Here on the coastal countryside we live in, there are numerous Swedish-language places called ‘Telegrafberget’, meaning Telegraph Hill. Some of them still have stone or wooden foundations where the tall telegraph buildings once stood. The hills have direct line-of-sight to each other and are usually a few kilometers apart.
While Finland is often titled as the birthplace of mobile communications due to Nokia’s success in the early 2000s, we have also some intriguing history what comes to international telecommunications some 200 years earlier.
The Rise of the Telegraph Network
Although the optical telegraph, the system where flags and fires were used to transport messages across long distances by people manning observation towers, was already used in Persia and ancient Rome, the first organized, international telegraph network was actually built in Sweden (which then also included Finland) at the end of the 1700s
At its height, the network spanned some thousand kilometers from Oslo to Stockholm and all the way to the eastern provinces of the Kingdom, namely Vyborg in the old Finnish territory, now occupied by Russia. A message from Stockholm to Vyborg could be transmitted in minutes – far faster compared to a horseback-riding emissary.
Like many technological innovations, the network was initially used to direct troops in warfare. However, the Swedish innovation was to make the network cover also Denmark and Russia; talk about early globalization. Therefore the network was quickly adopted by other authorities and also by ordinary people.
The telegraph messaging is inherently digital, as the message has to be encoded to well-visible signs using standardized codebooks. There was modest development in compressing the messages, but it was labor intensive and error prone. Still, the innovation unified the Swedish kingdom like never before.
During the 1800s, along with electromagnetic development, wire-based telegraphs quickly replaced their optical predecessors. The networks were still very expensive and high maintenance, and messages were carefully encoded by human operators.
Then the 1850s saw the first analog transmissions over copper wires, and this innovation was quickly brought into telegraph wires. People could finally talk to each other without complex codebooks – everything was real time. The telephone network was born. Soon millions of people had an analog phone at home – remaining almost the same for 100+ years, apart from some automatic switching.
Digital Messaging and Codebooks
What is noteworthy though is that the early digital communications development – telegraph and the codebooks – was completely frozen for that same 100+ years. People got an easy way to communicate – analog voice – and that was perceived good and fast enough. Easy gossip overrode efficiency and technological development.
The lesson is very valid during this Internet age too. We should resist the idea that the world is ready, and always seek new innovations, in all businesses and also personally. We must learn from our past paralyses and foster experimentation and totally new ways of doing things. This will eventually bring us the most well-being and solutions to the greatest problems like climate change and fossil fuel dependence.