Wonderful Things – the great and mighty Telegraph

How do you say hello to your friends living 100km away from you? You may send an e-mail or a message with your mobile phone and your friends can get your message as soon as you send it.

But how about 100 years ago? Was it possible to send your words like an email as today? The answer is YES, they used the telegraph at that time.

The first commercial electric telegraph was developed by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, and was first used on the Great Western Railway in Britain. It ran for 13 miles, from Paddington station to West Drayton and came into operation on 9th July 1839.

Advert by Great Western Railway telegraph services, 1845. Image SSPL

Advert by Great Western Railway telegraph services, 1845. Image SSPL

In fact, the telegraph was patented in the UK in 1837, and first successfully demonstrated by Cooke and Wheatstone later that year between Euston and Camden town in London.

 The concept of the telegraph was based on Oersted’s recent discovery that an electric current flowing in a conductor could move a nearby compass needle. With the addition of a suitable coding system, it found an ideal market in the developing railway network. Interestingly, because the diamond grid on it only had space for 20 letters of the alphabet, the 6 missing ones had to be left out of messages!

Cooke & Wheatstone five-needle telegraph, 1837

Cooke & Wheatstone five-needle telegraph, 1837. Image SSPL

After World War II new technology became available that radically improved the telegraph, such as the coaxial cable and microwave links. The advent of the digital computer in 1960s brought an end to much analogue communication, but it didn’t change the fact that the telegraph was actually was the first practical use of electricity for long-distance communication, and radically changed the world.

How is the telegraph like an iphone?

Telegraph vs playstation: which one changed more lives?

If you were to throw a birthday party for the telegraph, which other inventions would you invite? Who would NOT be invited?

 Come and see the iconic telegraph in the Making the Modern World gallery on the ground floor.

  Raynold, Masato & Maki – Tokyo Institute of Technology

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