Communications Before the Internet

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For most of human history, information and data are associated with physically tangible items, and the transportation of which usually required much time and effort. This has been the case from the messenger pigeon of the past to the Pony Express in the 1800s. Communications before the internet never reached anything that resembles long distance and instantaneous until the telegram.

The introduction of electrical telegraphy marked a pivotal moment in human history. When the telegraph lines were laid down next to the railroads in America, it is no overstatement to say that those telegraph lines are just as influential to the lives of those connected by the railroads. Imagine that you live on one side of a long stretch of railroad, and you want to send an urgent message to your brother that lives in the big city on the other side of the railroad (perhaps your grandmother has just caught a deadly disease). You could either send it by mail, which could takes at least days to deliver by train or weeks by horseback, or you could send him a telegram, which your brother could receive within the day. It is obvious what the choice is. This is an extreme case of usage, but as cost of this wonder of technology goes down, people started using it for more and more mundane things. From sending heartfelt letters to your distant love ones, to inquiring if the weather on the coast is more suited for spending the vacation than inland.

Similarly, as the technology proved itself to be reliable and simply better than any old world alternatives, people also started using it for essential businesses. Railroad stations could inform each other of schedules, delays, and other circumstances well ahead of the train’s arrival. The price of market was more synchronized, and businesses could react to market changes much faster and the capitalistic world is suddenly much smaller. In fact, any function of society that required synchronization and planning became a lot easier to manage. Similarly, the aspects of society that required collaboration also got a whole lot easier: scientists shared their findings to colleagues and discussed hypothesis and implications with ease, advancing technology even faster than before. The freedom of communication that the electric telegraph represented in people’s lives became an essential part of the society’s identity.

On how the technology is regulated, I am reminded of a very fascinating story in France which many considered to be the first telecommunication scam. The story goes like this: from Paris to Bordeaux in the south of France existed an optical telegraph line, composed of numerous semaphore towers. The way the semaphore towers worked is simple: an operator at the start of the line would compose a message by moving the tower’s semaphore arms in certain position, then the next tower would copy it, then the next, all the way until the message gets relayed to the last tower at the receiving end of the line. It was the fastest way for a message to travel in 18th century France, and it was reserved for the government only. Two brothers by the names of François and Joseph Blanc came along and devised a way to send their own messages secretly through this line. They bribed an operator in France to include several extra arm motions in regular messages, and follow them with the respective number of backspaces, so the resulting message on the other end would not look different from any regular message. Then, at the end of the line, one of them would record the extra messages and interpret them as simple code for if the market has gone up or down in Paris. This allowed them investment opportunities well ahead of all other investors in Bordeaux, netting them massive gains in the market. It’s the perfect plan. It involved a brand new technology, with no need for many human involvement (only the operators who were bribed), and it resulted in opportunities akin to time travel. This is why despite people being suspicious of their success, it was only years after when one of the bribed operator was on his deathbed that he confessed, resulting in the arrest of those involved who are still alive. This story is significant in understanding how the technology is regulated, which is that it really isn’t much regulated. People didn’t know the potential uses of this sudden change in how information is transferred, and so laws and policies are unprepared and lagged behind (as they often do). It is understandable too: imagine if suddenly the world as you know it shrunk by 50 percent — that’s how it felt when the technology was first introduced. It is impossible to predict how a new piece of technology as revolutionary as the telegraph would be used in all aspects of life, and regulations can only play catch up as the pioneers and trailblazers explore ahead.

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