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First steps
The first telegraph systems were developed thousands of years ago.

They used many different ways of signalling: smoke, fiery beacon, drums, lights, mirrors, flags and semaphores. But the basic idea was always the same - transmit a message faster than a man could run or a horseman could ride.

The limitations were always the same, too. Signals had to be relayed in stages defined by how far a human could see or hear. And the signals had to be simple, or in a code.
Looking for the electric telegraph
For thousands of years, people dreamed of being able to exchange messages further than they could see or hear. But this meant discovering something that would work independently of sight or sound.

That something was electricity - discovered in the mid 18th century. So the idea of an electric telegraph goes back further than you might think.
The first electric telegraphs
When the electric telegraph finally arrived in the early 19th century, it was a real breakthrough.

It had needed three ingredients to make it reality: the science of electromagnetism, the ability to generate or store electricity and the Industrial Revolution to be able to produce the mechanical devices and wires needed.

But there was one more key - the creation of codes to turn electrical pulses into a kind of language. During the first decades of the 19th century, all the elements finally fell into place.
The telegraphic age dawns
By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, many inventors had built simple electric telegraphs - but no one had managed to construct a working commercial system.

That year, however, the race was won by two Englishmen - William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. They were first to patent a working system.

At the same time, though, an American inventor, Samuel Morse, was perfecting his version of the telegraph - and it was Morse's system that came to dominate the future.
Development of the telegraph
The first telegraphs were cumbersome and slow - but as the telegraphic age progressed the world started to move faster. More and more messages had to be sent - at greater speed and over longer distances.

New types of telegraph had to be invented - and new ways to cram more information down those thin wires. This constant search produced new types of telegraph and took the inventors into new and unexplored areas that would eventually lead to entirely new kinds of telecommunication.
Building telegraph networks
The telegraphic age produced a new phenomenon - the wiring of a nation into a network. Wired networks are so much a part of life today that we hardly think about them - but the first telegraph wires seemed both alien and wondrous in Victorian times. The construction of that first network required huge feats of engineering and also gave rise to some hard fought battles.
Developing telegraphic services
Being able to send messages by telegraph was all very well - theoretically. But why would you want to? Life in the 1840s still moved at the speed of the horse and carriage. There was one exception - the railway. They needed to be able to send messages faster than the trains could travel - and, at that time, trains were the fastest things on Earth.

As the railways speeded up the pace of life so did the telegraph - with the infant telegraph companies having to adapt their services to the new realities of a fast changing world.
International telegraph connections
By the 1850s, telegraph lines crossed Europe and spanned the United States. But there was a final frontier to cross - the ocean. In the mid 19th century, laying a cable under the sea required almost unimaginable levels of investment, engineering expertise and navigational skill - the equivalent of space exploration today. Yet there were men with the money and the determination to take on the challenge - and win.
Into the 20th century
The First World War marked the peak of the telegraph era. Diplomatic telegrams sped Europe's slide into the abyss, cabled military orders triggered mass mobilisation and the knock of the telegram messenger forewarned mothers and wives that the worst had happened.

After the war, the world of communications belonged increasingly to the telephone and the radio. Nevertheless, the telegraph was far from finished - its life extended by newer and more sophisticated devices.
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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