Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

February 1, 2006

The Telegram: 1844-2006

Filed under: — Different River @ 3:42 pm

Western Union has gotten out of the telegram business. Six days ago: January 26, 2006.

This truly a historic event. The telegram was the first method of communication ever that allowed a person to send a message to someone too far away to see or hear, without moving a physical object (such as a piece of paper) to the recipient.

There have been, in human history, five major advances in communication:

  1. Invention of writing (about 5,000 years ago(?)`): For the first time, one could trasmit information without having to be there to speak to the recipient or send a messenger who might forget or garble the message. And, for the first time, one could store information without memorizing it, and thereby convey information to future generations.
  2. Invention of the printing press (1452): For the first time, it become possible to make a large number of copies of something without having a person individually write each copy. The importance of this cannot be under-estimated: Before printing, large numbers of educated people (i.e., people able to write) were employed in the monotonous drugery of copying the work of others, leaving little time for creative work of their own. And, even more vast numbers of people remained uneducated because the labor to create a copy of a book made books too expensive for all but the wealthy. A single copy of a single book could take months or even a year to write, making the cost of a book equal to the cost of supporting a full-time, educated worker for months. See why most people couldn’t afford it? Could you afford to pay a high-school (or even college) graduate six months of salaray for every book you own? Of course, without the previous major advance (writing), the printing press would have been irrelevant.
  3. Invention of the telegraph (1844): For the first time, it becomes possible to transmit a message over long distance without transmitting a physical object over that distance. Before that, if you wanted to communicate with someone in another city, you needed to send a piece of paper (or equivalent) with the message written on it. Now, you could key a telegraph in Baltimore and send your message electronically to Washington … and once they strung the wires, to practically anywhere. (Yes, I know that before the telegraph there were smoke signals, and fire signals relayed over long distances, but these were specialized and not useful for general-purpose communication.) The wires connected to telegraph keys were eventually connected to telephone sets, and we got something much better, but essentially the same in character — transient, on-demand communication with people far away.
  4. Invention of radio (1895): For the first time, it becomes possible to transmit a message without having any physical object (such as a metal wire) connecting you to the recipient. Again, the radio transmitters were first connected to telegraph keys, and then to (basically) telephones. Plus, the fact that radio signals can be received by anyone within range, not just a pre-selected recipient at the other end of the wire, broadcasting became possible — that is, for the first time, it became possible to transmit the same information to a large number of people without transmitting a physical object to each person. This was basically “printing press plus telegraph” — a combination of the two milestones above.
  5. The Internet: The internet is basically a really sophisiticated switching system attached to millions of really sophiticated telegraph sets (computers) that can do what a telegraph key does, only much faster — and it can store the messages to be sent or reviewed over and over again. (And now with wireless networking, you can dispense with the physical object connecting the two parties as well.) There’s really nothing you can do with the internet that you can’t do with a printing telegraph if you have enough time — but you can do it so much faster and more effieciently, I think it really counts as a major advance anyway. It combines the best features of the wired and wireless communication (speed over long distances) with the best features of a postal system (information can sit there until you retrieve it; you don’t need to be “on the phone” at the same time to receive e-mail) and the best features of the printing press (large-scale copying — only just about infinitely faster and cheaper).

Note that these inventions have been coming at a faster rate — four or five millenia from writing to printing, four centuries from printing to the telegraph, five decades from telegraph to radio (and another three decades from radio to radio broadcasting and another decade or two to TV, which is basically radio with a more complex signal). Note also that each of these advances was unimaginable shortly before it became reality. I’ll bet Thomas Jefferson couldn’t imaging a telegraph, and Abraham Lincoln, who used the telegraph all the time, couldn’t imagine radio. And when I was telling people about the internet in the late 1980s, most of them couldn’t imagine it even though it already existed!

I can’t imagine what’s next — but I can’t wait to find out! :-)


Yes, I’m aware of the (quite credible) claim that before Marconi in 1895, Mahlon Loomis demonstrated wireless communication as early as 1868. Loomis asked the government for $50,000 to do research to make his wireless system practical, but he never got the money and didn’t make much progress with the research. Marconi was from a more wealthy background and managed to do it himself.

To answer your next question, I am also aware that Alexander Graham Bell essentially stole the patent for the telephone for Elisha Gray, thanks to a corrupt official in the patent office who sold Gray’s working design to Bell’s lawyer allowing him to replace the non-working design Bell’s lawyer had submitted to the patent office two hours before Gray’s lawyer submitted a working design.

And, Western Union is still alive and well. The got into the telegram business in 1851. In between, Western Union built the first transcontinental telegraph line (1861), the first standard time broadcast (1870), invented the the wire transfer of money (1871), introduced the first charge card (1914), and launched the first dedicated communications satellite (1974) and the first pre-paid phone card (1993). Not a bad run. Money transfer has been its main business since 1871, and still will be for a while.

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