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The Telegraph and the Invention of Weather Forecasting

In the early days of the telegraph, station operators began sharing the local weather with each other. As the practice became more widespread, people started to realize that what happened in one location translated to later events in another location. Modern weather forecasting and the concept of weather systems were born.

The operators had discovered something both interesting and paradoxical, the writer Andrew Blum observes in his book The Weather Machine. The telegraph had collapsed time but, in doing so, it had somehow simultaneously created more of it. Now people could see what the future held before it happened; they could know that a storm was on its way hours before the rain started falling or the clouds appeared in the sky. This new, real-time information also did something else, Blum points out. It allowed weather to be visualized as a system, transforming static, localized pieces of data into one large and ever-shifting whole.

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How to write telegrams properly

From a small booklet written by Nelson Ross in 1928, a guide on How to Write Telegrams Properly.

Handwriting in Telegrams โ€” There is a classic joke of the telegraph business which may not be out of place here. A lady, filing a message with the counter clerk for transmission, first enclosed it in an envelope. When the clerk tore open the envelope to prepare the telegram for sending, she reached for it indignantly with the exclamation: “The idea! That is my personal telegram and I don’t want anyone else to see it.”

It must be remembered that a telegram is transmitted letter by letter. Telegraph operators, like post office employees, are expert in reading handwriting, but even so, words cannot be guessed at. If you write the word “opportunity” very clearly as far as “oppo” and the rest of the word is a mere scribble, it cannot be transmitted in that fashion. It must be “opportunity” or nothing. If you sign your name “John” followed by a series of hen tracks, neither can that be transmitted. You may have intended the word for “Johnson,” but you cannot reasonably expect the telegraph employee to be a mind reader as well as an operator.

How did telegrams hit moving targets? Like so:

Messages for Persons on Trains โ€” A message addressed to a passenger on a train should show the name of the railroad, train number or name or time due, place where the message is to be delivered, and also the point for which the passenger is bound. If the train is run in 13 sections, the section should be specified if known. A sample address is: “John Smith, en route Los Angeles, Care Conductor, Southern Pacific, Train 103, El Paso, Texas.” Even though when the train stop at El Paso and John Smith is paged, he may be pacing the Platform for fresh air and exercise, the conductor will strive hard to effect delivery. If you expect to have occasion to telegraph a friend setting out on a journey, it is a good idea to get from him his Pullman berth and car number, so that you will be able to indicate this on your telegram. Telegraph clerks generally will be found to be courteous in aiding you to determine the progress of the train and station where it most likely can be intercepted.

And sending money was possible as well, using the HTTPS of its time:

The procedure is simple. A person wishing to send a sum of money by wire merely calls at the telegraph office, fills out an application blank, and pays the clerk the amount to be sent and the fee for its transmittal. The telegraph companies have a secret code which they use in directing their agent in the distant city to make payment to the person designated. The payee is notified to call at the office for a sum of money, or a check is sent to the payee, as may be directed. It is optional with the sender of the money order, whether the payee shall be required to identify himself absolutely or whether identification shall be waived. The Western Union Telegraph Company alone handles more than $250,000,000 annually in telegraphic money orders.

I wonder what sort of shenanigans telegraph hackers got up to trying to intercept those “secret codes” and make fake payouts. See also The Victorian Internet.

The Birth of Breaking News

The completion of the US transcontinental railroad in 1869 in Utah was also the birthplace of the newsflash. The news was delivered via telegraph through a clever scheme: the famous golden spike and a silver hammer were each wired to the telegraph so that when hammer struck nail, the circuit completed and the news raced out along telegraph wires to the rest of the nation.1

Where were you when you heard the news of the completion of the transcontinental railroad?

  1. At least, that was the plan. It is said the hammer swingers missed the spike and so the telegraph operator had to message “DONE” instead.โ†ฉ

Bell’s telegraph killer

Word is trickling out of Bell Labs that Alexander Graham Bell is developing a device that will supplant the telegraph.

While the technology behind the Telephone is new, the design is reassuringly old-fashioned, reminiscent of a phrenologist’s horn or ear-candle in form. We found the experience far more comfortable than the one we had with the Telegraph, though fatigue from magnetic waves is inevitable in the use of each. This is a minor complaint, however, as we could scarcely imagine using such a device for more than a few minutes a day.

Update: Meanwhile, back in the real world, F. Marion Crawford had this to say back in 1896:

The old fashioned novel is really dead, and nothing can revive it nor make anybody care for it again. What is to follow it?…A clever German who is here suggested to me last night that the literature of the future might turn out to be the daily exchange of ideas of men of genius โ€” over the everlasting telephone of course โ€” published every morning for the whole world….

The everlasting telephone!

Twitter = tunnel is in ore

Regarding the previous post on Twitter and the telegraph, eagle-eyed reader Mark spotted this gem on page 401 of the telegraphic code book:

Twitter Telegraph

I heard that “tunnel is in ore” was @jack’s first name for the service; that it was shortened to Twitter makes a lot of sense now. (thx, mark)

Twitter and the telegraph

Ben Schott on the similarities between the telegraph and Twitter:

The 140-character limit of Twitter posts was guided by the 160-character limit established by the developers of SMS. However, there is nothing new about new technology imposing restrictions on articulation. During the late 19th-century telegraphy boom, some carriers charged extra for words longer than 15 characters and for messages longer than 10 words. Thus, the cheapest telegram was often limited to 150 characters.

Schott also shares about 100 words from The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code, a code book that reduced long phrases into single words in order to cut down on telegraphic transmission costs. The full book is available for reading on Google and it includes over 27,000 code words on 460 pages!

Twitter Telegraph

SOS is 100 years old

The SOS signal celebrates 100 years of official use today.

It took the tragedy of the Titanic to reveal just how vital a universal system was. After the collision in April 1912, the ship’s radio operators sent out both the old CQD and the new SOS signals, but some ships in the area ignored both, thinking that they were having a party. They soon learnt otherwise, as international headlines told how Jack Phillips, the Titanic’s first radio operator, and 1,500 others had been lost along with the “unsinkable” ship. The new SOS distress signal was rarely ignored after that.

Guglielmo Marconi gave testimony to the panel investigating the loss of the Titanic about the emergency signals.

Mr. Marconi explained the distress signals in use in vessels equipped with wireless telegraphy. “C.Q.” meant “All stations” and “C.Q.D.” was the distress signal. According to the regulations that signal must not be used except by order of the captain of the ship, or other vessels transmitting the signal. Since 1908 the distress signal had been “S.O.S.” This and the “C.Q.D.” were simply three letters, but they could be interpreted as meaning “Come quickly, danger,” and “Save Our Souls”.

Here’s a simulation of the message that the Titanic sent out that night.

Tales of the telegraph

L.C. Hall wrote an article in 1902 for McClure’s Magazine called “Telegraph Talk and Talkers, Human Character and Emotions an Old Telegrapher Reads on the Wire”. Hall’s article reveals a surprisingly wide range of information transmitted across telegraph wires between operators that has nothing to do with the messages being sent.

The piece begins with an account of a “fast sending tournament”, which contest reveals not only the quick sender, but the masterful:

Presently a fair-haired young man takes the chair, self confidence and reserve force in every gesture. Away he goes, and his transmission is as swift and pure as a mountain stream. “To guard against mistakes and delays, the sender of a message should order it repeated back.” The audience, enthralled, forgets the speed, and hearkens only to the beauty of the sending. On and on fly the dots and dashes, and though it is clear that his pace is not up to that set by the leaders, nevertheless there is a finish โ€” an indefinable quality of perfection in the performance that at the end brings the multitude to its feet in a spontaneous burst of applause; such an outburst as might have greeted a great piece of oratory or acting.

Many friendships were formed over the wire between senders who, judging mainly by the cadence of the code, sized up their counterparts from hundreds of miles away to the point of knowing their gender and general demeanor despite having never asked. Hall struck up such a friendship with a man called C G, whose attachment to Morse and Hall was so strong that he called out for him on his deathbed:

“Late in the evening,” said the [head nurse] as our interview was ending, “I was called into his room. He was rapidly failing, and was talking as if in a dream, two fingers of his right hand tapping the bedclothes as if he were sending a message. I did not understand the purport, but perhaps you will. ‘You say you can’t read me?’ he would say; ‘then let H come to the key. He can read and understand me. Let H come there, please.’ Now and again his fingers would cease moving, as if he were waiting for the right person to answer. Then he would go on once more: ‘Dear me, dear me, this will never do! I want to talk with H. I have an important message for him. Please tell him to hurry.’ Then would follow another pause, during which he would murmur to himself regretfully. But at last he suddenly assumed the manner of one listening intently; then, his face breaking into a smile, he cried, his fingers keeping time with his words: ‘Is that you, H? I’m so glad you’ve come! I have a message for you.’ And so, his fingers tapping out an unspoken message, his kindly spirit took its flight.”

The article closes with a bit on telegraph slang, or “hog-Morse”, when inexperienced operators slip up and send a bit of jibberish that expert receivers can nonetheless decipher from the context.

In the patois of the wires “pot” means “hot,” “foot” is rendered “fool,” “U. S. Navy” is “us nasty,” “home” is changed to “hog,” and so on. If, for example, while receiving a telegram, a user of the patois should miss a word and say to you “6naz fimme q,” the expert would know that he meant “Please fill me in.” But there is no difficulty about the interpretation of the patois provided the receiver be experienced and always on the alert. When, however, the mind wanders in receiving, there is always danger that the hand will record exactly what the ear dictates. On one occasion, at Christmas time, a hilarious citizen of Rome, New York, telegraphed a friend at a distance a message which reached its destination reading, “Cog hog to rog and wemm pave a bumy tig.” It looked to the man addressed like Choctaw, and of course was not understood. Upon being repeated, it read, “Come home to Rome, and we’ll have a bully time.” Another case of confusion wrought by hog-Morse was that of the Richmond, Virginia, commission firm, who were requested by wire to quote the price on a carload of “undressed slaves.” The member of the firm who receipted for the telegram being something of a wag, wired back: “No trade in naked chattel since Emancipation Proclamation.” The original message had been transmitted by senders of hog-Morse, called technically “hams,” and the receivers had absent-mindedly recorded the words as they had really sounded. What the inquirer wanted, of course, was a quotation on a carload of staves in the rough.

Hog-Morse reminds me of the SMS typos which occur when T9 slips up or someone fat-fingers the wrong button on the phone. I can’t recall how many times I’ve texted my wife “good soon”, by which I meant that I’ll be “home” shortly. It’s also reminiscent of gamer typo slang, like pwned, teh, and su[.

For more on the telegraph, particularly as it relates to contemporary communication technology, I highly recommend The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. Also related: send Morse code via SMS with your mobile phone and a 23-yo woman from Singapore holds the world record for speed texting a 26 word message in 43 seconds.

Update: The texting record was broken in July; a Utah teen texted the message in 42.22 seconds. And in an Australian speed contest, a telegraph operator beat texting teens. (thx eugene and alex)

Steven Shapin reviews Tom Standage’s A History

Steven Shapin reviews Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, a “social life of beverages”. Standage is one of my favorite technology/culture writers; he wrote about the telegraph in The Victorian Internet.