The Electric Telegraph: Analogue Coding Exercises

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The Electric Telegraph was revolutionary in its development because it changed the way people received information. It’s a device that allows a message to be sent over long distances without sending the physical letters. It’s done through electrical wires which are then decoded after being received. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica a telegraph is “any device or system that allows the transmission of information by coded signal over distance”. Communication travel was increased in time taken to send and receive and wasn’t affected by environmental factors, where previous technologies struggled such as ships in the ocean battling rough sea conditions. The electric telegraph was prolific with journalists, bankers, merchants, stock brokers and government officials often using it to count election results. Before the telegraph the time taken to send and receive messages and news to other countries and regions could surpass weeks and even months. It has allowed a more ‘rapid communication’ whereby physical deliveries are not necessary.

Morse code was a prolific real-time/audio communication code system before the radio telegraph made it become obsolete. The first commercial telegraph was sent in 1837; however in 1838 Samuel Morse creates a long distance communication model using dot-dash codes (Oscillations in electrical current). Thus, Morse code was invented and to send a telegram you could hand deliver or telephone your message to a telegraph office. There, an operator enters the message into a computer, which then – obsolete translates it into code and sends it to its destination. And the receiving end, machines translate the encoded message back into words and print it out. The telegraph office may hand deliver or telephone the message to the person receiving it.

marco03A Man transmitting the first official messages of the commercial wireless telegraph service

This method of codification relied heavily on the audio medium of communication to decode the message being sent as Samuel Morse discovered that he couldn’t send voice messages, yet could transmit code from pulses. He created a code, which is later adapted to international Morse code, based on a dot-dash system and sound representing each letter of the alphabet. The information or language is codified and then a key makes it representational, thus the origin for communication with this model. An in-class demonstration of how audible coding can be used to create a shape or object with similar techniques. Across the room we were able to set up a key and a sound to code specific directions in order to produce a high heel shoe. This first-hand experience represents the way in which an operator would have either read or listened to the Morse code and deciphered the message according. An activity that showcased the advancement of the Fax machine, which evolved from Morse code, in transmitting one electric pulse down a phone line to represent the words and picture.

The electric telegraph expanded with the incorporation of the railway wiring, which allowed individual networks across Europe to connect to larger populations and networks. This initial networking and structure of wires, was the basis for future telephones and internet networking. The first (working) Trans-Atlantic Cable was laid in 1866, with an estimated speed of 8 words per minute, and originally valued at $100 per word. This specific type of coding system used Alphabetic keys to construct sentences for the decoder to receive their message.

Atlantic_cable_MapTrans-Atlantic Cable

With the first radio telegraph being sent in 1895, people’s perception of the world changed significantly. It stemmed thought of what was available for them to be able to access in terms of information & news. Suddenly the world was a metaphorical body with “a network or iron wires” (New York Tribune). Thus; interest grew with international relations and individuals realised that they could follow events in real time, such as the stock market, access weather reports and sporting scores. Extending on this, the need for a standardisation of time was important as suddenly people worked out it’s not mutual globally. The body became the world with a network make up, thus “by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence” [Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)]. The Electric Telegraph, however, was succeeded by developing technology and running off the same principle people continued to improve this into the introduction of radio and beyond. A simply genius coding technology that was prolific in maritime and aerospace communication until the late 1990s.

Technological determinism is a term used to describe how technology influences human activity and affects, in positive or negative ways, our evolution. The Electric Telegraph has paved the way for communication resources we have available today including the telephone, radio, television transmission and modern computers. All which have coding practises which allows them to operate based on a set system that translates language and symbols into readable content. Marshall McLuhan was a theorist in technological determinism, and is famous for saying “the medium is the message.” Rightly, he concluded that “technology—such as the printing press, radio and TV—created new “spaces” for humans to inhabit and exist mentally and physically in; and as people adapted to these new spaces, they changed: they evolved. The printing press gave us the Gutenberg Bible, which gave us Protestantism, etc. Radio gave us popular music, Hitler & FDR. TV gave us JFK and couch potatoes” (, 2015)

The Electric telegraph has all but been overtaken by other forms of communication today; however this technology has played a significant role in the connectivity of the modern world with services such as Facebook, text messaging and email. It has allowed the world to move into an always linked society, with the use of coding for commands and representation of language through systemisation.


CyberCollege Internet Campus 2013, Foundations of Radio, CyberCollege, viewed 19th August 2015, <;

Dan Gould 2011, In ‘The Transformation’ by James Gleik, The Author explores how a costly toy came to transform our world, PSFK, Viewed 19th August 2015, <;, Electric Telegraph Timeline, Dada, Viewed 18th August 2015, <;

Etienne Deleflie, 2015, Community and Communication, Lecture Slides, MEDA102, University of Wollongong, Online Slides (Moodle), viewed 18th August 2015, <;

JEB Five 2013, History of Morse Code, online video, 26th September, YouTube, viewed 19th August 2015, <;

Kurt Heidinger 2011, Technological Determinism: What is it?, Biocitizen, viewed 19th August 2015, <;

Ted Mitew, 2015, A global Nervous System: from the telegraph to cyberspace, Lecture Online Video, DIGC202, University of Wollongong, Prezi, viewed 15th August 2015, <;


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