Before Mobile Phones: The Telegraph


Most people would be lost today without mobile phones. Cell phones and other mobile devices are often the main ways that people keep in contact with each other, at any time and over any distance. Before the 1800's people only communicated by letters, which often would get lost and took a great deal of time.  Other forms of communication in previous societies included smoke signals and signal fires to send messages quickly from a distance, but these also were very simple messages; however, during the 1800's a remarkable machine appeared that would revolutionize the world by making communication almost instantaneous and able to be accomplished easily over great differences. This machine was called the telegraph.

The telegraph operates on the simple principle of electromagnetic currents. When a telegraph sends a message, an electrical circuit is opened and then closed. The telegraph that then receives the message uses the electric current to create a magnetic field that then creates a mechanical effect that someone can interpret. During the early days when people were inventing different kinds of telegraphs, some inventors utilized an electrochemical system. A telegraph consists of three basic parts, a battery to create electricity, a key which either opens or closes the circuit, and an electromagnet which operated the mechanical effect.  All of these parts were connected by wire, which was usually made out of copper. 

One of the first types of telegraphs was the needle telegraph invented by Charles Wheatstone and Charles Cooke around the 1830's.  A compass-like needle would point to corresponding letters therefore spell out a message. Around the same time, Samuel F. B. Morse and Alfred Vail came up with the idea of an electromechanical telegraph. The signals from this device would create dashes or dots, and these could either be printed off or interpreted by ear. From this system of dots and dashes, the famous Morse code came about and was used to make meaningful interpretations that telegraphs produced; however, Morse code was mostly used in the United States, and in Europe a different code called either the "Continental" or International" code was used. At first this machine was just used in small demonstrations within a few rooms; however, Morse and Vail soon gained funds to set up a connection between Washington and Baltimore. After sending the first message across this line "What hath God wrought!", Morse established a company that began creating commercial lines between major cities. By the 1850's there were almost over 50 competing telegraph companies in the United States.

By the 1860's, U.S. citizens on the Pacific Coast began asking for a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, and the idea of a transcontinental telegraph was conceived. After the Pacific Telegraph Act was passed, The Western Union Telegraph Company was given the contract to start this project. Western Union eventually went on to become one of the top telegraph companies in the country. This project took an extended amount of time, but when it was finally accomplished, San Francisco was able to make instant communication with New York and other cities along the Atlantic Coast. California, which at the time had been thought of as a mysterious, isolated place at the far edge of the United States, was able to become a prosperous and connected state within the United States due to this transcontinental telegraph line. At the same time, the new telegraph system was being utilized during the Civil War under the titles of United States Military Telegraph (USMT) and the Signal Corp. These groups helped send important military messages such as strategies and news, which in previous wars would have taken weeks and delayed processes. Because of this, telegraphs became incredibly important in wars to come, especially World War I and II.

The telegraph remained the prominent form of communication until the end of the 1800's when the telephone was invented. The telephone was greatly influenced by the telegraph, especially because it utilized the same wire system that telegraphs used, and the first experiments with transferring music by telephone was transmitted along commercial telegraph lines. Soon telephones overtook telegraphs as a primary form of communications, but telegraphs were still utilized for quite a while in more remote areas or in military situations when messages need to be coded. Even today, telegraphs are still used, but not to the extent as they were used in the 1800's.

The telegraph was an important forefather to the modern mobile phone, as it was the first machine to transmit signals nearly simultaneously. The built a system of communication that spanned the United States and the world. Telegraphs helped close the gap of time and distance that letters and older forms of communication could not overcome. The telegraph later went on to influence modern communication, and that is how mobile phones are able to exist today.