A World Connected: Information Becomes Power
To know what's happening in a specific place could be highly valuable. If someone denies it, they only have to think in the origin of some net worths earned in little time for discovering some events before anyone else. The legends about the sources of many fortunes point to privileged information that made some people very rich in a short period of time. The same can be said about the value of communication in the army and in politics which nowadays translates into the saying according to which information is power.
|Telegraph designed by Samuel Morse|
Undoubtedly, it is not a recent invention the need to communicate, or better to say, the need to dispose of fast communication. The systems of postcards where the letters were translated by horsemen, is an image that even today persists in the collective memory. However, the first systems of communications that broke the barriers of the body, that is, that did not need to transport physically the news, were the optic ones, which worked using a code of signals. The lit fires on top of the rocks, or the mirrors used at specific times, were the first attempts to carry out this type of communication. These optic systems allowed us to even send complex messages. Wasn't the island of Pharos in Alexandria famous for being the light that guided the boats to enter into the port? The flag system to send messages between ships constituted a very useful alphabet among the boats that belonged to the same navy.
Despite all these precedents that reveal the importance of communication since ancient times, there was no effective or actually valuable communication system till the end of the 18th century. The French Revolution was a lavish age for practical inventions, aimed to ensure the subsistence of the young Republic threatened by all European powers. Claude Chappe (1763-1805) presented in 1792 an optical telegraph which allowed to send signals with a code based in the different positions of an articulated arm. It was like a system of traffic lights which made possible the transmission of content. It showed its capacity to communicate news to places located hundreds of kilometers away, like the ones which mentioned troops' movements, but later on, it was used to broadcast any interesting information for the State. Chappe's system reached some sort of prestige and it was imitated because it was considered at that time an original and useful method of communication. A few years later, the Spanish engineer Agustín de Betancourt, likely inspired by the French, designed an optical telegraph which was never used for practical means. The optical telegraphs, however, were always subjected to the climate contingencies and escaping from lots of obstacles, including the amount of interpretation errors from the people who should be able to register the signals and transmit them from one observation tower to another.
The telegraph became a relevant invention when came together different scientific and technological traditions which provided it with a new utility and a truly innovative capacity for action, such as a transmission medium fast enough to compete with the vision of the attentive lookout towers located at the hillocks, a way of transmission compared to the one provided by light.
The telegraph found in electricity the natural environment for its development. The Danish experimental philosopher Hans Oersted (1777-1851) had observed that a magnetized needle moved when an electrical current passed through its proximities. The study of the electrical currents was a field where lots of scientists participated in, from the Italian Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) who invented the battery, a new way to store energy which definitely influenced science and technology in the 19th century. Many were tempted to continue with the study of currents, like the French Andre Ampere (1775-1836) and the English Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Was it possible to make a needle move willingly to mark a series of letters in a way so that messages could be sent from one point to another? It was not the same to send signals that to be able to broadcast messages, that's for sure. For example, some prestigious scientists who don't need any introduction, like Karl Gauss (1777-1855) and Weber (1804-1891) were able to send signals between their laboratory and the observatory, both situated at the University of Göttingen, existing a few hundreds of meters between the two points. But it was an invention which wasn't fully polished. In fact, the new telegraph wasn't born in laboratories, but in the industry world, associated with another fundamental element of the industrial revolution, the railway. They were convergent traditions that became part of an excellent symbiotic relation throughout the key decades of their development.
A new system of signals was needed to organize railway traffic. Lots of English and American inventors focused on the design of a system of communications which allowed the transmission of messages as fast as possible, using the sequence of electrical pulses. As it happens so many times in stories of inventors and inventions, there were a lot of solutions for the problem, apparently simple, of how to get the electricity to be transmitted through large distances of electrical copper cables, sending a message which could be decoded at the other end. This problem was served by the creativity and talent of many. There were options for all preferences, in almost every place where the industrial revolution and sciences had reached some level of development, and many times associated with the railway innovations. The most notable solution was the one patented by the English, William F. Cooke (1806-1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), based on an orientation system of needles that pointed to the correct letter, in order to send and receive messages. The system evolved and worked for decades in England, although it didn't manage to be imposed in the rest of the industrialized countries. It had advantages, as the user didn't need to decode any strange language; but the construction was very complex because it needed a vast cable laying.
Let's now put aside the systems which had limited acceptance, and let's start talking about what really revolutionized the telegraphy. It wasn't an amazing innovation from the technological perspective; the great invention was not the machine, but the language and the inventor was a person who considered himself an artist. Who doesn't know the sequence of signals of the letters SOS to ask for help? The sequence of 3 dots, 3 dashes, and 3 dots has been a code read and listened thousands of times in a lot of fiction works for more than 150 years. Samuel Morse (1791-1872) was the inventor of the most famous and spread telegraphic language in history; and although he didn't design it alone, he put his name on the code. Technically, is as simple as closing a circuit for more or less time, sending short or long pulses. Every letter of the alphabet could be translated using short or long sequences (or both), there is no phrase which didn't fit in this new system of communication. Different kinds of signals could be broadcasted: to ask for help, to command divisions, to inform about the latest prices in the stock market, to tell newspaper chronicles...
The telegraph invented by Morse spread throughout the United States, helping the country's expansion and consolidation. During the war between United States and Mexico, the journalists informed the civilians of the progress of the conflict; in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave orders to attack the South using Morse's telegraph; in the occupation of the American West, the construction of railways was witnessed by the telegraph poles, by the cable laying which informed of very interesting and reliable information about what was happening in the new territory. The world started to talk in morse.
In 1858, the world disposed of a network of cables that was thousands of miles long, probably more than 100,000 miles long spread throughout Europe and America. The human civilization had managed to overcome the obstacles offered by the relatively narrow watercourses using copper cables covered by rubber, and even in 1851, engineers and other scientists managed to establish a cable laying between England and France. The continent wasn't isolated anymore since then. But now, the big challenge was to connect Europe with the New World, and it was once more achieved, 7 years later (1858) when the U.S president Buchanan and Queen Victoria exchanged messages on August 13. Ships provided with huge copper "snakes" covered by gutta-percha had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, overcoming multiple difficulties in the laying of the cables. After the failures, they managed to establish the communication, but the American Civil War delayed the development of the cable laying system till 1866 when a single-piece cable could be laid. Since then, the submarine cable laying was able to connect islands and continents and was gradually consolidating a first network that took over the world which at the time was communicating using the dots and dashes of Morse.
Among the inventions related to communication, it's important to highlight the telegraph as we have just done, although in the 19th century these apparatuses were only prototypes of the truly creative technological advances which reached their full development in the 20th century. When talking about the telephone, we must mention a few names, but the main 2 are: first, the German Johann Phillip Reis (1834-1874) and second, much better known, the Scottish Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922). Following the success of the telegraph, both attempted to convert the electrical pulses into a recognizable voice, so that from both ends of the transmission, a conversation could be established. Bell, in fact, was a scientist very interested in phonetics, helping deaf-mute people to speak and articulate words. The printed press suffered the influence of all the communication systems exposed in this post and became a broadcasting medium itself, linked to the curiosity and interest of the societies.
The communication in the 19th century acquired for the first time the form of a network that in contemporary terms we could denominate "global". The telegraph and the submarine cable spread throughout the entire world, wrapping it. The planet stayed enclosed in a network that was gradually becoming more synchronous, that worked with the same rhythm, the rhythm of the electrical pulses of the telegraph, translated through cables at a speed of thousands of miles per second. The time zones gained a social value, but communication gained a global dimension. On many occasions, people have wondered about the meaning of technology in the 19th century, defining it as the group of tools which serve the Empire, or the colonial empires, which transformed the world throughout the century, undoubtedly. But, among all technologies, the one which offered the look of an invisible weapon was the communications network which started to consolidate since the mid 19th century. Never before, communication has been the full expression of power. The world had become global.