Telegraph to the Fibre Optic CablePast to 1850
Electronic Communication

Past to 1850


The meaning of the Greek word “Tel” is far off; therefore the word telecommunications means far off communications. This does not mean however that all telecommunications are electrical; they only need to operate over large distances. Things such as beacons to alert people of an invasion or relaying messages using smoke and light signals to other neighbouring communities could be classed as telecommunication.

However these non-electronic forms of telecommunication were far too slow and unreliable for the needs of the industrial revolution. Then when scientists started to experiment with electricity, telecommunication was about the change forever into a fast and reliable method of communicating over larger distances across the world.

The story of electronic telecommunication starts in 1729 and it is this period and onwards which this website concentrates on.


After experimenting with many different objects and materials Stephen Grey discovered that he could transmit electricity over large distances using insulated wires. He achieved this by hanging the wires using silk threads (which he had earlier discovered to be insulators) so that the wires would not touch the ground and earth themselves. Grey never actually used his discovery to aid communication.


Volta invented the electric battery as an alternative to naturally occurring electricity and allowed for much more electrical experimentation to learn more about electricity. However there was still not much use for it and it was often used by the rich, as a posh toy to play with at parties and electric shock themselves and their guests! Little did they know that their, posh toy would lead to some of the most important inventions of the modern world, telecommunication in particular.


Charles Wheatstone experimented with the rate of transmission of electricity along 8 miles of insulated (suspended) copper wire. His calculations were incorrect; however he did refute common belief that electricity was instantaneous.


The five needle telegraph was invented by Wheatstone and Cooke, it had five needles which used together could point to most of the letters of the alphabet. However there were a number of letters missing from the telegraph, therefore messages had to be sent without using them. Another drawback of the five needle telegraph is that it requires quite a number of wires relay messages because it has five needles each operating on a separate circuit.

In the same year Samuel Morse also showcased his telegraph, but like the five needle telegraph it too had many faults and Morse Code had not yet been invented which would solve a lot of problems for both of the different telegraph systems.

Later Wheatstone and Cook perfected their telegraph to one with a single needle and allowed messages to be sent using Morse Code. This meant that only one cable was required and all of the letters of the alphabet were available thanks to Morse Code. The limitation for this telegraph was that a trained operator was required to decode the messages sent or to encode any messages to be sent.


Samuel Morse continued to improve and redevelop his telegraph and brought out a far more reliable one which used Morse Code (a language he had invented) to send the messages across it. The language was specially designed so that the most commonly used letters were the shortest to type in Morse Code; for example “e” is represented by one dot (the shortest expression). The language is made up entirely of dots and dashes, different combinations for the dots and dashes represent different characters (See Table 1).

Table 1: The Morse Code
A . _
B _ . . .
C _ . _ .
D _ . .
E .
F . . _ .
G _ _ .
H . . . .
I . .
J . _ _ _
K _ . _
L . _ . .
M _ _
N _ .
O _ _ _
P . _ _ .
Q _ _ . _
R . _ .
S . . .
T _
U . . _
V . . . _
W . _ _
X _ . . _
Y _ . _ _
Z _ _ . .
0 _ _ _ _ _
1 . _ _ _ _
2 . . _ _ _
3 . . . _ _
4 . . . . _
5 . . . . .
6 _ . . . .
7 _ _ . . .
8 _ _ _ . .
9 _ _ _ _ .


After some experimenting in Swansea bay Charles Wheatstone succeeds in creating a submarine telegraph cable allowing messages to be sent underwater as well as on land, however it would be many years yet until a submarine cable would connect two or more countries.


The first successful submarine telegraph cable to connect two countries was between England and France. It was laid by John Watkins Brett’s and had a single copper core with some insulation and very little to protect it from harm in the ocean. Subsequent cables had amour wire around them to protect them from harm in the sea.

© Alex Widdowson 2012