Imagine Life Without…The Telegraph.

Imagine Life Without…The Telegraph.

Telecommunication is defined as communication over a distance by cable, telegraph, telephone or broadcasting.

In this “Imagine Life Without” post, we’re going back in time to the invention that, quite literally, connected us with each other…the telegraph.

Created in 1809, the telegraph was the first in a long line of communications breakthroughs that later included radio, telephones and email. Originally, the word “telegraph” – literally “to write at a distance” – referred to a relay communication system developed in 18th-century France by the Brothers Chappe. The Chappe semaphore telegraph consisted of a series of towers topped with three rotating arms or panels that could be moved into nearly 200 standard positions, each assigned a unique value or meaning.

Pioneered by a variety of inventors in the 18th and 19th centuries, the telegraph used Samuel Morse?s famous Morse code to convey messages by intermittently stopping the flow of electricity along communications wires.

The telegraph key used to send the famous message, “What Hath God Wroght” over the prototype telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington D.C. in 1844.

Telegraph lines multiplied throughout the 1850s, and by 1902, transoceanic cables encircled the globe. The original telegraph and its wireless successors went on to be the first major advancements in worldwide communication. The ability to send messages rapidly across great distances made an indelible impact on government, trade, banking, industry, warfare and news media and formed the bedrock of the information age.

Fiber Optics (1840s)

Fiber optic technology was first demonstrated in the 1840?s by Colladon and Babinet. Fiber optic tubes refract light within glass tubes with little loss of light over the length of the tube.

Daniel Colladon’s “light fountain” or “light pipe”

In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell developed the technology to transmit voice signals over an optical beam. Bundled together, fiber optic cables are immune to electrical interference making them good for use in computer networking. Fiber optic transmissions are also much harder to snoop and are therefore considered more secure.

Telephone (1860)

In 1860, the telephone was invented by Johann Philipp Reis. He was the first to produce a functioning electromagnetic device that could transmit understandable sounds.

The Reis Transmitter

In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell?established a school for the deaf in Boston,?Mass., and the following year became a professor in speech and vocal physiology at Boston University. While teaching he experimented with a means of transmitting several telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire and also with various devices to help the deaf learn to speak, including a means of graphically recording sound waves.

In 1874, the essential idea of the telephone formed in his mind. As he later explained it, ?If I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity precisely as the air varies in density during the production of sound, I should be able to transmit speech telegraphically.? Two years later he applied for a patent, which was granted on March 7, 1876. On March 10, the first coherent complete sentence?the famous ?Mr. Watson, come here; I want you??was transmitted in his laboratory.

Bell demonstrates the new telephone connection between New York and Chicago in 1892.

Photophone (1880)

On June 3, 1880, Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the first wireless telephone message on his newly invented “photophone,” a device that allowed for the transmission of sound on a beam of light. Bell held four patents for the photophone, and built it with the help of an assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter. The first wireless voice transmission took place over a distance of 700 feet.

Bell’s photophone worked by projecting voice through an instrument toward a mirror. Vibrations in the voice caused oscillations in the shape of the mirror. Bell directed sunlight into the mirror, which captured and projected the mirror’s oscillations toward a receiving mirror, where the signals were transformed back into sound at the receiving end of the projection. The photophone functioned similarly to the telephone, except the photophone used light as a means of projecting the information, while the telephone relied on electricity.

Drawing of Bell’s Photophone

Vacuum Tube (1883)

In 1883, Thomas Edison discovered that an electrical current doesn?t need a wire through which to move?it could actually travel through gas or a vacuum.?

Edison Vacuum Tubes

In 1893, ten years later, Lee De Forest invented the Audion, which could control the flow of and amplify the current?an innovation that became critically important to telecommunication later on in the twentieth century.

“Triode” Audion from 1908.

Telegraphone (1898)

The early version of what is today known as the answering machine was called the Telegraphone. Invented by Danish engineer and inventor, Valdemar Poulsen, in the year 1898. The telegraphone incorporated the technology which enabled magnetic sound recording and reproduction. The magnetic fields produced by sound were recorded on a wire which was then used to play back the sound. The American Telegraphone Company was one of the few enterprises which was transferred the rights to manufacture the Telegraphone. However, the technology was unable to “seep into the masses” and remained obscure until the First World War. The telepgraphone laid the foundation for the modern answering machine.

Poulsen’s Telegraphone

Citizens Band Radio (a/k/a CB Radio) (1940s)

Citizens band radio is a short-range radio voice communications system used chiefly by private individuals in motor vehicles, homes, office and other locations where wireless telephone service is unavailable. A typical CB radio consists of a combined transmitter-receiver (a transreceiver) and an antenna. CB radio originated in the US during the 1940s, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created the Citizens Radio Service for regulating remote-control units and mobile radiotelephones. The CB radio device was invented in 1945 by Al Gross, the inventor of the walkie-talkie and owner of the Citizens Radio Corporation.? By 1960, the costs to product the 23-channel radio were low enough that anyone could buy one. By 1973, coinciding with the onset of the oil crisis, the CB radio craze erupted.

CB Radio base station

Transistor (1947)

A transistor is a device that?s used to amplify and switch electronic signals. It?s extremely important in the ability to exchange information over a distance. The first transistor was invented at Bell Labs on December 16, 1947, by William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. The transistor made possible the integrated circuit and microprocessor that are the basis of modern electronics. The transistor consisted of a plastic triangle lightly suspended above a germanium crystal which was sitting on a metal plate attached to a voltage source. A trip of gold was wrapped around the point of the triangle with a tiny gap cut into the gold at the precise point it came in contact with the germanium crystal. The germanium acted as a semiconductor so a small electric current entering on one side of the gold strip came out the other side as a proportionately amplified current.

The first point contact transistor built by Walter Brattain.

Answering Machine (1949)

The first commercial answering machine was launched in the year 1949, after a series of unsuccessful attempts. Known as the Tel-Magnet, it recorded the incoming message and played the outgoing message on a magnetic wire. The Tel-Magnet was priced at $200 and was unable to capture market share due to cost.


In 1960, the Ansafone, the first commercially successful answering machine, was launched. The Ansafone was invented by Dr. Kazuo Hashimoto who worked for a company known as Phonetel. Following the success of the Ansafone, many other similar models of answering machines were launched.


In 1962, a New York based company known as Robosonics Inc. introduced an inexpensive answering machine known as the Robosonic Secretary. Next to hit the market was a device called the Record-O-Phone which retrieved remote messages with the help of a whistle known as the Telekey.

Bell Record-O-Phone

By the 1970s, answering machines became more convenient to use and less expensive owning to the advent of inexpensive microelectronics. In 1971,? the PhoneMate was released. It was a “technically slick” model, weighing around 10 points with a capacity to hold 20 messages on tape.

Phone-Mate 400

The Mobile Phone (1973)

In 1973, Motorola launched the first handheld mobile phone. The first prototype, the DynaTAC, weighed 2.5 pounds and featured a battery that took ten hours to recharge after 30 minutes of use. The first public wireless phone call was made by Martin Cooper of Motorola on April 3, 1973, while walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City. Cooper made the call directly to the office to his rival, Joel Engel, head of research at Bell Labs who was also committed to developing the first mobile phone.?

Ten years later, the Motorola DynaTAC was put on the market. It was priced at $4000 and was immediately nicknamed “the brick.” Despite limitations and cost, it proved to be a resounding success and kicked off the cellular age.

Motorola DynaTAC Phone

Wi-Fi (1985)

Similar to the start of CB Radio, Wi-Fi, short-range wireless broadband technology, was started when the FCC opened several bands of the wireless spectrum allowing them to be used without the need for a government license. This dramatic move by the FCC was prompted by a visionary engineer on its staff, Michael Marcus. To start, three chunks of the spectrum were taken from the industrial, scientific and medical bands and were opened up to communications entrepreneurs. These so-called “garbage bands,” at 900MHz, 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, were already allocated to equipment that used radio-frequency energy for purposes other than communications, like microwave ovens. The FCC opened these bands on the condition that any devices using them would have to steer around interference from other equipment.?

Once Wi-Fi was standardized, it needed a market champion to catch on. Apple computers told Lucent technologies, one of the six companies who formed the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), that if it could make an adapter for under $100, Apple would incorporate a Wi-Fi slot into all its laptops. Lucent delivered, and in July 1999, Apple introduced Wi-Fi as an option on its new iBook computers, under the name AirPort.

Apple AirPort

BlackBerry (1999)

In 1909, scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla wrote a piece for The New ?York Times – later quoted in Popular Mechanics – that essentially predicted the BlackBerry. ?It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that an individual can carry and operate his own apparatus,? Tesla wrote.?

The first BlackBerry, the 850, was introduced by RIM in 1999 as a two-way pager in Munich, Germany. The name was chosen due to the resemblance of the keyboard buttons to that of the drupelets that compose the blackberry fruit.

BlackBerry 850

The Camera Phone (2000)

It all started with the?SCH-V200, the first cell phone with a built-in camera from?Samsung.? It was initially released in South Korea in June of 2000. Essentially, the camera and the phone components were separate devices sharing one body. To access the photos on the SCH-V200, the phone had to be hooked up to a computer. Additionally it was only capable of taking 20 photos at a 0.35 megapixel resolution.

Samsung SGH-V2000 camera phone

The Smartphone (2007)

On January 9, 2007, the iPhone launched, the first widely available smartphone with multi-touch capabilities (the ability to detect two fingers at once, enabling more complex user interactions such as pinch-to-zoom). The lowly telephone had turned into a cloud-connected smartphone with built-in GPS, compass, voice recorder, camera, maps, and web browser with an app store that allowed the user to download from a selection of millions of specialty applications. The multitouch smartphone paved the way for the tablet and the coming convergence of the laptop/tablet/and smartphone and new hybrids such as cloud-connected glasses and smartwatches.?

Original iPhone

From Morse code to fiber optics to Wi-Fi and smartphones, we would not be communicating with each other without the invention of the telegraph.

We hope our efforts to share some information inspired you to submit your next idea and who knows, maybe someday we’ll be wondering what life would be like without YOUR idea!

Happy Inventing!


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1 Comment Imagine Life Without…The Telegraph.

  1. Diane Olson

    I want to get out of the invention business. I have an invention called the Sip ‘n’ drive. I have invested in a patent search, a trademark search and have a trademark that can be transferred. I have a working prototype and drawings. We made it through step 4 but were rejected due to lack of mass appeal. I do not want to get involved in manufacturing and marketing but still think it’s a good ide. I would like to sell it to another inventor for what I have invested. Any ideas on now to do this?

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