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You Called?

Sivi Sekula

Want to speak to your brother in Israel or your cousin in Los Angeles? You just pick up the phone and dial the number, but what did people do before phones? Let’s find out!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Want to speak to your friend who lives down the block? What about your brother in Israel or your cousin in Los Angeles? What’s the big deal, you’re thinking, just pick up the phone and dial the number.
But what did people do before phones? Communication was a lot more complicated before telecommunication. 

Smoke Signals 

We’ve always needed a way to communicate with each other from far away. Centuries ago, way before America was even discovered, people mostly used fires to send each other messages. Think of the times of the Sanhedrin, when fires were lit on hilltops to let everyone know that it was Rosh Chodesh. The Sanhedrin would light the first fire, on Har Hazeisim, which would be seen by those living on the next hill, who would then light their own fire, until eventually the entire country was dotted with hundreds of fires to announce the beginning of the new month. What about the Jews living outside of Eretz Yisrael? They were sent messengers on horseback, so obviously it took a lot longer for them to get up to date.
For hundreds of years, fires and horses were pretty much the only way to send a long-distance message. Fires were mostly used to announce that the enemy was coming! 


For many hundreds of years, people tried to come up with better ways to communicate, but not many of their bright ideas caught on.
Then, in 1792, a French chap called Claude Chappe, designed the first visual telegraph, eventually called semaphore (based on an earlier design by Robert Hooke in 1684). Chappe’s system used three wooden beams (imagine three giant popsicle sticks); one main one, with another attached to each end, on top of towers. The arms were moved into different shapes, each representing a letter of the alphabet. As you might imagine, Chappe’s system was hardly hi-tech. Towers were expensive to build; many towers were needed over relatively short distances — and they couldn’t be seen at night or in bad weather. Clearly, the world needed something better. 

The Telegraph and Morse Code 

In 1838, Britons Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke invented the first electromagnetic telegraph. The telegraph worked by sending an electric current along a system of wires by pressing on a bunch of needles. Messages were sent by stopping and starting the electric current at intervals. Wheatstone’s and Cook’s invention was a hit in England, where it was installed along the Great Western Railway.
Then, on the other side of the Atlantic, along came Samuel Morse, who was — you’ll never guess — a painter!
How did a painter invent the famous Morse code?
Sadly, Morse was out of town when his wife became ill and died. He only found out about her death a few days later, when she was already buried. He decided that sending messages on horseback was so “1700s”, and the time had come for a solution to the problem.
The first thing he did was invent a single-wire telegraph, cheaper than the British version. Morse sent his first telegraph message in 1844, from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland. By 1866, there was a telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean from the US to Europe.
But Morse is most famous for his Morse code. When a message was sent along his telegraph, the machine at the end of the line could be adapted to make a mark on a piece of paper (something Wheatstone’s and Cook’s couldn’t). Morse designed a code to make use of these marks.
In Morse code, each letter of the English alphabet is represented by a different combination of dots and dashes. A dot is made by pressing the key for only an instant; a dash by holding it down for a bit longer. Since E is the most frequently used letter of the alphabet, Morse gave it the shortest code possible — one dot.
Soon people were sending messages all over the world by telegraph. These messages were called telegrams. Heard of those? Even if you haven’t, I bet your grandparents have! Obviously, the telegrams people sent and received weren’t just a collection of dots and dashes — that would have been way too confusing. Instead, the man at the telegraph office translated the dots and dashes into proper words before handing over the telegraph.
Try This
Want to try Morse code? No need for a telegraph — all you need is a flashlight. Switch it on for a second to make a dot, and keep it on a little longer to make a dash. The most famous Morse code prosign (symbol) is three dots, three dashes, and three dots with no spaces or periods (…---…). Three dots are the letter S and three dashes the letter O. In International Morse code, this signal is called an “SOS” and it’s the international symbol to say you’re in trouble and need help.

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