Contributed by Bill Rubin, Senior Manager ISTO

Every generation gets to interpret its history and technology advances.  In the realm of technology, our current generation(s) see the Internet as one of the more transformational technologies humans have created, with the potential to bring widespread benefits across the globe in terms of peace, mutual economic development, and friendship.  However, as Tom Standage argues in his book The Victorian Internet, there was another global telecommunications technology with similar–if not more profound–implications for humanity, namely the humble telegraph. The global deployment of telegraphy required standards for the growth of the technology, both informal market standards as well as international standards, developed by the fledgling International Telegraphic Union (ITU).

The electrical telegraph, which provides a point-to-point messaging system via the transmission of electric signals over metallic wires, saw its initial commercial deployments in the mid-1800s.  These deployments were built on various advances in electrical engineering (e.g., electromagnetism, electrical relays, and early coding techniques). In 1837 Cooke and Wheatstone developed a telegraph system in the United Kingdom which was initially used by railways to coordinate train schedules. In the United States, Samuel Morse played a lead role in the development of the telegraph system, with the first demonstration provided in 1844 with the famous “What hath God wrought” telegraphic message between Washington, DC and Baltimore. The first North American trans-continental system was completed in 1861, bringing a rapid demise to the fledgling Pony Express.

While the initial systems were not based on formal standards, de facto standards were critical to allow communication between the two ends of the system. In particular, the coding system used to translate written letters into electrical dots and dashes, had to be the same to allow human operators at each end to accurately decode messages.   In the United States the famous Morse Code system was implemented and was the de facto standard for electric telegraphy.  In the UK, an alternate coding system based on alternating current was developed by Wheatstone (the A.B.C. system) and required the same equipment at each end of the system (de facto standard), as in the US,  to allow accurate decoding of messages.

Samuel Morse with his Recorder by Brady 1857

Applications for this new technology mushroomed, including: critical business communications between cities, a variety of railroad company applications including synchronization of time between locations, news delivered from across the world, government communications, military communications and a myriad of personal communications transmitted between family and friends across thousands of miles.  In addition, users started to deploy early cryptographic codes to hide the original message to be sent, from other parties that might have exposure to the clear text (sound familiar?).

A major milestone in telegraphy was realized in 1858 with the first working (albeit intermittently) submarine cable system connecting Europe and North America. The performance of this system was rapidly improved over the next years, enabling the first near-instantaneous communication between points all over the world.  By comparison, in the 1850s, it would take approximately two weeks for letters or other written  communication to be transported between London and New York.  For letters from India to London the time was on the order of four weeks, and from Australia to London about ten weeks.   It is hard for us to imagine the profound impact this technology had on people of the time, as they could now find out about events halfway around the world in a matter of seconds.  This invention truly connected the world.  Imagine the wonderment our great, great grandparents had as they learned about the latest new of the day such as the Franco Prussian War in 1870.

Early telegraph systems required skilled operators at both ends, first to encode a written message into the dot dash telegraphy code, and then to reverse operation at the opposite end to decode it. If different coding schemes were used, then human operators would be needed to translate between them, in effect–a human gateway device–as we would call it today.  Recognizing the inefficiencies in such a system of multiple coding schemes, an 1851 conference in Vienna of countries in the German-Austrian Telegraph Union (the precursor to the ITU standards body) adopted the Morse Code as the international standard for telegraphy communications enabling a common signaling code to allow direct telegraph connections between countries.  In 1865, the International Telegraphic Union (predecessor to the ITU) also adopted the international Morse Code as the international standard.  Interestingly, the United States continued to use its Morse Code, which differed from the International Morse Code (such is the life of “standards.”), which was a modified version of the American Morse Code per a code used on German railways.  It was now possible to send a telegram around the world, say from Bombay to New York, without the need for intermediate code translators.  These early telegraphy standards appear to be the first global electrical telecommunications standards!

Emille Baudot

Jean-Maurice-Émile Baudot 11 September 1845 – 28 March 1903

Further telegraphic advancements led to the replacement of human operators via a printing telegraphy and increased capacity for telegraphy via the multiplexing of multiple messages over a single transmission path. The Baudot code (courtesy of the French engineer Emile Baudot) was another important standardization milestone with each alphanumeric character assigned a 5 bit binary code. These improvements increased the speed of transmission. Skilled human operators for early telegraph systems (maybe akin to skilled computer programmers today), could code and decode messages at 40 to 50 words a minute (on the order of hundreds of bits per second). Later, automated telegraphy systems in the late 1800s enabled transmission rates of hundreds of words a minute, and of course today, our emails are transmitted at millions of bits per second.  It should also be noted that once the telegraph was deployed, engineers realized that voice signals could also be transmitted over distances, and thus the first telephones were an outgrowth of engineering concepts advanced by telegraphy.

So the next time you think that our Internet is the most profound and transformative telecommunications technology humanity has produced, take a few minutes to consider the Victorian Internet and electrical telegraphy.  This was the first technology to enable near instantaneous global communication, and it was built upon first de facto standards, and then accredited international standards.  Not only do great humans stand on the shoulders of our predecessors, but great technologies do as well.

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