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The Optical Telegraph

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Joined: 20 Mar 2006
Posts: 1273
Location: Kent (East Hill), WA

PostPosted: Sun May 25, 2014 3:23 pm    Post subject: The Optical Telegraph Reply with quote

For some reason I've become fascinated by the telegraph. Maybe it's because I've been thinking in McLuhanesque terms about the big changes in media transforming society, but it seems to me that the moment we had communications at the speed of light, back in the early 1800s, was the time at which humanity changed. At the same time, I wonder, if everything else coming afterward is merely an enhancement..even our current web.

I think about what McLuhan said about NASA. It's mission was Newtonian, and hence obsolete. Yes, if you can bounce a laser off the Moon and back, what is the point of sending a man in a tin can at turtle speeds? So, thinking about transportation, the whole filling of the Earth with cars, trains, much did it matter, since anything really important could already be communicated from one person to another at the speed of light!

The other part of telegraphy that fascinates me is that it is both two-way and personal. You send a telegraph from someone, to someone. And they can respond in a bi-directional, symmetrical, and conversational way. This is different from the broadcast media of radio and television. I call these oratorical because they are delivered from on high, top down. It's interesting that the telegraph, which predated the broadcast modes of electronic communication, was the same way that the epistolary letter, written in text, predated the printing press, which broadcast stories in an oratorical way (yes, an odd use of the word, but I think you know what I mean).

A side note of all this is that while researching information, I found a book called the Victorian Internet which describes the birth of the telegraph and it's network and use as worldwide communications pipeline back in Victorian England. The books starts out with a description of the Optical Telegraph, which predates the electronic one. Using semaphores made by wooden planks, these optical towers networked France for hundreds of miles at the end of the 1700s!

Email in the 18th century: the optical telegraph
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