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Into the 20th century

Using a Telewriter, c1910

Telautograph : forerunner to modern fax

Most people think of the fax machine as a relatively modern invention. But its use over telegraph wires started with the invention of the Telautograph, which transmitted handwriting to distant points over a two-wire circuit.

This invention by Elisha Gray - who so very nearly secured the first patent for a working telephone but was beaten by Bell - was displayed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The following year, George Tiffany invented the faster 'Eureka' model, and the first commercial instruments were installed at the American Bank Note Company.

The Telautograph was used in business, for military purposes - and in politics. On election night in November 1916, results from the close fought contest between President Woodrow Wilson and his Republican opponent Charles Hughes were transmitted instantaneously from each state capital by Telautograph.

Creed keyboard tape perforator - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Milton Keynes Museum

The teleprinter : typing telegraphs

The main drawbacks of telegraphy were that it required two skilled operators (one for sending and one to receive messages) and produced no directly printed output. The idea behind the teleprinter was to automate the telegraphic process by means of a new generation of combined receiving and transmitting machines, using the Baudot code already in use in telegraphy plus a standard typewriter-style keyboard to compose messages.

The first development was made by F.G. Creed, a British telegraph operator working in Chile, who devised a machine that could punch holes in a paper telegraph tape direct from a typewriter-style keyboard. He sailed to Britain and sold a dozen of these keyboard tape perforators to the Post Office in 1902. From 1924 onwards, his company made its own design of teleprinter.

In America the teleprinter was known as the teletypewriter or teletype. The main development was done by Jay Morton, Charles L. Krum and his son Howard. They held a preliminary trial of their machine in 1908 on the Chicago railway. Over the next two years they refined it further. The first full commercial teletype installation worked on the New York-Boston mail line in 1910.

The teletype was a major advance, allowing telegraphic messages to be sent and received much faster - and with far less chance of operator error. It also made telegraphic communication accessible to anyone who could work a keyboard - paving the way for the telex services of the 1930s on.

Typewriting Over Wires booklet, 1937

Telex (1932) : a switched telegraph service

Telex, short for Teleprinter Exchange, is a public service using teleprinters connected through exchanges. The UK was the first country to set up a service of this kind in 1932. This provided connections and exchanges to allow written communication using 'fast' printing telegraph devices.

Direct communication of this kind met a real business need for fast, secure, written communications. Private networks were set up all over the world, using lines hired from the national telecommunications authorities to allow messages to be exchanged between, say, the head office of a large company and its regional branches.

Telex operator, 1966

Sending a telex : faster than fingers

The typical telex terminal or teleprinter was a combined transmitter and receiver, similar to an outsize electric typewriter, and usually equipped with a perforated tape puncher and reader. It had an advantage that the perforated tape could be prepared in advance 'off-line', and then fed in to the machine for transmission when required.

Sending messages on these machines was not unlike sending an e-mail today. A unique telex number (address code) had to be entered to identify the destination. The message was typed and a 'send' key pressed. The message was then transmitted far faster than the operator's normal typing speed.

Telemessage publicity envelope

The last telegraph services : the end of the line?

The teleprinter (and Telex, introduced by the British Post Office in 1932) gave the telegraph an extension to its lifespan which, by then, had already lasted for more than a century. You don't see many teleprinters in advanced nations nowadays - fax and e-mail have made then largely obsolete. However, they are still in use all over the world, particularly in links to and within less developed regions.

A number of nations still have 'telegram' services,  but they most have little in common with the original systems. The UK inland telegram service closed in 1982 to be replaced by the Telemessage service, which had many  similar features (for example, special greetings forms were available) and one hugely significant difference. Received messages were no longer delivered as soon as they arrived at the local office. Instead, they became little more than letters sent through the mail and, as such, were delivered in the next post - tomorrow, or whenever the next post was.

The convenience and imediacy of the telephone had won out. Old style telegram services were no longer even remotely economic to run.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...