The Telegraph: Ancient IM Device That Used Cool Physics

Electromagnetism was the catalyst for all the long-distance communications we have today.

This might come as a surprise, especially to some of you who took physics in school and only really focused on the impact of the discovery on the scientific community: two seemingly completely different forces were actually connected.

First, what is electromagnetism? People say lightwaves are made of it, your microwave oven utilises microwaves–longer, less energetic waves of light–and even your phones, computers and remote controls use them to function wirelessly.

But what is it? It’s as simple of a force as its name suggests: electricity and magnetism existing as one. On the subatomic and quantum level, it’s actually rather complex, so we’re only going to focus on the grand scale (or classical type) of its physics.

Let’s use a very cool image to convey this. Picture the core of the Earth. Liquid, superheated iron and nickel (and other metals) swim about around a solid clump of iron that only remains solid due to the pressure of the mass of everything around it. Picture you are some sort of cosmic being that is able to withstand such immensely hot temperatures and a swim in such a Hellish lake is super easy to you, so you get to peek into the subterranean layers of our planet. Here, you witness the movements which create the magnetic field of the Earth, from the electrical currents released by the interactions of liquid metals, as well as the rotation of the Earth’s solid iron core. Thus the magnetic field is born. [Video: https://player.vimeo.com/video/86665633 ]

[More in-depth article: http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-earths-core-made-of ]

If you have electricity, you (can) have magnetism. It’s a simple fact of physics.

Brilliant, but what does this have to do with the telegraph?

The electric telegraph relies heavily on the discovery of the inherent connection between electricity and magnetism. I give you the Cooke and Wheatstone five needle telegraph:

No copyright intended. [ Image source: http://topbritishinnovations.org/images/I039/10307583.aspx ] Also, how epic is this shit?

That contraption relied on electricity and the magnetic field created by the current. Two needles would point at one specific letter. [Source]

Then came, yes, Morse and Vail, who created the Morse Code for their telegraph:

And you thought WhatsApp was cool. [Image source: http://www.kent-engineers.com/vailkeyinfo.htm ].

Morse Code:

Can you even Morse? [ Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_Morse_Code.svg ]

The way these worked was rather simple. A wire between a sender and a receiver would transmit the messages. The sender would use the telegraph to tap the key and create the Morse message, while the recipient wrote down the message and then translated it to English. As expected for humans, they soon developed the ability to simply distinguish which letter was being transmitted through hearing, and the newer models created louder ‘dings’ to speed up the process.

I’d say that’s the first IM contraption. Picture the ‘hip’ teens who could send messages to each other using this brilliant invention. Amusing, isn’t it?

I hope you learned something new. If you did, please recommend. If you’d like to request explanations for similar things (and science stuff), leave it in the responses! Thanks for reading.


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