Review of “The Worldwide History of Telecommunications”

I enjoy reading books about the history of the technical subjects I study. I wish my engineering classes covered this history, but I understand that they simply don’t have time. Reading books gives me a context that methods and equations do not. Plus, they include interesting stories.

In the past year, I have become increasingly interested in telecommunications. Which is why I recently started Anton A. Huurdeman’s The Worldwide History of Telecommunications. I will leave the book better armed with a wealth of stories that interest me but will probably make me an even more insufferable party guest.

Stories that my friends should now be prepared to listen to repeatedly include:

  • It’s not only about the technology, it’s about a usable UI. Samuel Morse was only one of many to invent an electrical telegraph around the 1840s. Numerous systems, all inspired by advances in electricity, sprung up at the same time. However, he is most known for the telegraph because he was the first to invent a electrical writing telegraph that made it easy for operators to quickly translate communications into human language. One of the designs that lost out — surprisingly to me — shocked the operator at the receiver in various patterns to transmit information.
  • The fire beacons in Lord of the Rings were real. Only a couple of decades before electrical telegraphy was installed throughout the Western world, optical telegraphy systems were installed. These systems used giant, convoluted towers that could be configured into various shapes. Telescope operators from several kilometers away would observe a tower’s shape and match the shape on their own tower.

![Lord of the Rings Beacon](/img/lordringsbeacon.jpg “Optical communication in Lord of the Rings. How they transmitted a war had started from only one bit of information is beyond me.”) ![Lord of the Rings Beacon](/img/Rees’s_Cyclopaedia_Chappe_telegraph.png “A much more realistic optical telegraphy system, a Claude Chappe original design used in the late 1700s.”) * Telegraphy operators are why the United States owns Alaska. Most high school students learn and forget that the purchase of Alaska was called “Seward’s Folly,” after the Secretary of State who negotiated the deal. What we don’t learn is that Russians first proposed the sale when telegraph operators were negotiating a lease for land needed for a US to Russia telegraph installation.

  • Alexander Graham Bells’s story is enough to fill many posters full of inspirational quotes. Bell was pursuing an improvement to electrical telegraphy called harmonic telegraphy when he first met Joseph Henry. Henry suggested that he focus on electrical transmission of speech. Bell complained that he “did not have the necessary electrical knowledge,” to which Henry simply remarked “Get it!” Furthermore, many people know Bells’s first words through his invention in 1876 were “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” What most don’t know is that Bell did not say the now semi-famous words in a room filled with eminent scientists and politicians of the day overflowing with anticipation. Rather, the transmitter accidentally picked it up after he spilled battery acid on himself while running experiments and called for Watson’s help. If I could draw, I would draw a comic of Bell hopping around trying to save himself from battery acid while Watson on the other end squeals with joy due to the success.

These stories are only from the first half of the book, which I wholly intend to finish in the next several days. The book is extremely well written and brilliantly weaves together historical facts with stories that keep the book bearable to read. I full expect to regale my friends with stories from the history of radio transmissions and fax machines soon. Until then, I will finish with one last story that serves as a plea for others to read the history of their respective fields:

Last summer, while interning at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, I lived and worked with many aerospace engineers. As a group, aerospace engineers know more about the history and present of their field than any other group of people I’ve ever met. I witnessed many days and nights of discussions regarding the future of spaceflight, discussions in which I simply tried to absorb as much as I could. My friends could discuss not only the technical challenges, but also the legal, economic, and political environments that affect their work and goals. Even more impressively, all their discussions were grounded in historical fact. I learned something new about space and space policy in every conversation I had. I’m not going to speculate on why aerospace engineers developed this skill, but I sure hope I and others do as well.