Telegraph and Telephone Research Paper

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The telegraph and the telephone are communications media that transmit messages by coded signals. The telegraph conveys written messages and the telephone transmits voice. Both media developed rapidly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and form the foundation of the electronics revolution of our time.

The technology to send messages by means of coded signals developed with great speed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the telegraph and the telephone marked the advent of the electronic communication capabilities we take for granted today. But well before the eighteenth century, attempts were made in many parts of the world to use visual telegraphy— messages sent over long distances using such media as smoke signals, fires, and mirrors, usually in one direction only—to warn of approaching enemies. During the French Revolution, Claude Chappe (1763–1805) devised a system of articulated beams and arms that could be moved to indicate numbers, letters, or phrases in a code book. These devices were placed on towers situated approximately 5 to 10 kilometers apart. After the success of their first line in 1794, the French government built a network across France and into neighboring countries. Similar systems were built in other countries, but only over short distances. At the same time, officers of Britain’s Royal Navy developed a new system of flags and code books that allowed two-way communication between ships. These were the first systems that could freely send messages over long distances in either direction. Thus in 1794, the French government in Paris received news of the victory of its army at Conde within minutes of the event, and at Trafalgar in 1805, Admiral Nelson was able to obtain information and control his ships during the course of the battle.

Early Electric Telegraphy

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many inventors tried to send messages over wires by electricity. The electric battery, invented in 1800, and the electromagnet, developed in the 1830s, made such a project possible. In 1837 two Englishmen, William Cooke (1806–1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875), patented a system that used six wires and five needles (later reduced to two) to point at letters and numbers on a board. Their system was installed on railroad lines in Britain. That same year the American Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) patented a code of dots and dashes that could send signals over a single wire. He opened the first electric telegraph line in the United States, from Washington to Baltimore, in 1844.

Electric telegraphs were an instant success in Europe and North America. By 1848, all the cities of North America east of the Mississippi were connected by telegraph wires. The Western Union Company, founded in 1856, quickly dominated the North American telegraph industry. By 1861 its lines connected San Francisco with the East Coast, and it was planning a land line to Europe via Alaska and Siberia when the Atlantic cable made such a line unnecessary. European governments either started building telegraph networks or bought out the first companies. To connect their various national networks, several European countries, later joined by others, formed the International Telegraph Union in 1865.

Telegraphs were so indispensable to the safe and efficient operation of trains that railway companies gave free right-of-way to telegraph lines in exchange for free service. Telegraphs were valuable business tools, conveying commodity and stock prices and other time-sensitive information. They were also used by newspapers, which competed by presenting the latest dispatches bought from the Associated Press (founded in 1848), Reuters (1851), and other news agencies. Governments also made use of the telegraph, especially in times of war and other emergencies.

Outside of Europe and North America, progress was slow. Colonies of the European powers, such as India and Algeria, got their first telegraph lines in the 1850s, as did several Latin American countries and the Ottoman Empire. In China, Africa, and much of the Middle East, governments were reluctant to admit this new form of Western intrusion. Environmental conditions and popular resistance often made it difficult to install and maintain telegraph lines.

Later Electric Telegraphy

Telegraphy continued to advance technologically until the mid-twentieth century. Beginning with a line across the English Channel in 1851, entrepreneurs laid insulated cables across seas and oceans. After several spectacular failures, the technology was finally perfected in 1865 and 1866 with the laying of the first successful transatlantic cables. That success encouraged entrepreneurs to lay cables in other parts of the world: from Europe to India in 1870, to Australia, China, and Latin America in the early 1870s, and around Africa in the 1880s. By the end of the century, all the continents and major islands were connected in a global network dominated by Western Union and the Commercial Cable Company in the North Atlantic and elsewhere by a British firm, the Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies. The global submarine cable network played a major role in the growth of the world economy and international trade before World War I, during the first age of globalization. That network was also strategically valuable, and gave Britain, France, and the United States a significant advantage over Germany in World War I.

Other advances in telegraph technology improved transmission speeds and reduced labor costs. Thus multiplexing—sending several messages simultaneously over the same wire—was introduced in the 1870s and, starting in the 1920s, automatic teletypewriters and vacuum tube repeaters replaced the manual typing and retransmitting of messages. Facsimile transmissions (faxes) began in the 1930s. By then, however, wired telegraphy had fallen far behind two radically different technologies: telephony and radio.


In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) patented a method of transforming sound into electrical impulses and vice versa, thereby making it possible to transmit the human voice over a wire. His invention was the foundation of an industry that now connects people throughout the world.

At first, telephone networks were mainly local or, at best, regional, for transmission quality deteriorated with distance. Service was expensive, as calls had to be switched by operators in telephone exchanges. Beginning in the 1890s, rotary dials and automatic switches permitted a great expansion of service without additional labor. In the United States and Canada, many independent companies competed with the giant AT&T (incorporated in 1885), especially in rural areas. In Europe, the government provided telephone service, usually through the postal and telegraph administration. Outside of Europe and North America, telephones were very rare before World War II, usually limited to government offices and major businesses.

In 1915 AT&T installed vacuum tube repeaters on its longer lines, making it possible to connect New York and San Francisco. A dozen years later, it became possible, though it was extremely expensive, to telephone overseas or to ships at sea.

By the mid-twentieth century, the telephone industry, like the telegraph industry before it, had become mature and technologically conservative. In the United States, local telephone service reached all businesses and most families by the 1950s, but long-distance service was still too costly for the majority of users. In Europe and Latin America, the cost of telephone service was out of reach of the working class. Elsewhere, telephone service was a business tool and a luxury for the urban rich.

Then came a series of innovations that revolutionized the industry and its social effects. The first transatlantic telephone cable, laid in 1956, could carry a dozen calls at once; it was soon duplicated and extended to other oceans. Starting in the 1960s, satellites and inexpensive transmission stations made global telephony cheap and available worldwide by multiplying the number of telephone conversations that could be sent at the same time. On land, microwave towers dramatically lowered the cost of long-distance communications. Fiber-optic cables, introduced in the 1980s, could carry hundreds of thousands of simultaneous telephone conversations. Long-distance calls, both on land and across oceans, were suddenly as cheap as local calls. From 1960 to 1990, for example, the cost of a call from New York to London fell from thirty U.S. dollars to ten cents a minute.

Even as telephony was changing global communications, another series of technological innovations was transforming telephones at the local level. With the computerization of the network, telephones could perform new functions that had not been possible before. Push-button dialing, call waiting, caller identification, and voice mail were among the innovations. It also became possible to use telephones as data communication machines: one could key in numbers to access bank accounts or communicate with programmed answering machines. The telephone network was also used to carry data between computers, via modems. As with all innovations in electronics, in the advanced industrial countries the initial cost of the new telephony was high but fell rapidly; for their inhabitants, the world soon formed one giant and easily accessible network. Most of the world, however, was left far behind. Today, for example, there are more telephone lines in Manhattan than in all of Africa, and most of the people of India and China have never used a telephone.

Radio Telegraphy and Telephony

The technology of radio began very differently from that of wired telegraphy and telephony, but wireless and wired technologies soon interacted with each other and are now almost indistinguishable. Though there had been scientific experiments before, it was a young Irish-Italian, Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937), who in 1895 was the first to use electromagnetic waves as a means of communication. By 1898 he was able to send messages in code over 40 kilometers, and in 1901 he transmitted the letter “S” across the Atlantic. He quickly established a company to communicate with ships at sea and to compete with the cable companies in transcontinental communications.

For the first decade, transmitters used sparks to create radio waves, but soon others invented devices that could transmit not only dots and dashes, but also voice and music. The most important of these was the triode, or vacuum tube, patented by the American Lee De Forest (1873–1961) in 1907. Starting in 1913, it was used in long-distance telephony, then in radio equipment during World War I.

Until the mid-1920s, long-distance radio telegraphy used long waves that required enormous energy- hungry transmitters. Then Marconi and other researchers found that short waves (200 meters or less, or frequencies of more than 1500 kilohertz— more than 1.5 million wave cycles per second) could be produced by inexpensive small transmitters, yet be heard around the world. While the cables and big long-wave transmitters almost shut down, short-wave communication now came within reach of any ship, island, or remote mining camp. In World War II, short-wave radios were used by both sides to communicate with airplanes, warships and submarines, tanks, and even spies.

Microwave radio (with wavelengths measured in centimeters and frequencies of more than 1,000 megahertz—more than a billion cycles per second) found application not only in radar, but also, from the 1950s, as an alternative to copper cables in telephone networks. As mentioned above, microwave radio transmissions, like fiber-optic cables, dramatically reduced the cost of telephone calls.

In the 1990s the combination of computers and microwaves revolutionized the telephone industry yet again. The invention of cell (or mobile) phones made it possible for people to talk to one another or to send brief text messages while walking or driving. As the cost of cell phone service came down to a level comparable to that of wired telephone service, cell phones became among the most popular consumer items in Europe, North America, and Japan.

The Future of Telecommunications

Technological revolutions in telecommunications, especially from the mid 1980s onward, have caused turmoil in the industry. Former monopolies such as AT&T in the United States and Canada and the postal, telegraph, and telephone administrations (or PTTs) in other countries suddenly found themselves seriously threatened, for the first time, by upstart rivals. Money poured into the industry, leading to a stock-market bubble and a serious over-supply of bandwidth and communications channels, followed in 2000 by a recession and many bankruptcies. Expansions and contractions are, however, a normal aspect of business expansion in a free-market economy, one that will benefit consumers in the long run.

Developing countries, meanwhile, are finding it difficult to keep up. While the unit cost of telephone calls are low, the initial investment is enormous, and the technical expertise required to install and maintain computer networks and cell-phone systems is beyond the reach of all but a handful of developing countries. The ones with large populations and economies, like China, India, and Brazil, are keeping up by providing advanced services to certain favored regions and social classes; others are falling behind. Thus, the telecommunications revolution is putting many developing nations at a more serious disadvantage than they were already.

If the recent past is a guide, we can expect as many surprises in the twenty-first century as in the twentieth. Telephone and Internet service will continue to penetrate, however unevenly, into the remotest areas of the world; someday, perhaps, everyone will be connected to everyone else. The quality of telecommunications is also likely to change, perhaps with the introduction of video on demand anywhere at any time. Those technological marvels, however, are no more likely than the technological revolutions of the past to bring about world peace or alleviate poverty.


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