Today, we visit a once vast technology -- now
forgotten. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Let's think about
communication over long distances. When I was a
child, long-distance calls were rare extravagances.
Overseas calls were only for kings and presidents.
Western Union was only for emergencies. The mails
served everything else. Today, if I have business
in Japan, I use e-mail or the telephone, without a
Our pre-electric history is littered with tales of
frustrated communications. The Spanish lost their
Armada because a message didn't get through. The
Light Brigade charged because Raglan didn't have a
By 1700, that need began driving a wild array of
Rube Goldberg communications systems. Of course
long-distance signaling was an ancient art --
Indian smoke-signals, ship semaphore flags.
Then 17th-century science offered improvements. In
1684 Robert Hooke, who'd invented the compound
microscope, turned his eye outward instead of
inward. He wrote a broad analysis of optical
telegraphy -- of the possibilities for visual
A century later, during the Revolution, France
finally put in a semaphore telegraph network. It
was system of towers with wagging arms. England
followed immediately. We joined by 1800.
The name Telegraph Hill in many American cities
comes from those towers, read from afar through
telescopes. The name is a last vestige of that
In an English test, operators relayed a message
from London to Plymouth and back in three minutes.
It'd gone at the astonishing rate of 170 miles a
minute. Sound goes only 12 miles a minute.
Electric telegraphy had also gone through a series
of experiments. An author, who signed himself (or
could it have been herself?) only as C.M., proposed
an electric telegraph in the Scot's
Magazine in 1753. Europe had tried a great
profusion of electric telegraphs by 1832. Then
Morse went to work on what would be the first
really workable system.
And we, in our vast country, had to wait for Morse.
Semaphore telegraphy was impractical outside a few
densely populated areas. We used the pony express
Still, those old semaphore relays were once a huge
enterprise -- even in parts of America. In 1852,
France was still criss-crossed with a 3000-mile
network of 556 semaphore stations. By then,
electric telegraphs had been around almost two
In a few years the dying dinosaur of semaphore
telegraphy would be utterly gone. In a generation
it would be forgotten as well. Only its spawn
remains. And, I suppose, your grandchildren may one
day ask you, "Grandma, what was Western Union?"
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds