Written by Jaclyn Pollock, Curatorial Associate
The invention of the telegraph was so revolutionary that it’s often referred to as the “Victorian internet.” The discovery of electromagnetism and its use in telegraphs forever freed communication from reliance on transportation. This transition radically transformed the technological, social and economic aspects of long-distance communication by providing fast and efficient communication across vast distances. It effectively annihilated space and time.
Electromagnetism allows pulses of electric current to be transported along a conductor. This discovery was used to develop the telegraph, which transports an electric current along telegraph wires to a receiving instrument.
The first working optical telegraph was introduced in 1794 by the Chappe brothers. But the first electromagnetic telegraph was developed by Samuel F.B. Morse. Morse is said to have had the idea for the electromagnetic telegraph in a “flash of genius” at a dinner party in 1832, which earned him the nickname Lightning Man. In 1838, after six years of experimentation, Morse applied for a patent for his “American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.” The patent was officially issued in 1840. Morse’s telegraph offered simplicity, and what Mossoff calls an “elegant solution” to the telegraph in the book A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects. Unlike other early telegraphs, his invention could operate in many conditions, including at night and in any weather. It was also cheaper to build and operate.
While he worked on the electromagnetic telegraph, Morse developed Morse code, a system that went hand in hand with the telegraph. Morse’s associate Alfred Vail went on to improve Morse code and simplified it to a sequence of dots and dashes. Telegraphs work by tapping out electronic Morse code signals for each letter of the alphabet using short (dots) and long (dashes) pulses.
With advancements in wireless technology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the telegraph and Morse code were adapted for maritime communication. Since a connecting telegraph wire was no longer necessary to physically connect telegraph stations, ships could now communicate with each other and with the shore. In the maritime sector, Morse code was used to relay distress messages and to aid in navigational communication. The original maritime distress signal was CQD, meaning “all stations: distress.” CQD was later replaced with SOS, which was adopted as a distinctive Morse code sequence. While SOS is commonly associated with the phrase “save our souls,” it is not actually an abbreviation.
Perhaps the most famous maritime telegraph message is the haunting SOS from the Titanic. On the night of April 14, 1912, radio officers Jack Philips and Harold Bride stayed aboard the sinking Titanic until the very last moment, sending out CQD and SOS messages. These calls for help reached the Carpathia. As a result, 700 survivors were rescued. Without these wireless transmissions, all 2,200 passengers would likely have succumbed to the frigid Atlantic waters. Philips did not survive. Bride was seriously injured, but he helped the radio officers on the Carpathia’s assigned escort, USS Chester, send news to surviving passengers’ kin.
The telegraph was gradually replaced in everyday life by the radio and telephone, but Morse code was used for maritime communication until 1999. At the stroke of midnight on January 31, 1999, Morse code was retired from international maritime regulations. Before that, all ships were required to be equipped with Morse code for emergency services. The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) officially replaced the Morse system. After saving countless lives at sea, coastal stations around the world transmitted one last Morse message. In the United States, the final commercial message mirrored the first, “What hath God wrought.” Thus, the world ended the era of Morse code using dots and dashes.
While Morse code and the telegraph were born together, Morse has long outlived the telegraph. Though Morse code has officially been retired, it has not disappeared entirely. Many hobbyists around the world keep Morse code alive.
2012 Why the Telegraph was Revolutionary in The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
1999 Morse: The End of an Era? The Unesco Courier. Edition: July-August 1999.
2018 “The Telegraph”. A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects. Edited by Dan Hunter & Claudy Op den Kamp. Cambridge University Press. Page 64-71.
2001 Invisible Empire. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.