The telegraph and the Victorian Internet

downloadThe first attempt to lay an Atlantic telegraph cable occurred over 160 years ago. On July 1857, the job of laying 2500 tons of cable across the ocean began. Though the attempt failed (and it would take another nine years for a properly working telegraphy link between Britain and America to function), it marked an important milestone in the coming of, what Marshall McLuhan called a hundred years later, “the global village”.

The story of the transatlantic cable and telegraphy is covered in English author Tom Standage’s 1998 book “The Victorian Internet”. Standage says the way the telegraph revolutionised the 19th century world is remarkably similar to how the Internet is doing the same thing a century and a half later. Both communication mechanisms initially proved immune to regulation while both also annihilated distance, revolutionised business, and gave rise to new forms of vocabulary, crime and romance.

Standage traces telegraphy back to a bizarre experiment zapping Parisian monks in 1746. French scientist Abbe Jean-Antoine Nollet dished out electric shocks to a line of 200 unsuspecting Carthusian monks each carrying 7.5 metres of iron wire. Nollet’s electrotherapy proved electricity could travel quickly over great distance and held out the promise of high speed signalling between remote places.

The first practical signalling device didn’t involve electric wires. Fifty years after Nollet, his compatriot Claude Chappe evolved a messaging system from coded black-and-white panels, synchronised clocks and a telescope. In 1791 he sent a message to his brother 16kms away, “if you succeed, you will be covered in glory”. Chappe called his new invention “le télégraphe” from the Greek words for far writer. Chappe eventually did away with clocks and used a regulating rotating arm with 94 code symbols. The French government saw the potential of the new invention and built a network of towers to ferry news between towns.

Napoleon was a firm believer in the telegraph and in 1804 ordered the construction of a line from Paris to Milan. Britain followed suit and by the 1830s telegraph towers were over Europe. But the optical telegraph was fundamentally flawed. Towers were expensive to build, anyone could see the signal and the process needed clear daylight to work. The race was on to build the prototype for an electric telegraph.

In 1820, Danish physicist Hans Oersted discovered an electric current produces a magnetic field to deflect a compass needle. The same year German Johann Schweigger (who also named the element chlorine) invented the galvanometer. With the electromagnet and the voltaic battery, the galvanometer was the foundation of a working electric telegraph. Two amateur scientists separated by the Atlantic Ocean and unknown to each other made it work: Samuel Morse in New Haven and William Fothergill Cooke in London. Both men patented their work in 1837.

Cooke’s English telegraph was greatly helped by Professor Charles Wheatstone who knew how to get signals to travel long distances. Wheatstone was an experimental scientist while Cooke was a go-getting entrepreneur. Together they successfully designed and patented a five-needle telegraph to allow for 20 letters (C, J, Q, U, X and Z missed out).

While Cooke and Wheatstone took a few months to perfect the telegraph, Morse spent five years getting his invention ready. His design was overly complex and he ran into similar issues in getting signals to travel long distances. He was greatly assisted by his partner Alfred Vail. They developed the code that bears Morse’s name based on long and short bursts of current. They also simplified the design to make a working telegraph. All they had to do now was sell it.

He had difficulty convincing sceptics of its use. Morse failed to win over US congress and was equally unsuccessful on a sales trip to Europe. Cooke managed to get the Great Western Railway to run a 21km telegraph link between Paddington and West Drayton stations. But the railway lost interest and Cooke paid his own money to extend the line to Slough. By 1841 Cooke thought his new invention was foundering.

Morse eventually won government funding to build an experimental line. He ran a line alongside the 64km railway track between Washington and Baltimore. Before it was finished, Morse used the line to transmit the Whig Party presidential nomination in Baltimore 64 minutes before the news arrived in Washington by train. Three weeks later, on 24 May 1844, Morse inaugurated the line from Washington sending a quote to Vail in Baltimore from the Book of Numbers 23:23 “What hath God wrought.”

In Britain, the telegraph took off a year later transmitting news from Windsor Castle to London. Queen Victoria gave birth to her second son Alfred Ernest on 6 August 1844 and within 40 minutes, “The Times” announced the news on the streets of London “indebted to the extraordinary power of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph”. It was soon impressing the police too when used to apprehend a killer. John Tawell murdered his mistress and absconded by train from the scene of the crime in Slough. Police sent his description on by telegraph ‘dressed like a Kwaker’ (in the absence of Q’s) and he was apprehended at the other end. The wires were lauded as “the cords that hung John Tawell”.

US congress remained apathetic to Morse’s version despite his Washington experiments. He teamed up with Amos Kendall who proposed a private operation. They set up the Magnetic Telegraph Company and built lines to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and New York. Kendall advertised in the New York newspapers saying the fee for sending a telegraph was 25 cents for 10 words. The business quickly made profits.

Telegraph growth was explosive. By 1850, there was almost 20,000kms of wire in the US. It was used by bankers, merchants, government, police, business, shipping, courts and what one British writer called “messages of every character usually sent by the mail”. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London had 13 designs for improvements on the telegraph. By 1852, Prussia laid 2400 kms radiating out from Berlin. Austria and Canada nearly had as much and lines were laid in Italy, Spain, Russia, Holland, Australia, Chile and Cuba. Only France was obstinate, reluctant to abandon the optical telegraphy they gave the world 50 years earlier.

Messages were quickly dubbed ‘telegrams’ sent by central telegraph offices to destinations and transcribed onto paper. Telegraph messenger boys, including Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie took the messages to the recipient.

Prussia and Austria signed the first interconnection treaty in 1849 but until someone could solve the problem of underwater cables failing due to the deterioration of rubber in water, Britain remained isolated. The solution was south-east Asian gutta-percha, rubbery gum hard at room temperature but malleable and soft in hot water. The first direct message was sent from London to Paris in 1852. Ireland was linked a year later. Deepwater cable-laying across the Atlantic was the next challenge

The first cable was laid in 1857 but snapped as did a replacement cable. A third cable successfully crossed the Atlantic a year later but was very slow and lasted just three weeks before dying. Aided by Scottish scientist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) an inquiry into the failed cable demonstrated the conducting core was too small and the use of high voltage induction coils destroyed the cables insulation. In July 1866 the two continents were linked by a newer sturdy cable which was quickly duplicated and inventor Cyrus Field was hailed as “the Columbus of our time”.

By the 1850s congestion was a major problem for telegraph offices. Bottlenecks arose as messages were held up due to the enormous traffic. London solved the problem by using steam-powered pneumatic tubes to carry messages short distances. The idea was copied in other English cities and spread worldwide. In Paris the system was extensive enough to often avoid sending telegraphs at all. In New York the tubes were large enough to carry large parcels and on one occasion a cat was sent from one post office to another by pneumatic tube.

By the 1870s, the Victorian Internet was in place. Cables reached India, China and Japan in 1870, Australia a year later and South America in 1874. The world had over a million kms of wire and 48,000 kms of submarine cable linking 20,000 towns and villages. Messages went from London to Bombay and back in under four minutes. The newspaper named after the invention, the Daily Telegraph, proclaimed “time itself was telegraphed out of existence”.

Newspapers also worried it might put them out of business. But while telegraphs could quickly transport news, it could not easily distribute news to readers. So the newspapers formed networks of reporters who dispatched news from distant places. These networks became known as news agencies. The New York Associated Press began in 1848 and soon dominated the selling of news to newspapers. In Europe Paul Julius Reuter established his own agency, initially by carrier pigeon and eventually by telegraph.

The Times reporter William Howard Russell was the world’s first war correspondent sending dispatches to London from the front line of the Crimean war. Russell was not allowed to use the Black Sea cable the British built for the war but his speedy missives highlighted military inefficiencies and made Florence Nightingale a national hero.

By the 1870s the dominant era of the telegraph was about to end. Most offices had automatic telegraphs capable of 400 words a minute – ten times faster than the quickest human operators. Duplex and then quadruplex systems carried four streams of traffic simultaneously. The technology changed telegraphy into a low-skill occupation. But the ‘harmonic telegraph’ had the greatest effect.

Harmonic telegraphs distinguish notes of different pitch by using reeds vibrating at different frequencies. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell both worked on variations of harmonic machines capable of making more than telegraphy. In 1876 Bell filed a patent for a machine to transmit the human voice when he found out that Gray was working on the same goal. By the end of the year, the ‘telephone’ was ready. Initially seen as a speaking telegraph, it was an instant success going from 230 handsets in 1877 to 30,000 three years later.

Samuel Morse died in 1872, aged 81. The invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879 was the final straw for the telegraph. Thanks to Edison, Tesla and others, it became the electric age and the telegraphic journals began to rename themselves. The Telegraphers’ Advocate became the Electric Age, the Operator became Electrical World, and The Telegraphic Journal became the Electrical Review. By the end of the century, the telephone reigned supreme.  The era of the telegraph was over.

Ludwig Leichhardt’s first expedition

Overland expedition to Port Essington by Ludwig Leichhardt ; laid down by Capt. Perry Deputy Surveyor General of New South Wales (State Library of NSW)

The speed which Britain colonised the interior of Australia was greatly hastened by the work of the explorers. The continent was full of native peoples but to Europeans who travelled away from the relative safety of Sydney, Australia was a blank canvas waiting to be “discovered”.

Whatever scientific motives inspired explorers, the people who invested their money in their activities were interested in one thing only, productive farming land. From Cook onwards, the British were blind to Aboriginal stewardship of the land they owned. Aboriginal people were just natural obstacles like rivers, mountains and rough terrain that had to be tamed or conquered. Explorers like Thomas Mitchell and John Oxley were government men serving their country. A more ambiguous case was the extraordinary German adventurer Ludwig Leichhardt, who received no sanction from suspicious British government officialdom but who was helped by landholders keen to expand their private interests.

Leichhardt was born in Prussia in 1813 and studied in schools and universities in Germany, France and Britain. He was a polymath interested in philosophy and languages, then medicine and later botany and geology. He received no formal qualification and with the threat of compulsory military service in Prussia looming, he used wealthy British friends to pay for a passage to Australia, arriving in 1842.

Leichhardt used the three month passage to learn celestial navigation. Under the influence of Alexander von Humboldt, the young man was desperate to explore the mostly unknown colony then barely 50 years old. He was an intellectual oddity in a rough and ready land and a foreigner, but he was respected because of his wide-ranging education and his willingness to learn the new environment. His training in meteorology made him correctly surmise the hot winds from the west meant the centre of Australia was arid, when many still believed in the existence of an inland sea.

Britain controlled narrow strips of coastal land near Sydney and the newly developing cities of Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide but the inland was a vast cipher. NSW Surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell had launched expeditions along the Murray-Darling system and hoped to travel to the newly established Port Essington outpost on the north coast in 1844. However NSW Governor George Gipps declined to fund the trip.

Leichhardt, who had already done long field trips to the Newcastle, Moreton Bay and Darling Downs regions, was keen to join Mitchell. When that failed he decided on his own trip north. It was an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking of three thousand miles. He would start from the Darling Downs frontier, head north across the ridges to Cape York then roughly follow the coast to Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula, all though lands no European had ever set foot in. Graziers paid Leichhardt’s equipment bill because they were keen to find out the potential of the land.

Several young men joined Leichhardt on his adventure. He met botanist James Calvert, aged 19, aboard the ship to Australia. John Roper was also 19, John Murphy was just 15. He had two Aboriginal trackers Charley Fisher and Harry Brown, a prisoner named William Phillips and a naturalist John Gilbert who paid his own way to join the expedition.

Gilbert was the only competent bushman in the party and assumed the role of second in command. Two more, Pemberton Hodgson and black American “Caleb”, joined in the expedition but left very early on. They had 16 cattle, 17 horses, 1200 pounds of flour, 80 pounds of tea, 20 pounds of gelatin and guns and ammunition.

Leichhardt was an unlikely explorer, with poor eyesight and a lack of bush skills but he had supreme self belief. The journey was difficult and dangerous, with Leichhardt underestimating the problems he faced along the way. “I had so accustomed myself to a comparatively wild life and had so closely observed the habits of the aborigines, that I felt assured the only real difficulties which I could meet would be of a local character,” he wrote in the introduction to his journal expedition.

In the introduction to 1996 edition of the journal, Les Hiddens is ambiguous about Leichhardt and his achievements. Hiddens admits he grew up thinking the German was a “a bit of a bumbling foreign explorer” with foreign the key word in that Brit-centred analysis. He grudgingly admits it was the most ambitious exploration plan seen in Australia but reckons Gilbert may have provided much of the leadership and probably all of the botanic knowledge, which is immense in the journal. Hiddens said the expedition relied on the hunting and shooting ability of the two Aboriginal guides Fisher and Brown. But he admits Leichhardt was one of the few early explorers to supplement rations using local resources – a failure that had disastrous consequences for the Burke and Wills expedition 15 years later.

After their departure from the Darling Downs in October 1844, little was heard of Leichhardt’s party, and eventually they were given up for lost. Progress was slow in the early days out of Jimbour Station, west of what is now Dalby. It took two hours to load the horses and cattle and the latter often strayed leading to further delays. They followed the river systems, first the Condamine past what is now Chinchilla, then north to the Dawson system, across the Expedition Ranges and on to the Comet River he named for Comet Wilmot which he saw on 29 December 1844.

He named the Mackenzie and Isaac rivers and later the Sutter, Burdekin and Lynd, all for people who helped finance the trip. He followed the Mitchell River into Cape York. On June 25 the party finally began to head west picking up the River Nassau which flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Here on the night of June 28, an Aboriginal war party attacked them, most likely because Brown or Fisher interfered with one of their women.

Leichhardt was woken by a loud noise and cries for help from Calvert and Roper. He found ammunition for Fisher and Brown who “discharged their guns into the crowd of natives, who instantly fled.” Roper and Calvert suffered spear wounds and bruises from waddies. But Gilbert was killed instantly by a spear through his neck while leaving his tent. They kept guard through the night hearing the wails of the Aborigines who probably also suffered losses. Roper and Calvert recovered quickly and they continued their walk west on June 30. Leichhardt later named the Gilbert River in his honour.

They crossed through the crocodile country of the Flinders River on July 21, and a few days later the Norman and what would later be named the Leichhardt River (though Leichhardt himself would only name rivers for his benefactors and expedition members and not for himself). He greeted the first sight of the waters of the Gulf with “indescribable pleasure” optimistically thinking they had done the hardest part of the journey.

Whereever they went they were watched but there no further attacks. On July 20 Leichhardt asked Brown to discharge his gun to drive one mob away that were following them. They moved further away but stayed closed “shewing evidently that they expected no harm from us”, Leichhardt wrote. Four of them approached him and he gave them presents. The natives guided them further on while admiring their animals. On July 29 in saltpan country, they came upon a tribe fishing at a water hole and after some initial apprehension they met and talked. “Seeing my watch, they pointed to the sun; and appeared to be well acquainted with the use of my gun,” Leichhardt said.

A few days later they had to use a gun when they saw natives approach the camp loudly and swinging their spears. After the Europeans discharged a pistol they went quiet and cowered to the ground but escaped across a river. The river was the Albert, which they crossed on August 6 and Leichhardt named Beames Brook on August 19 for Walter Beames of Sydney, who provided “liberal support”. He named the Nicholson River a day later for the English family which supported him in Europe and paid for his passage to Australia.

Passing into the Northern Territory Leichhardt named the Calvert, Robinson and Macarthur Rivers. Their rations dwindled and their clothes became worn and threadbare. The loss of Leichhardt’s hat in a fire was hard-felt in the hot sun. By mid October – a year into their journey – they found the Roper River and crossed into Arnhem Land. The dogs and bullocks were dying and they jettisoned all but unessential supplies. With no spare horses, the remainder tired quickly and became weak. Charley’s ability to shoot ducks, wallabies, emus, flying foxes and other game was keeping them alive.

In November they crossed the difficult country of the high tableland overlooking the South Alligator River. On November 25 barely a hundred miles from their destination they met an armed but not hostile tribe. One had an English shawl and handkerchief and pointed in the direction of Port Essington when asked where he got them. They were surrounded for days by tribes who were curious and friendly.

In December they arrived on the Cobourg Peninsula and met natives who spoke words of English “Commandant!”, “come here!”, “very good!” and “What’s your name?” They called white people Balanda, (“Hollanders”) and they helped them find water. The amount of English spoken increased the closer they got to the end. There was a couple of days delay crossing the East Alligator River. They were distressed with boils and a prickly heat, while horseflies plagued the horses and the end could not come soon enough.

Finally on December 17 with the help of native guides the bedraggled mob came upon a cart road and followed it around a hill to see European gardens, white houses and a row of snug thatched cottages. “We were most kindly received by Captain Macarthur, the commandant of Port Essington, and the other officers who with the greatest kindness and attention supplied us with everything we wanted,” Leichhardt wrote.

They were fortunate a schooner landed a month later and by March 29, 1846 they were back in Sydney and greeted as heroes. They were given up as dead but Leichhardt brought back intelligence of a great inland that others following in his path would exploit.

Leichhardt was restless for more adventure and after failing in a second expedition east to west to the Swan River from Jimbour due to sickness and ill-health, he tried again in 1848 this time following new tracks found by Mitchell further west near the modern town of Roma. After leaving Muckadilla on April 22, 1848, neither he nor his expedition was ever heard from again. Leichhardt went from history into mythology. The land he crossed went quickly from Aboriginal to European hands.