Transcript for A short history of the telegraph


People have always tried to find effective ways to communicate over long distances. Smoke, fire, bells, trumpets, guns, and even yodelling have all been tried. In 1774 in England, something called a shutter telegraph system was installed between London and Dover, Portsmouth and Newmarket. Such a system carried the news of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Across the Channel a Frenchman, Claude Chappé, devised a semaphore system known as the ‘télégraphe’ that was widely used during the Napoleonic wars. The problem with semaphore systems was that they only worked well when the weather was good, and visibility clear.

In the 1820s, England introduced its own semaphore system, like the one in the outside display, but by the 1830s, with the introduction of electrical telegraphy, the optical system was dismantled.

In 1837 Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke invented the 5 needle telegraph for relaying messages using the new technology.

By the 1840s the American inventor Samuel Morse, and his colleague Alfred Vail, introduced a code for sending the message which required less complex equipment.

Using their Morse Code, the telegraphist would tap out a series of dots and dashes which the receiving telegraph office would interpret. Their first message read:


A patient waiter is no loser.


Hmm… no doubt because he expects a good tip!

As the nineteenth century wore on, more methods for transmitting messages were developed, like the ABC telegraph. The ABC telegraph had two letter-indicating dials: one for sending, and one for receiving messages.

Around the same time, piano-keyboard transmitters were introduced – the keys punched out codes that represented different letters of the alphabet.

It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that a telegraphic typewriter was patented, and this printed out Roman numerals at the receiving end. Perhaps the most widely used of these systems was the teleprinter.

You can see one of these on display in the telegraph office here.