:17 PM on October 23, 2011 [42 favorites]


...didn't they use the fence wires across the prairies at one time? (can't find any link to coroborate this...)
posted by marvin at 7:18 PM on October 23, 2011


Why do journalists constantly feel the need to compare anything technology-related with stupid goddamn iPads?
posted by indubitable at 7:20 PM on October 23, 2011 [8 favorites]


Happy Birthday to me!

You guys don't know it, but all of my posts are mere echoes of decades old telegraph messages... that happen to be appropriate in context... even this one.
posted by telegraph at 7:38 PM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


...didn't they use the fence wires across the prairies at one time? (can't find any link to coroborate this...)--marvin

I don't know if it was done generally, but none other than Claude Shannon, the father of modern information theory did this as a boy:

When Shannon was a boy growing up on a farm in Michigan, he built a homemade telegraph system using Morse Code. Messages were transmitted to friends on neighboring farms, using the barbed wire of their fences to conduct electric signals.
posted by eye of newt at 7:58 PM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Morse is still going strong. Tune low in the 40, 30 and 20m bands (7.0, 10.1 and 14.0 MHz) and you'll hear it all night.

All night, of course, since the skywave propagation on HF is best at night.

If you don't have a receiver that will pickup those frequencies, websdr.org is an incredible resource. The technology behind software defined radio is incredible and deserves its own front page post.
posted by autopilot at 8:07 PM on October 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Interesting topic but really fucking annoying article. We get it. It's just like Twitter. Except older.
posted by jontyjago at 8:13 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


And even then they used it for sexxytimes. Maybe.
posted by emjaybee at 9:02 PM on October 23, 2011


RogerB: ""A primitive Internet"? Why not a very advanced carrier pigeon?"

I'm imagining some type of robot pigeon with lasers for eyes.
posted by arcticseal at 9:05 PM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


People were social networking a long time before the transcontinental telegraph.

Back then, favorites were coconuts!
posted by mannequito at 9:27 PM on October 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Morse Code vs. Text Messaging [VideoSift] on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, May 13, 2005. CW operator Chip Margelli K7JA discusses the show on eHam.Net:
Let me assure you that we never saw that message before I flipped the blue card over. Each message, in rehearsal, was different. The character count was the same as the one during dress rehearsal, though, to account for the time slot.

And they put the card on the table "upside down" creative to how I flipped it, as you can see on the video. So that was the first time we saw it. But I did save a ton of money on my car insurance.
The May 20, 2005 The American Radio Relay League Letter has more details and mentions an earlier competition:
During the Australian competition in April, a Morse team consisting of 93-year-old former post office telegrapher Gordon Hill — the sender — and 82-year-old Jack Gibson — the receiver — topped 13-year-old SMSer Brittany Devlin. In that event, Hill spelled out the message in full, while Devlin used text-messaging shorthand. In that competition, held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Hill took 90 seconds to send the message, 18 seconds faster than Devlin's message took to reach her friend's cell phone.
Ain't no tech like old tech.
posted by cenoxo at 9:33 PM on October 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers; Standage, Tom; 1999.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:54 PM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seconding carter's recommendation of The Victorian Internet. It's a really readable book on the subject.
posted by TheDonF at 10:49 PM on October 23, 2011


•••• • •—••  •—•• ———    • —— ——— •—• •—••  —••

There, I built youse guys an amplifier. Now youse can fire summa those relay operators, har har!!
posted by Twang at 11:57 PM on October 23, 2011


... ..- .--. / -..-. -... -..-. ..--..
posted by codswallop at 12:55 AM on October 24, 2011


The internet is available to everyone and their momma every damn day of the week.

You can't compare the telegraph to the internet...its more like a modern day cell phone antenna that does 4g. It adds to the lines of communication...but only for some people.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:22 AM on October 24, 2011


Just finished reading Gleick's The Information -- great stuff, and I enjoyed the section on telegraphy (framed to an extent like this post) a lot. Recommended.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:03 AM on October 24, 2011


The internet is available to everyone and their momma every damn day of the week.

Your privilege is showing. Some people have no access to any internet, plenty of people don't have it at home. Sure the internet offers greater levels of communication locally and internationally but its clearly on a continuum of "lines of communication...but only for some people."
posted by biffa at 4:14 AM on October 24, 2011


I am reminded of this painting.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:54 AM on October 24, 2011


Your privilege is showing. Some people have no access to any internet, plenty of people don't have it at home. Sure the internet offers greater levels of communication locally and internationally but its clearly on a continuum of "lines of communication...but only for some people.


Untrue. Even the small Library in my small town has a computer, free to all to those willing to remove the sofa. I walked miles to use it every day, and because I did, I now have my own...and it's why I always vote "Yes" for Library funding in town elections.
posted by Mblue at 5:56 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's very big of you. However 1.4 billion people don't have access to electricity, so their connectivity will not be great, and not just because they are lazy. If you want to just count the developed world then if being able to walk into town to use the internet counts as full access then many people in many towns 100 years ago would have had full telegraph access also.
posted by biffa at 6:17 AM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sometimes it worries me that my communications career has taken me across so many electronic frontiers. Other times I figure I'll wake up in some dystopian future and automagically know how to use whatever piece of communications device we're able to cobble together. Just please don't let it be IBM punchcards, OK?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:27 AM on October 24, 2011


...and it could not multiplex individual datagrams of information on the same wire.
Not initially, but later it could.

Also, this misses the point. One of the central points of Standage's book (from which this is heavily cribbed) is that the telegraph represented a new kind of communication whereas things like teletype, email, and texting are merely a difference in how often and how freely use them in our everyday lives.
posted by LiteOpera at 6:33 AM on October 24, 2011


The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854. "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
posted by Carol Anne at 6:38 AM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


That's very big of you. However 1.4 billion people don't have access to electricity, so their connectivity will not be great, and not just because they are lazy. If you want to just count the developed world then if being able to walk into town to use the internet counts as full access then many people in many towns 100 years ago would have had full telegraph access also.

I'm sorry, but I assumed (yeh, I know the dashes) we were talking about voters. The 1.4 billion people you are referencing don't lack Libraries, they lack free government.
posted by Mblue at 7:03 AM on October 24, 2011


I have Standage's book right here. He starts to make the case that it's the internet because the morse code dits and dashes resemble the bytes of the modern internet. Ethernet vs. telephone wire, etc. He filled it out really well too. Stories of business, crime, love, etc., all conducted over the telegraph. A marriage was done over it (pg. 138... and the couple was greeted by all the telegraph operators who helped make it happen for years afterword). Spam existed. Encryption. Information overload. You name it, it happened. It's a really fun book actually.

Anyway, you can see the same thing with the internet, telephone (see party line), two way radios, newspapers, semaphore lines (worth a click, I promise) and flags, carrier pigeons, letters, and smoke signals. Some of the protocols are backward's compaitible too. Witness, IP over Avian Carriers, and TCP/IP over ham radios (which beat the public internet to common use, FYI).
posted by jwells at 7:09 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I built one of these once, it was actually a great deal of fun, really easy, and felt so neat to be able to "make" radio signals... despite being "vaguely illegal" (but seriously, how can you make such a simple thing illegal, and how will future tinker-ers advance if everything is regulated), also, people with radio licenses will hate you for making (using) it, mostly because it is essentially a signal jammer, and can be used to block radio signals (mine worked in 2-5 foot radius), I definitely recommend a spark gap transmitter as a project for someone looking for something to do to engage and teach about simple radio/electronics, or just to share something neat. It is indistinguishable from magic. Plug in an AM radio nearby, and receive signals from the next room! I promise to only use it for good.

There is great potential for a huge, beautiful painting titled 'map of morse', some variation on the theme of this, Dah go Left, Dits, go Right (Easy).
Apocrypha of Morse:
-- .- .-. -.- / - .-- .- .. -. / ... ..- -... -- .. - - . -.. / - .... . / -- .- -. ..- ... -.-. .-. .. .--. - / --- ..-. / .- / -.-. --- -. -. . -.-. - .. -.-. ..- - / -.-- .- -. -.- . . / .. -. / -.- .. -. --. / .- .-. - .... ..- .-. .----. ... / -.-. --- ..- .-. - / - --- / .... .. ... / .--. ..- -... .-.. .. ... .... . .-. / .-- .. - .... --- ..- - / .--. ..- -. -.-. - ..- .- - .. --- -. .-.-.- / .... .. ... / -.-. --- .--. -.-- / . -.. .. - --- .-. / .-- .-. --- - . / -... .- -.-. -.- / .. -. / ..-. ..- .-. -.-- / .- -. -.. / - .-- .- .. -. / .-. . ... .--. --- -. -.. . -.. / .-- .. - .... / .- / ..-. . .-- / .--. .- --. . ... / --- ..-. / .--. ..- -. -.-. - ..- .- - .. --- -. / -- .- .-. -.- ... --..-- / .. -. ...- .. - .. -. --. / - .... . / . -.. .. - --- .-. / - --- / .--. ..- - / - .... . -- / .-- .... . .-. . ...- . .-. / .... . / .-- .- -. - . -.. / - .... . -- .-.-.-

The 'wiring a continent' link is wonderful. And this part from the Boston Globe article,
"I really see the telegraph as the original technology, the grandfather of all these other technologies that came out of it: the telephone, the teletype, the fax, the Internet," said telegraph historian Thomas Jepsen, author of "My Sisters Telegraphic: Women In Telegraph Office 1846-1950."

A great reminder of how communications technique (technology, research, philosophy, academics, politics, infrastructure, economics, accidental logics, and extra-categorical factors) has long been central to some of the most massive reordering of society projects, impacting towards changes in structure, a shifting of the possible in the lives of women, towards the *possibility of a more equal partnership between men and women, jobs in communications spaces (and now Information Technique, a place outside of homes, a workplace, an economic status, steps towards leading organizations. So yes, one can definitely see tools of communication as mere toys... new shiny's, but each step of communications has meant a new phase in how not just communications, but society as a whole is ordered. (*There still exists a massive, underexplored shadow economy).

Pretty strange synecdoche, in the idea that now, with Work From Home, and distributed computer networks, our whole society may soon come full circle, and be in the place where all women were, just a short time ago, only instead of "Husband" at the head of the household, organizing, or rather, directing labour that occurred in the home, it's the "Boss". If companies do come to be charged for externalities, or carbon offsetting, one potentially would include the fuel, and particulates created from every employee driving to work, that seems to be a fairly strong incentive to companies to find alternative arrangements.

I guess one's position on communications technique depends on whether one sees one way, or two way interaction as dominating the public sphere.Also, it's pretty wild that we still have mail today still, even though in the western world there is access to a personal audio-telegraph, essentially everywhere one goes, and they were predicting mail to disappear back then.

I challenge The Whelk (or any other interested) to write a story where
"Telegraphers, hired by the thousands to relay every kind of information, created a new language, one of strange abbreviations that only they, and perhaps some wire service journalists, understood." are like "theluminati", a secret society bent on making sure the news carries at least one cheerful bit in each segment, nearly extinct, and there is little hope for a restoration to prominence, so, like one man bites dog segment an episode. They invented twitter, and also infiltrated Boston Globe, using credentials crafted on ipods touch, and ipads. Now, a rogue splinter from the main group of 7 is determined to reshape the news. Dark hilarity ensues.

Seventy-three, for example, meant goodbye; 30 was the number placed at the end of a news story to signify the end. 27 was used to signify the addition of piece that was not in the public transcripts, but would be encoded in a higher plane of morse characters (morse code-code).
posted by infinite intimation at 8:43 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Telegraphers, hired by the thousands to relay every kind of information, created a new language, one of strange abbreviations that only they, and perhaps some wire service journalists, understood. Seventy-three, for example, meant goodbye; 30 was the number placed at the end of a news story to signify the end.

This telegraph lingo still endures... I worked a pizza delivery job with an old retired guy. He was like 70 plus. During slow times us drivers would shoot the breeze about stuff. This Old guy said he was a telegraph operator when he was a young sailor in the navy.
Some delivery orders came in and he said....

"when ships would leave port, us telegraph operators would spell out C-U-N-T."

So,I'm horrified because this was mixed company. I think there was a young single mom on our deliver crew. I was taught to respect my elders, so I just smiled and nodded.
The Old guy let us sweat a minute while the rest of us drivers looked awkwardly at each other. We were thinking ' this is some dirty old man who's trying to make a bad joke.'

Finally he said "C. U. Next Trip." And he left for a delivery.
posted by hot_monster at 8:45 AM on October 24, 2011


> Seventy-three, for example, meant goodbye

What do you mean, meant? It still does. Do a Google search on "73 de", and you'll find hits within the last hour. Listen on the amateur bands and you'll hear "--... ...-- / -.. . (CALLSIGN)" all the time. Now, the fact that I don't key, but have an Arduino do it for me, and have my computer decode the morse, doesn't mean it's a dead technology.
posted by scruss at 9:44 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just getting around to reading "The Information" by James Gleick. He integrates this development of telegraphy into the story of formalizing the concept of information. An interesting anecdote is that prior to electrotelegraphy, there were semaphores used for telegraphy in France that spread to other places. Large, swinging arms were mounted atop towers at distances where they were just barely visible to each other and messages were passed along using a system of codes. This system was almost immediately replaced when electrotelegraphy came into being. They working out of the codes to be used by this new system was another fascinating bit of its history.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:59 AM on October 24, 2011


doesn't mean it's a dead technology.

Unless it's dead reckoning, then the tech survives.
posted by Mblue at 10:04 AM on October 24, 2011


The 1.4 billion people you are referencing don't lack Libraries, they lack free government.

No, they lack electricity, probably also libraries and quite possibly free government but that's not really relevant to the assertion that the internet is easy communication for all. Are you struggling with simple comprehension?
posted by biffa at 10:06 AM on October 24, 2011


One other tidbit. My family is tangentially related to Cyrus Field (his niece was my great-great grandmother, I think). Because of this, as a young boy I heard the story of his role in laying the first transAtlantic cable in 1866. Connecting continents was an unbelievably great idea and people paid big bucks for those transAtlantic missives. Would that any of his money had been piped down our branch of the tree.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:08 AM on October 24, 2011


Oh, and to play along:

-.. . .- .-. . ... - .-.-.- / .. / .-. . .--. .-. . ... . -. - / .- / -. .. --. . .-. .. .- -. / .--. .-. .. -. -.-. . / .-- .... --- / .-- --- ..- .-.. -.. / .-.. .. -.- . / -.-- --- ..- .-. / .... . .-.. .--. .-.-.-
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:16 AM on October 24, 2011


And then there was the primitive iPod Thomas Edison invented.
posted by acb at 3:44 PM on October 24, 2011


However 1.4 billion people don't have access to electricity [...]

Perhaps they can build crystal radio sets or, if really ambitious, super heterodyne receivers.
posted by autopilot at 5:07 PM on October 24, 2011


Another endorsement for Standage's book, here.

Just to briefly respond to some of the other comments: I was the only kid I knew of growing up in the 80s/90s who was interested in Ham radio. I remember really wanting a TNC to interface my computer and radio, but that was definitely beyond my buying power and my parents' interest in supporting the hobby. Consequently, I never got into packet radio or slow scan TV, and eventually my interest in communications and technology led me from away from radio to telecom and computer networking. I still feel odd about having never learned Morse—I was licensed as a Technician, which didn't include the low bands covered by a Novice license with its WPM requirement.

Finally, people who enjoyed Gleick's book, or meditations on the interplay of society, ideology and technology more generally might also enjoy Paul Edward's work, such as The Closed World, which is more tightly focused on the evolution of information technology during the Cold War, including a number of more recently developed and then discarded transitional network technologies, perhaps soon to be seen as quaint as telegraphy (or at least sooner than we might expect.)

73 de Snuffy.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:57 PM on October 25, 2011


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