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Telegraph, History of

Peter Putnis

Subject History
Communication and Media Studies » Communication Studies
Media System » Media History

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405131995.2008.x


The term “telegraph” was used from the late eighteenth century to describe line-of-sight distance communication systems, most notably Claude Chappé's semaphore network. By 1810, this network linked 29 of France's largest cities to Paris. Experimental telegraphs utilizing electricity passing over wire for signaling purposes were developed in the early 1800s, though it was the inventions of Cooke and Wheatstone in the UK in the late 1830s which led to their practical application, initially on railways, where, in warning of accidents and stoppages, this form of signaling had the obvious advantage of traveling much faster than any train itself. Around the same time Samuel Morse, in the US, developed his system of using a series of short and long pulses of electric current, generated by turning the current on and off with a Morse key, to represent letters of the alphabet (Morse code). This system came to dominate telegraph communication for the next 100 years. From the 1850s telegraph networks spread throughout the world with extraordinary speed. While in continental Europe state-owned systems were developed, in the UK and the US private enterprise drove their expansion, though in the UK the domestic telegraph system was nationalized and became part of British Post Office operations following the Telegraph Act of 1868. In the US, while there were initially dozens of telegraph companies, ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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