What Factors shaped the diffusion of telegraph network?
WHAT FACTORS SHAPED THE DIFFUSION OF THE
By: Yusuf Kurniawan
The emergence of telegraph network is not just by a coincidence. It came into
existence through series of long researches. The idea of making long-distance
communication firstly arose in the first quarter of the 17th century (Flichy:1995).
However, the idea of making a long-distance communication was intended to be
in written messages rather than spoken. As the technology of communication at
that time had not come to that stage. The idea was not followed by any researches
until 1684 when Robert Hooke, an English scientist, presented his ‘first technical
description of a device for transmitting signals by semaphore entitled ‘Method for
making your thoughts known far away’ (Gerspach, 1860:48 in Flichy, 1995:1).
Since then there were a lot of continuous researches conducted by many scientists
in Europe and the United States until finally the first electric telegraph network
was built in Britain in 1839 (Brown, 2000). It is just a short look at the history of
the telegraph network.
Background to the Essay Problem
There is a fundamental question why we should look back to the past at the
history of the telegraph. The question is why did the telegraph network diffuse
very rapidly? There must be determining factors that caused the telegraph
network spread so quickly. As stated before, after Hooke presented his first
description then many other scientists tried to enhance the telegraph system. It
showed that people at that time were very enthusiastic in developing long-distance
communication. It was proven that the distance between one invention and the
others was not very long. For example, after Hooke prompted his idea in 1684,
‘several years later in 1690, the French physicist Guillaume Amontons conducted
a first experiment in semaphore communication in the Luxembourg Garden
(Gerspach, 1860:49 in Flichy, 1995:7). Moreover, there was still a relation
between what Hooke presented and Amontons’ experiment namely about
If we look deeper to the essence of the possible reasons of the emergence
of the telegraph network is actually very logical, since people wanted to improve
and develop their means of communication system. There must be a lot of
hindrances for people at that time to make long-distance communications. For
example someone who lived in London wanted to write an urgent message to
someone else living in Glasgow. At any cost he can not convey his message to the
person he desired at once. It probably took many hours or even days. The
example proves that space and time were still great problems for people to solve
at that time. Therefore, the need for a quick and accurate means of long-distance
communication was very urgent.
Now we look at our surrounding. Today communication is highly developed and
so is transportation. People can travel and communicate very swiftly. One does
not have to be at home to be contacted or to get in touch with other people,
because with mobile phones we can get in touch with him while he is on the
move, even while he is working in a remote place out of reach from telephone
line. The telegraph network has been very sophisticatedly constructed. Moreover,
after fibre-optic cable has been invented and it gradually begins replacing the
copper cables. So presumably there is no more space on the earth which is not
within the range of modern communication. Besides, in transportation, with a jet
aircraft one can travel to all over the world just in a matter of hours. As a
consequence, the world is getting ‘narrower’ or if I may borrow Brown’s word
(2000) ‘shrinking’ from day to day. Time and space is not a hindrance any more
for people nowadays. However, if we look back to the eighteenth century again,
we shall realise that the advancement and sophistication of the technology of
communication and transportation is closely related with the previous
development and progression of communication, notably the telegraph.
At the beginning of the French Revolution Claude Chappe conducted
some experiments with electricity. The result of his experiments were then
published in the Journal de Physique (Chappe:1840 in Flichy:1995). It was the
time of the French Revolution in which the country was in dangerous situation.
France was in unstable condition and there were possibilities of incoming danger
from outside or inside the country. The France’s Government found difficulties to
receive messages from the battlefield and to control the armies (Headrick,
1991:11). Chappe could realise his invention since he was approved and funded
by the French government for the needs of the France’s revolutionary armies
The Chappe’s semaphore telegraph 1 was operated through towers with
distance of 8-10 km between them. Each of the tower was operated by some
operators who were responsible for receiving and sending messages from one
tower to the others. Besides complicated this system is expensive since it needed
more man power. 2 Since it was operated by human, there was a great possibility
of making mistakes in sending the messages. In addition, bad weather and fog
could also obstruct the view when sending the messages between the towers,
especially during night time. Anyhow, the telegraph network could send messages
400 km per day (Brown, 2000). Later, ‘private companies and commercial towns
built their own semaphore lines to announce the ships arrival’. Also in the United
States, ‘a telegraph carried news of ships’ arrivals from Sandy Hook, New Jersey,
to New York City’ (Headrick, 1991:11).
Besides the technical difficulty, it seemed that the operators of the
telegraph network could not be fully trusted. As stated in Flichy (1995) that in
1836, two bankers from Bordeaux bribed to add signals to official dispatches.
They stole information of the price of government stock at the stock exchange
before the official price were delivered by post. In fact, ‘the two Bordeaux
bankers were not the first to discover the value of information in the establishment
His idea was using semaphore which was encoded that was put on top of towers along distance.
‘It consisted of a column with a moveable crosswise beam. This beam also had two moveable
arms. With ropes it was possible to show many different signal pictures, all together 196 (with
upper and lower case letters, punctuation marks and numbers). The equipment stood on rooftops or
towers and was visible from afar. The first telegraph line of this sort was put into operation in
1794’ (www.mfarrukh.tripod.com/history.htm, 2000).
of stock exchange rates. Under the Restauration, the Rothschilds had already set
up a system of private mail which permitted them to know, before anyone else,
the main political events and rates on other markets. Thus the ‘murder of the Duke
of Berry, in February 1829, was known in Frankfurt by the House of Rothschild
well before everyone else (Gille, 1959:262 in Flichy, 1995:21). Based on these
facts, it is clear that the Chappe’s semaphore telegraph network was not very
reliable. By the 1840s there were over 3000 miles of semaphore lines in France,
all operated by the War Department (Winston, 1998:21).
At the moment, the Industrial Revolution in France had not yet started.
And the demand of fast industrial and commercial information was very limited
(Flichy, 1995). I think it was the most appropriate time for such technology like
the telegraph to develop. A revolution must be backed up with ample power of
mobility and communication. So was the Industrial Revolution in France that was
about to begin.
The French Revolution which lasted from 1789 – 1848 brought many
innovations particularly in French and largely in Europe (Chandler et.al, 1999).
Nearly at the same time, the Industrial Revolution started in around 1850s in
Europe. It is a logical consequence of the Industrial Revolution if the societies
demanded a rapid, effective and accurate means of communication. The changes
of the conditions also made people move, think and do something faster and more
accurately. For example in trading. After the Industrial Revolution in Europe,
trades and inventions flourished very quickly. So that people needed a means of
communication which was able to send a message at the speed of light. The
development of the telegraph network in the nineteenth century shifted to modern
one when Samuel Morse from the United States invented code which was then
used in the telegraph. 3 Then it turned into electric telegraph or Morse Telegraph. 4
The diffusion of the telegraph network made people have to adjust
themselves to the changing social and technological environment. As stated by
Briggs (1965:8) there is always a sequence of human reaction toward each of a
new innovation in communications technology. First, ‘they would feel wonder,
accompanied by fear; fear about organisation, sometimes the very specific fear of
threatened vested interests, along with fear about impact, a general fear, bound up
with failure to see where it was all leading’. It is logical if a new invention makes
people wondered, amazed or probably feared. Especially to those who were still
illiterate. They did not know where they would be led to or what the goal behind
the invention was. Inventions do not always brings welfare for society. Sometimes
it carries danger and becomes a threat to the society. At least the impacts of the
inventions do. What’s more, the interest of people were very strong in
technological development at the time.
The second Industrial Revolution in Europe has quicken the rise of
technological inventions particularly in communication. During this period the
transfer of new technologies was ultimately required. Britain and the United
States had already had a connection in transferring technologies, especially the
Talking about Samuel Morse, we must not forget the names of two people from Britain and the
United States, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. They built ‘the first railway telegraph in
Britain in 1837. Samuel Morse patented his code in the same year and opened the first public
telegraph line, from Baltimore to Washington in 1844’ (headrick, 1991:12).
transfer of textile and railroad technologies. ‘Since the early of the nineteenth
century, 1780 – 1840, the two nations had been exchanging their technologies, so
that they came into the first-rank industrial powers’ (Jeremy, 1991:31). The
process of the technology transfer surely required effective and swift means of
communication. And the telegraph network was behind the success.
After people knew about mass production of goods, they changed their
way of marketing. They could not store their products too long if the number was
increasing. They had to put their products as soon as possible in markets. Then
people were seeking for a new way of effective marketing. Since railroad had
already been developed, it was easy for people or entrepreneurs to send their
products to market right away. However, they needed to get in touch with their
business partners in other places. Therefore, all of the business activities relied on
the telegraph network.
Railways and telegraphs were actually related to each other. These two
fields of technology became the backbone of the means of major transportation
and communication in the century. At the same time they became the pioneers of
the advanced technology today. For example the laying of the cross-Channel cable
in 1851 and the trans-Atlantic cable in 1866 was considered as the stepping stones
to international interdependence (Briggs, 1965).
According to Briggs (1965:8) we do not necessarily know ‘how the history
of telegraph was related to the history of newspapers as well as the history of
railways’. But it is more important to note the sequence of human reactions
towards those inventions, especially to the communications technology. I would
like to have rather different opinion about it. I think it is important to know how
the history of telegraph is related to the history of railroad. There is a significant
relation between them. We can not just accept as it is, what we see right now, only
as a fact. The emergence of the telegraph network provided a solution to the
transportation system that was mainly served by railroad. Here, the two systems of
communication and transportation worked together for the first time, when
railroad was dispatched ‘in England in 1844 and in the United States in 1849. It
was of a particular use on the long stretches of single-track road in the American
West, where accidents were a serious problem. Before the use of the telegraph to
control switching, the Boston and Worcester Railroad, for one example, kept
horses every five miles along the line, and they raced up and down the track so
that their riders could warn engineers of impending collisions’ (Thompson,
1947:205-206 in Crowley:1999,136). It is also stated in Carey (1999) that the
relationship between the telegraph and the railroad depicts ‘the basic notion of
systems theory and the catch phrase that the “system is the solution”’. It is
because the two technologies, the telegraph and railroad, could work together
forming a new solution for people both in transportation and communication.
We can look at the following events of the installations of the telegraph
network world wide at a glance:
The first line was installed in 1844, connecting Baltimore and
In 1851, Dover - Calais line was installed
In 1859, New York – San Francisco line
In 1864, London – India line
In 1866, Working Trans Atlantic Link
In 1871 Singapore – Australia line (Brown, 19 October 2000).
If we look at the development of the telegraph network above, there was a rapid
progression between 1844 when the electric telegraph line firstly installed in
1871. The space between one time of line installation and the others is not very
long. The first three lines were still in the American continent, but the next one
had reached Asia. The spreading was so fast that it could reach the Asian
Continent within only 20 years. Even in the next seven years the telegraph line
had reached the Australian continent. By the end of the nineteenth century,
exactly in 1895, 1.3 million of lines was installed world wide. And the speed of
transferring messages also developed very quickly, initially from 7-13 wpm
(words per minute) to 50 wpm in 1890 and 380 wpm in 1920s (Brown,2000).
The development of the telegraph network since the second half of the
nineteenth century until the twentieth century grew more rapidly. People had
thought about sending messages across water and tried planting cables
underwater. It was what William Brooke O’Shaughnessy 5 did on his first
experiment. He had an idea if the telegraph cables were planted underwater, they
should be insulated. He conducted his experiment in 1838 by putting a twenty-two
kilometres of wire on bamboo poles and laid three kilometres of insulated wire
underwater in Hooghly River. However, his experiment did not gain attention
from Europe even though it was actually successful (Headrick, 1991:14). The next
experiment was done in 1840s when there were two separated inventions that
could be combined to make the underwater cables of telegraphy possible. Firstly,
the spread of land telegraphs itself which inspired many scientists to find solution
of planting the cables underwater. Secondly, the discovery of Gutta-percha 6 to
coat wires. Meanwhile, in Germany a machine to coat wires with the substance
was invented. 7 Then the real submarine cable was laid in August 1850 by Jacob
and John W. Brett from Dover to Calais. 8 And the next experiment was conducted
by Thomas Crampton’s Submarine Telegraph Company. 9 The experiment
succeeded since the cables could work and last for thirty-seven years (Ibid,:14-
15). Seen from the economic and technological field it was a big success. The
easy communication automatically promoted the trading collaboration between
the two countries, England and France.
The rapid development of the telegraph network technology from 1840
showed the people’s will and ambition of reaching higher targets and goals. The
span of time from one experiment to the next one was short. For instance, after
the first submarine cable was successfully planted between Dover and Calais, in
1854 another cable was laid stretching from Genoa, Corsica and Sardinia
He was a physician in the Bengal Army, professor of chemistry at the Calcutta Medical College,
and an amateur scientist with an interest in electricity (Headrick, 1991:14)
Gutta-percha is the latex of the Palaquium tree, that grows in the rain forests of Southeast Asia,
was first brought to England from Singapore by two physicians, Jose d’Almeida and William
The machine was invented by Lieutenant Werner von Siemens of the Prussian artillery. And at
the same time in England, Charles Hancock and Henry Bewley also solved the manufacturing
problem, and experiments began in Folkestone harbour. (Ibid)
Unfortunately this trial was unsuccessful because the cable broke just a few hours after it was
laid when a fisherman’s hook unintentionally clung at the cable (Ibid)
(Headrick, 1991:16). It was quite clear that actually people were very ambitious in
improving the communications technology. We might also see here that the
diffusion of the telegraph network in the nineteenth century had tended to show a
country’s power and ambition to conquer other country. France had been trying to
conquer Algeria since 1830. And ‘by the 1850s it had 100,000 men engaged in the
largest military operation since Napoleon’ 10 (Headrick, 1991:15). The interest of
the countries was not purely put in communication any more, but some of them
wanted to show their power and finally conquer other countries.
The following years, from 1857 until 1880 at least there were five
attempts 11 of laying the telegraph cables across body of water. The great success
of telegraph technology was achieved when the cables across the Atlantic Ocean
was laid successfully in 1866 (Headrick, 1991). It was a marvellous achievement
in communication technology ever obtained by human civilisation. The
‘connected’ continents became widely-opened to the global information that led to
global communication. The concept of time and space became more relative, since
people could cope with their problems of communication. Trading was not
always done by meeting the trade partners face to face. It was actually the major
change of people in having business.
The coat used for coating the cables was made from Gutta-percha but protected by an outer
sheathing of iron rope (ibid).
There were two separate telegraph systems served the French administration’s and the settlers’
needs. In 1854 there were 1,498 kilometres of semaphore telegraph wire, and an electric network
which began the same year with 249 kilometres of cables and multiplied to 3,179 kilometres in
1861 (Headrick, 1991:15).
In 1857 by R.S. Newall and Company, followed by Glass Elliot and Company in 1861 by
making two attempts. Then in 1864 Siemens laid its short cable from Cartagena to Oran. In 1870
the British-owned Marseilles, Algiers and Malta Telegraph Company laid their cable that
connected France and its North African colony. Followed by India Rubber Company in 1879 and
1880 that laid its cables for the French government (Headrick, 1991:16)
The Atlantic Cables was not the last in that century in promoting the
progression of telegraph network diffusion. It was proven when Britain and India
were telegraphically connected in 1865 (Headrick, 1991). Because many countries
on all over the world had been inter-connected by the telegraph network, they
founded associations regarding with telegraphy. For example in the early of 1850s
several treaties were signed by France with its neighbours namely Belgium in
1851, Switzerland in 1851, Sardinia in 1853, and Spain in 1854. And the next year
those nations founded the West European Telegraph Union. Later some other
countries like the Netherlands, Portugal and the Vatican joined it. At the
beginning of 1860s a lot of treaties bound one another. In 1864 all main European
governments were invited by Napoleon III to establish an efficient international
telegraph system. And the next year in 1865 a conference was held in Paris,
founding the International Telegraph Union (Headrick, 1991:13). If we look at the
phenomena, they established such treaties and even an international organisation
like the International Telegraph Union, it was because they had the same purposes
and interest. If they could make an agreement and conventions with their
neighbours, they would be easier and cheaper in utilising telegraph for
international purposes like business and politics.
Based on the analysis of the problems in this essay, the factors that shaped the
diffusion of the telegraph network are as follows: firstly, the French Revolution.
The situation stimulated the emergence of a means of communication which could
send a message at the speed of light. And at that time, telegraph was the only
communication device that was able to run a message faster than any other means
of transportation. Secondly, the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United
States. These events really quicken the development and spreading of the
telegraph network. The emergence of railroad also contributed to this diffusion.
Thirdly, in the last half of the nineteenth century, the development and spreading
of the telegraph network was more rapid because many countries in the world,
mainly in Europe, had the same interest and purposes of using telegraph for
international purposes. So that they established many treaties and international
telegraph associations. And the last factor is the ambition of certain countries to
conquer other country.
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http://www.mfarrukh.tripod.com/biography.htm (accessed: 19 October
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Revolution, University of Leeds.
Brown, Robin (2000) The Communications revolution Lecture 6: ‘The Telegraph
and the Shrinking World’, Lectured: 19 October 2000.
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‘History of Communication’ in Development of Telecommunication, at
http://www.mfarrukh.tripod.com/history.htm (accessed: 19 October 2000).
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Related Nations: ‘The Movement of Textile and Railroad Technologies
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