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The first electric telegraphs

Sommerings Telegraph

Early attempts

In 1816 the British inventor Francis Ronalds, who was fascinated by electricity, developed an electric telegraph (using static high voltage electricity) and succeeded in sending messages through eight miles of iron wires. Most were suspended on frames above his garden at Hammersmith, west of London, but some ran underground.

Ronalds' system was quite sophisticated, using clockwork-driven rotating dials, engraved with letters of the alphabet and numbers, synchronised with each other, at both ends of the circuit.

He offered to demonstrate it to the Admiralty. They declined, preferring to stick with their mechanical semaphore. Later, the scientific establishment realised just how far ahead of his time Ronalds had been and he was given a knighthood in 1871. It was a bit late... by then Ronalds was 83 years old and had but two years left to live.

In 1809 the Munich Academy of Science received a paper from an inventor called Samuil Thomas von Sommering that described a telegraph containing thirty-five wires, one for each letter of the (German) alphabet and one for each number. At the transmitting end, arrangements were provided for passing currents through any one of the wires. At the receiving end the electrodes were immersed in acidulated water.

Completing the circuit caused bubbles of hydrogen to form in tubes, each one corresponding to a letter or a number.

Gauss and WeberTelegraph

Schilling constructs early telegraph (1832) : the swinging needle

When Baron Pavel Schilling first saw Sommering's telegraph, he was inspired by it and began to study electricity and its uses. Then a Russian diplomat working at the Munich embassy, Schilling became a regular visitor at Sommering's house, and introduced friends from across Europe to the device.

He went on to apply electricity to military uses, including remotely exploding gunpowder. He also continued to follow his interest in the electric telegraph and by the early 1830s had shown that coiling electrical wire around a magnetised needle would make it swing one way or the other, depending on which way a current flowed through the coil.

He had also applied this principle in a simple form of telegraph, by making use of horizontally mounted indicator needles.

Baron Schilling's needle telegraph was hardly noticed outside St. Petersburg, but two Germans - Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Eduard Weber - saw Schilling's 1832 demonstration. The following year they sent signals over a distance of more than two kilometres using a form of two-wire single-needle telegraph.

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.

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