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Telegraphy Timeline: the first 120 years

  • 1791 – Claude Chappe devises a telegraph using pivoted wooden semaphore arms and telescopes, and establishes a communication network throughout France.
  • 1796 – The British Admiralty adopts the Murray Optical Telegraph, an alphabetic shutter system, to speed communication between the Channel Ports and London
  • 1839 – William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone perfect an electric 5-needle alphabetic telegraph, which is incorporated into a 12-mile stretch of the Great Western Railway.
  • 1844 – Opening of a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, using Samuel Morse's single wire telegraph and the now familiar "Dot-and-Dash" code.
  • 1855 – David Hughes invents a printing telegraph operated by a keyboard.
  • 1858 – Charles Wheatstone patents a punch-tape system which enables the Morse code to be transmitted at up to 100 WPM.
  • 1858 – Telegraph cable laid under the Atlantic corrodes and snaps within days.
  • 1866 – Transatlantic telegraph cable is successfully laid between Ireland and Newfoundland by Brunel's ship "Great Eastern", paying out 2500 miles of cable in less than two weeks.
  • 1902 – The 'All Red Line', a round-the-world telegraph cable is completed. What once took days or weeks across continents, now takes only minutes.
  • 1910 – Murderer Dr. Crippen and his mistress Ethel Leneve, disguised as a cabin boy, are discovered aboard S.S. "Montrose". Telegraph from ship-to-shore results in their arrest when the ship docks.
  • 1912 – On April 15, the Titanic's wireless operator sends the first radio SOS "Save Our Souls" from a ship at sea. The message is picked up fifty eight miles away by the S.S.Carpathia and as a result, over 700 lives are saved.
  • 1918 – Use of the telegraph declines after the First world War owing to recent developments in radio and telephony.

Replica Murray Optical Telegraph, 1795

Replica Cooke and Wheatstone 5-needle Telegraph, 1839

Grosser Kurfürst Morse Key

Grosser Kurfürst Battleship

Evolution of the Telegraph

Throughout history, man has demanded and devised ever faster ways of sending and receiving important news and information. Once out of immediate personal contact range, other means of communicating had to be found.

It was easy enough to send a message if there was a line of sight, but over longer distances, information had to be laboriously written down and carried by messenger from sender to recipient.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Claude Chappe in France, designed a semaphore optical telegraph.

In Britain, the Admiralty commissioned Lord George Murray to design and produce an similar system. Murray's system consisted of six shutters mounted on top of cabins built on hilltops, positioned about 10mi apart, radiating from Admiralty in London to where ships lay at anchor in port.

These optical telegraphs were capable, for the first time in history, of sending complete messages over long distances at great speed. It is recorded that a test message was transmitted from London to Plymouth and acknowledged in less than ten minutes... The year was 1796 and the distance covered was over 400 miles!

The Electric Telegraph

Optical shutter and semaphore systems remained in use until the introduction of the electric telegraph in 1839.

When William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone first met in 1837, each was already interested in the electric telegraph. They realised that it had the potential to control the chaotic movement of trains on the new railway networks that were starting to criss-cross the country. Within 2 years, they had designed a 5-needle alphabetic telegraph, which was incorporated into a 12-mile stretch of the Great Western Railway at the huge cost of £2,817. 10s.

The telegraph took the form of a diamond-shaped board containing the letters of the alphabet and 5 pointers or ‘needles’, which indicated the letter being transmitted. Owing to the layout, it was possible to use only 20 letters - so the operator had to resort to phonetic spelling!

By 1844, Cooke and Wheatstone had developed a 2-needle, coded instrument – exactly at the time Samuel Morse was demonstrating his faster and more efficient coded telegraph in the United States.

The clumsier pointer system soon gave way to Morse’s code and by 1868, 16,000 miles of telegraph line had been erected in Britain alone!

Morse and his Code

During a chance meeting in 1832, Samuel Morse was shown a device that included an electromagnet. Talk turned to telegraphs and the challenge of using an electromagnet as the receiving element in a telegraph system.

Morse was an artist, not an engineer - but he had an enquiring mind and, with technical advice and assistance from Leonard Gale, a chemist friend, he planned a system of signs, consisting of dots and dashes.

Another friend, Alfred Vale simplified this code and also helped financially. In 1837, they demonstrated a telegraph machine through about 50 metres of wire and in 1844 Morse built a 37 mile-long line between Washington and Baltimore.

In 1847 Michael Faraday and Weiner von Siemens developed a rubber sleeve for insulating cables, enabling them to be laid underground and even underwater. A cable laid under the Atlantic in 1858 corroded and snapped after a few days; the voltage was too high for the insulation. In 1866, a much stronger and thicker cable, designed by Lord Kelvin, was successfully laid between Ireland and Newfoundland. A very large vessel was required to carry such an enormous load: Brunel's "Great Eastern" was chosen and completed the task in two weeks.

Developments in Wireless Telegraphy meant that communication with ships at sea was suddenly possible: no longer was a ship out of contact when it disappeared over the horizon!

By the early 20th century, there was a legal obligation for all British shipping to be supplied with Morse keys – though there was no requirement for constant manning of the Marconi (‘Radio’) Room until after the Titanic disaster. As a result of this, all passenger ships had to carry three Radio Officers and maintain a 24-hour watch.

Harry Matthews with the Grosser Kurfurst Key Telegraphy display, (Union Street, Bo’ness) Paddle Key Tiny Key, for fitting into equipment Morse Practice Oscillator and Key McGeogh Key, 1907 Microphone Amplifier Telegraph Sounder Railway Block Telegraph, c.1930

One of the greatest ‘Treasures’ of the Museum’s collection is a 100 year-old Morse key, unique in being the only surviving specimen from Kaiser Wilhelm II's Imperial High Seas Fleet. It was manufactured in 1912 and fitted to the powerful spark transmitter on the 25,000 ton battleship Grosser Kurfurst, and used throughout WW1.

In 1918, with the rest of the Fleet, Grosser Kurfurst was interned in Scapa Flow. All Morse keys were removed to prevent inter-ship communication, but this one remained hidden aboard the battleship. Morale in the Fleet was very low and "Soldiers' Councils" existed on most ships as sources of agitation and potential mutiny. It is possible that the Soldier's Council had hidden the key, for inter-ship communication in the event of a general mutiny.

On 21 June 1919, the order was given to scuttle the entire Fleet. The key was subsequently recovered in 1938, in a salvage operation conducted by Metal Industries Ltd, and presented to James Ferguson, a press photographer from the Daily Record who had joined the dive and was the first man to take photographs at these depths. James Ferguson subsequently passed the key to a Mr. Hunter, whose widow donated it to our Founder, Harry Matthews in 1987, after hearing Harry in a radio broadcast...