Ripples in the Ether


“When are we going to get high speed broadband?” How many times have I been asked that question? Or even a decent mobile signal. Fast, reliable and instant communications are now an indispensible part of modern life but how did our forefathers manage?

Beacons and smoke had been used from ancient times but it was not until 1684 that astronomer and architect, Robert Hooke FRS presented proposals for an optical semaphore. Although experiments were conducted in the 18th Century it was not until 1792 that the first operational network was developed in France by Claude Chappe. With towers every 20 miles, teams of men could send messages in daylight at the rate of two words per minute.

Electricity was first proposed in 1753 and despite experiments with multiple wires, one for each letter connected in turn to an electrostatic machine, these were never developed into practical systems. In 1833 Gauss and Weber built the first working telegraph in Gottingen using an induction current and developing a binary code to spell out the alphabet by reversing the direction of the current – theoretically the same principle as modern computers.

In 1837 Sir Wm. Fothergill Cooke and Chas. Wheatstone developed a system which used needles on a board to point out letters and this was first used between Paddington and West Drayton on the Great Western Railway in 1838. Also in 1838 Samuel Morse in the US patented the Code and Key which bear his name and electric telegraphy quickly expanded to connect first the eastern cities then in 1861 the west to the east coast.

The invention of the Baudot code and the printing telegraph automated reception and eliminated the need for operators skilled in Morse code. In 1935 the last barrier to automation was overcome with the development of message routing leading to the Telex system. Readers over fifty will probably remember Telex machines, dial the recipient, wait for the answerback letters, then hope the tape could be fed through without jamming or coming off the spool! Early facsimile machines came along in the early 1980s, costing over £1,000 they worked by putting suction cups onto a telephone handset and hoping the connection was good enough for the image to print out at the other end on a thermal paper roll.

Mobile communications were slow to become commercially available although Marconi had made successful transmissions as early as 1896. In 1959 the first radio telephones were introduced by the Post Office but the service did not reach South Yorkshire until 1972. Let us hope we don’t have to wait so long for super fast broadband.

First published by the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living 23/iii/15