Professional telegraphers could send and receive messages at high
speeds across their lines. This skill took considerable time and
training to develop, and efficiency only came after years of
Automatic telegraphs—devices that could send messages without
human operators—appeared in the 1870s.
Inventors had been trying, with rather limited success, to create
this kind of machine since the 1850s. Their underlying belief—one
seemingly backed by the amount of time telegraph operators had to
devote to learning their craft—was that Morse code would be too
difficult for the public to master.
The most successful of these automatic machines was developed by
the English physicist and inventor Charles Wheatstone, who in 1837,
along with his colleague William F. Cooke, created an automatic
telegraph featuring a pair of dials. Around each dial appeared the
letters of the alphabet. One dial allowed the user to spell out
messages for transmission, while the other relayed incoming
Britain soon saw a boom in the use of Wheatstone’s device, as
individuals not trained in Morse code could easily use it.
Wheatstone went on to create machines that were compatible with
Morse equipment. Using pre-punched tape, these could transmit code
at high speeds—around 400 words per minute—theoretically replacing
skilled telegraph operators.
By 1867, governments in Europe were making wide use of this
technology in sending out public notices and information.
Automatic transmission was only one aspect of the move towards
machinery over the human touch: Thomas Edison, the inventor
responsible for the quadruplex telegraph line, also patented one of
the first telegraphic auto-relay systems.
The auto-relay device allowed for a coded message to be sent from
the hand of a human operator to a mechanical relay point at a
different telegraph office. From there, that message would be
automatically sent along another wire to its final destination.
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Heritage Community Foundation and
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