What Was Used Before the Telegraph


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"Of all inventions, the alphabet and the printing press alone excepted, those inventions which abridge distance have done most for the civilization of our species."

—Henry David Thoreau, 1854

For most of human history, long-distance communication was a slow and difficult process.

Civilizations relied on rudimentary methods to send messages and information across vast distances.

What was used before the telegraph included smoke signals, beacon fires, message relays, carrier pigeons, and semaphore systems.

Developments like postal routes and optical telegraph networks demonstrated progress but were still limited by the lack of instant long-distance communication technology.

The introduction of the electric telegraph in 1844 marked a revolutionary breakthrough in communication, finally allowing for near real-time transmission of messages across continents.

The telegraph transformed how people and societies related to information over distance.


a Native American watching smoke signals
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Examining the use of smoke signals before the advent of modern long-distance communication, one is fascinated by the ingenuity of ancient civilizations using what limited technology they had available to them to transmit information rapidly over distances.

The Native Americans of North America, especially the Great Plains tribes, developed an extensive system of smoke signal communication perhaps as early as the 9th century CE.

Stationing warriors on high vantage points, they would start controlled fires and use blankets or smoke generators to send up smoke columns of varying sizes, colors, and frequencies.

By coding information into these smoke signals, entire conversations could be relayed between distant scouts and encampments, providing warnings of incoming raids or buffalo herds. Spanish chroniclers wrote with admiration about the speed and sophistication of Native American smoke signaling.

Similarly, the Chinese used smoke signals as beacons along the Great Wall and other tower systems as far back as the Zhou dynasty in 1000 BCE. selective burning of different materials to create identifiable plumes of smoke allowed rapid transmission of alarms across hundreds of miles.

Later centuries saw more advanced techniques like using smoke signal relays between lines of towers, allowing messages to travel incredible distances at speeds unmatched until the telegraph.

While primitive compared to modern telecommunication, smoke signaling represents substantial ingenuity, coordination, and engineering for its time.


Beacon fires over the Great Wall of China
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Strategically lighting fires in elevated locations for visibility allowed many cultures to quickly send prearranged signals to recipients dozens or even hundreds of miles away.

The ancient Greeks conveyed warnings of invading Persians by leapfrogging beacon fires from mountain peaks on the isle of Lemnos all the way to Athens over 150 miles away within just a few hours.

In Ancient China, an intricate network of beacon towers lined the Great Wall, able to relay warnings of Mongol raiders within a single day.

The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of beacon fires used to herald the arrival of emperors.

The continuity of beacon fire usage across civilizations from Babylonians to Minoans to Mughals shows their reliability and usefulness as an early long-range messaging system.

Simple logistical coordination between communicating parties allowed complex information to be encoded and understood. While beacons obviously could not match later telecommunication in speed or sophistication, they enabled a quantum leap in communication speed compared to physically transporting messages.


A messanger relay in ancient Greece
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The old Persian empire pioneered an early postal system based on message relays, with a trusted courier service called the Angarium that used a network of mounted messengers stationed at regular intervals.

Herodotus wrote of these messengers' astonishing speed delivering messages across the over 2,000 miles of the Persian empire.

Similar relay systems spanned other empires like Rome and ancient Egypt.

The logistics involved in managing these vast networks is impressive, requiring infrastructure to support hundreds of waystation outposts stocked with fresh horses and messengers.

Coordination between disparate lands and cultures was needed to keep the relays operating smoothly.

Even in the Iron Age, they understood the power of information exchange.


A carrier pigeon delivering a letter
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Pigeons have been used to carry notes since at least 1150 BC in Syria, Egypt and Persia.

Careful breeding over millennia produced excellent homing abilities—some Egyptian pigeons could return from over 800 miles away.

Pigeon posts became commonplace in the Roman empire and Islamic world during the Middle Ages. Medieval European towns often maintained aviaries of carrier pigeons for commercial and government use.

During the Siege of Paris in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, carrier pigeons proved vital as the last means of communication between Paris and the outside world after telegraph lines were cut.

The birds flew through often heavy enemy fire, delivering crucial messages that allowed coordinated resistance against the Prussian army.

While limited by the fragility and training time of birds, pigeon posts still beat human couriers by days or even weeks.


An optical telegraph tower
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Engineered by the Chappe brothers in 1792, the optical telegraph utilized a system of movable wood beams on towers that could be oriented to signify alphabet letters.

Skilled operators used telescopes to read messages sent between networks of towers up to 15 miles apart. This allowed complex coded messages to be relayed at unprecedented speeds for the era.

Within a decade, France had over 500 semaphore towers spanning thousands of kilometers.

Napoleon used the network for military and government messaging that coordinated his empire. News from distant fronts could reach Paris within a day—a journey that previously took weeks. The optical telegraph was soon adopted throughout Europe.

France's engineering prowess produced an innovative solution to communication barriers posed by geography, leading to real-time long-distance messaging for the first time in history.

While still physically bound, the optical telegraph represented a visionary precursor to electric telegraphs and showed the power of encoded messaging.


mirrors representing heliographs
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Accounts suggest polished metal mirrors were used to flash messages from hill to hill as far back as Ancient Greece.

But practical solar telegraphs arose starting in the 19th century. In 1875, a Frenchman transmitted a decodable signal over 16 miles using a tilting mirror. This paved the way for heliograph networks over the next decades.

Heliographs came into their own in the American Old West.

US Army scouts kept track of Native American movements by flashing Morse code over 20 miles or more. Their mirror flashes conveyed warnings faster than telegraphs in the rugged frontier.

The British also used heliographs extensively in colonial Africa and India in the late 1800s.

Harnessed sunlight, combined with codes, allowed substantial leaps in message transmission speed and range using fairly simple technology.


the postal service in the 1700s
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The ancient Persian empire pioneered an efficient courier system with riders on a relay of fresh horses, maximizing speed over the empire's vast distances.

Under the Roman empire, a network of state vehicles along stone roads enabled movement of government correspondence.

Medieval universities organized private messenger services to rapidly send letters between scholars.

By the 1800s, European postal systems had expanded into sprawling bureaucracies that moved mail efficiently through coaches, trains, ships and other modes of transport. The British Royal Mail developed scheduled routes and delivery standards, coordinating expansive logistics.

Postal timeliness became a point of national pride and identity.

Though still limited by transportation, pre-telegraph postal systems enabled communication leaps through organization.

They reflect civilizations recognizing messaging speed itself as essential to stability and development.

Our progression from lone messengers to institutionally organized mail routes speaks profoundly to humanity's impetus to connect across distance. We strove to overcome isolation even without modern technology.