The subject for today is the telegraph. While the telegraph predates radio it was the start of electrical communications and there is a very definite link between the wire telegraph and the later wireless telegraph.

When Samuel Morse invented the telegraph hardware he also invented the code or language that would allow information to be passed from the sending station to the receiving station. The first radio communications were made possible by using that same code and it still is the base for our CW operation though modern international Morse has some difference from the original.

Though Samuel Morse is credited with inventing the telegraph like most inventions, including the radio, he built upon the inventions of others. William Sturgeon, a British experimenter with electricity, invented the electromagnet in 1825. His first electromagnet was a loosely wrapped coil of wires wound around a horseshoe-shaped piece of iron. By energizing the coil with a single cell battery he was able to pick up nine pounds using a seven-ounce piece of iron. Sturgeon’s invention laid the foundation upon which Morse could build his ingenious device.

1830, just five years later, an American inventor named Joseph Henry constructed an electromagnet that that was able to activate an armature. A battery was placed at one end of over a mile run of wire and the magnet with armature was placed at the other. When the circuit was completed the armature struck bell. Some credit this as being the first telegraph but it did not have a language with which to communicate complex messages.

Where calling it the first telegraph may be a stretch it can not be denied that it was a significant step forward to what would become a vast electronic communication system that would link the World within the next few decades. The means of using the electromagnet to communicate required a system or code by which letters could be transmitted. Morse conceived the idea of using electromagnet to accomplish this. He constructed an experimental version in 1835 but it was not until 1844 before he was able to construct a truly practical system running lines between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

A patent was granted 1849. The system Morse patented used a pencil to mark dots and dashes on a strip of paper then it was read later. Operators in the United States soon learned they could listen to the clicks of the apparatus and write the letters without the need of reading the tape. A key and sounder was then added to the mix and messages started moving at the speed of 40 to 50 words per minute across the wires. (Normal voice conversation is usually about 60 words per minute but when sending a message it is at a much slower rate.)

The code the telegraphers used was American Morse and, though American Morse is legal on the ham band, the International Morse has become the standard. Wires were strung on the railroad right of way across and up and down the United States spanning the nation with a network of wires by 1859 and the transcendental hookup was completed in 1861. Information could not only be sent across the continent but from continent to continent at speeds limited only by humans’ ability to transmit and receive. The Railroad, the News Papers, the Commercial Telegraph office ( Western Union), and the Military all used this new electronic communications.

Offices were filled with the little clicking devices all chattering away. Newer operators found they had to put a tobacco can lid on the armature and by bending it they could make their sounder sound different then the others so they could tell their receiver from their neighbor’s. Older experienced telegraphers would laugh at them and call them “lid operators.” That is where the term “lid”, meaning a poor operator, came from.

Many of the telegraphers became ham radio operators. It was an easy transition and they added much to development of our passion. The telegraph was the beginning of the use of electricity for communications.

You may think I am stretching a little bit but who knows what course electronic communications would have taken or when radio waves would have been found useful if the telegraph had not come along when it did. Ham radio along with all radio communications would certainly be at a different level if it had not been for Samuel Morse’s invention.

I was trained in CW by a man who had been a telegrapher for the
Rail Road. He had union cards that dated back to the 1880s. I owe a lot to Jim K6KRL who has not been silent key for several years.


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