Victorian telegrams: the early development of the telegraphic despatch and its interplay with the letter post

The paper examines the early development of the Victorian inland telegraph, and more precisely the telegraphic despatches, or telegrams, as they became widely known. The first telegram service in Britain was launched by the Electric Telegraph Company two decades before nationalization of the telegraphs in 1870. It is argued that this service was not as innovative as the electric telegraph technology that underpinned it. Attention is drawn to the parallels between the telegram and mail services. To this end, the evolution of postal communication is first explored, with a focus on the nineteenth century, when innovations such as mail-trains and prepayment by stamp considerably accelerated the mail and increased the volume of letters from 67 million in 1839 to a staggering 741 million in 1865. It was in this context that the telegram service was introduced to the public. The operating model adopted by the Electric Telegraph Company to deliver this service is deconstructed to show the similarities with the mail service and to demonstrate that a telegram was not always faster than letter post.

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A tale of two telegraphs: Cooke and Wheatstone’s differing visions of electric telegraphy

This paper explores the early development of practical electric telegraphy in Britain during the nineteenth century. It exposes the two fundamentally different approaches to the design of telegraphic instruments specified in a joint patent between William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in 1840. Cooke’s design was a relatively simple needle instrument that required skilled operators to transcode and transcribe the telegraphic despatches. Wheatstone’s design, on the other hand, relied on an innovative step-by-step (escapement) technology which was at the heart of a user-friendly, albeit more complex dial instrument that could be operated by any literate person. The deteriorating relationship between the two men during this period had a detrimental impact on the development of telegraphy. To prevent Wheatstone benefiting from the commercial venture that came to be known as the Electric Telegraph Company, which Cooke believed should be entirely his own, in 1845 Cooke acquired the full rights to the joint patent and subsequently ignored Wheatstone’s design, stifling in the process the development of the promising step-by-step technology. It would be another twelve years before Wheatstone resumed work on this technology and produced ultimately the ABC instrument – a dial telegraph that marked a milestone in the history of communication.

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The history of Internet of Things (IoT)

“Data transmitted every half-hour from the cloud provided temperature observations to the men of science for predicting weather patterns with more accuracy than ever before.”

Men of science?

Yes, you read correctly and this is not a politically incorrect statement: these events were taking place in the nineteenth century – in 1843 to be exact.

The cloud was where a captive balloon, 18 feet in diameter and 25 feet high, was transmitting data from a wet-and-dry-bulb thermometer encased in a box weighing around 4 pounds and connected via two very fine copper wires covered with silk to the ground, where a receiving station printed the readings on a paper tape.

It all began in Woolwich

The British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association) reported that these “men of science”, Sir Charles Wheatstone prominently among them, had received a grant of £250 for this experiment which was taking place in Woolwich.

This must have been one of the earliest recorded use of machine to machine communication (M2M) – a concept which has now morphed into the Internet of Things (IoT).

It has been more than 170 years since the connected balloon raised into the clouds. IoT is an old story indeed.

Silk and Innovation: The Jacquard Loom in the Age of the Industrial Revolution

Silk and Innovation: The Jacquard Loom in the Age of the Industrial Revolution

Silk has been used for weaving fabrics for at least two millennia. Whether in its smooth satin finish or its many other textures, silk has long been associated with luxury, particularly when combined with decorative patterns. The weaving of these fashionable patterned fabrics had traditionally been done manually, using looms that required two operators with the mental agility to visually remember the complex interlacement of the yarns. Errors were frequent and the process was tedious. The Jacquard machine revolutionised this process through a technique that augured the operation of modern programmable computers, eliminating at the same time the need for a second operator. This innovation of French origin arrived in England in 1820, and this book is the story of its diffusion across the country. The narrative begins with a brief history of the technology and the man behind the invention, before looking at the political, economic and social factors that influenced the adoption of this innovation. The wider context of the silk industry is exposed, from the mass exodus of the Huguenots to the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts, from the glory days of Spitalfields to the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty which hastened the decline of this trade. This story also reveals the critical role played by Stephen Wilson, an entrepreneur from Streatham, Surrey, in the take-up of the Jacquard technology.

A Kindle book by JF Fava-Verde

Get the book in the kindle store here (default is UK store, or select flag)


About the picture above: This derivative work is in the public domain. It represents a point paper for jacquard weaving of Dove and Rose wool and silk double-cloth based on William Morris’s design of 1879.

Review by Kermit

A Brilliant Insight into the British Silk Industry

The author provides a fantastic insight into the world of silk production and distribution, and of the technological innovation which aided a huge growth in the British silk industry. The book is clear and concise, yet creates a picturesque narrative of England in the 18th and 19th centuries. From politics to business entrepreneurs and the fashions during the Industrial Revolution, this is a must-have for anybody interested in this innovative and ground-breaking period of time.

This entry was posted on November 29, 2011.