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The term wireless telegraphy is a historic term used today as applied to early radio telegraph communications techniques and practices. Wireless telegraphy originated as a term to describe electrical signaling without the electric wires to connect the end points. The intent was to distinguish it from the conventional electric telegraph signaling of the day that required wire connection between the end points. The term was initially applied to a variety of competing technologies to communicate messages encoded as symbols, without wires, around the turn of the twentieth century with radio emerging as the most significant. These other competing wireless telegraphy technologies are interesting, but pale in significance. Wireless telegraphy rapidly came to be synonymous with Morse Code transmitted with electromagnetic waves decades before it came to be associated with the term radio. Wireless telegraphy is used widely today by amateur radio hobbyists where it is commonly referred to as continuous wave (CW) radio telegraphy, or just CW.

The beginning of radio communications

The term Wireless Telegraphy came into widespread use around the turn of the previous century when Spark-gap transmitters and primitive receivers made it practical to send telegraph messages over great distances, enabling transcontinental and ship-to-shore signalling. Before that time, wireless telegraphy was an obscure experimental term that applied collectively to an assortment of sometimes unrelated signalling schemes. It included such schemes as large mechanical arms for visual signalling and electrical currents through water and dirt. Wireless telegraphy dates as far back as Faraday and Hertz in the early 1800s, when it was discovered that radio waves could be used to send telegraph messages. Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of electromagnetic radiation (radio waves) in a series of experiments in Germany during the 1880s.

In St. Louismarker, Missourimarker, Nikola Tesla made the first public demonstration of a modern wireless system in 1893. Addressing the Franklin Institutemarker in Philadelphiamarker and the National Electric Light Association, he described and demonstrated in detail the principles of wireless telegraphy and radio. The apparatus that he used contained all the elements that were incorporated into radio systems before the development of the vacuum tube. This led to work in using radio signals for wireless communication, initially with limited success. Using spark-gap transmitters plus coherer-receivers were tried by many experimenters, but several were unable to achieve transmission ranges of more than a few hundred metres. This was not the case for all researchers in the field of the wireless arts, though.Prior to 1897 Tesla was transmitting signals to a distance of 30 miles from New York City to West Point. See the PBS website, " Marconi and Tesla: Who invented radio?" (ed. this is noted as having been accomplished in Leland Anderson's book Nikola Tesla's On His Work with Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony and Transmission of Power) By 1897, Guglielmo Marconi conducted a series of demonstrations with an economical radio system for signalling for communications over practical distances. This helped popularize radio communication activity worldwide, which is covered in depth by Invention of Radio and History of Radio.

By the 1920s, there was a worldwide network of commercial and government radiotelegraphic stations, plus extensive use of radiotelegraphy by ships for both commercial purposes and passenger messages. The ultimate implementation of wireless telegraphy was telex using radio signals, which was developed in the 1930s, and was for many years the only reliable form of communication between many distant countries. The most advanced standard, CCITT R.44, automated both routing and encoding of messages by short wave transmissions. (See telegraphy for more information).

Prior technologies other than radio

The term "wireless" can be applied to numerous telegraphic signaling technologies other than radio. Historically, technologies have ranged from smoke signals and talking drums to the heliograph and flag semaphore. Maritime flags and signal lamps are still in some use. A number of wireless electrical signaling schemes were investigated for telegraphy before practical radio systems became available.

Ground and water conduction

The first thoughts about wireless telegraph transmissions date back to the earliest days of the electric telegraph. The original telegraph used two wires to connect the two legs or "poles" of the electrical apparatus of two stations to form a complete electrical circuit or "loop". In 1837 however, Carl August von Steinheil of Munichmarker, Germanymarker found that by connecting one leg of the apparatus at each station to metal plates buried in the ground, he could eliminate one wire and use a single wire for telegraphic communication. This led to speculation that it might be possible to eliminate both wires, and transmit telegraph signals through the ground without any wires connecting the stations. Other attempts were made to send the electric current through bodies of water, in order to span rivers, for example. Prominent experimenters along these lines included Samuel F. B. Morse in the United States and James Bowman Lindsay in Great Britain.

In 1832, Lindsay gave a classroom demonstration of wireless telegraphy to his students. By 1854 he was able to demonstrate transmission across the Firth of Taymarker from Dundeemarker to Woodhaven (now part of Newport-on-Tay), a distance of two miles (three kilometers). In the late 1890s and early 1900s Jozef Murgas, the "Radio Priest", conducted a lot of revolutionary work in wireless telegraphy.

Telegraphic communication using earth conductivity was eventually found to be limited to impractically short distances, as was communication conducted through water, or between trenches during World War I.

Electrostatic induction and electromagnetic induction

Both electrostatic and electromagnetic induction were used to develop wireless telegraph systems which saw limited commercial application. In the United States, Thomas Edison, in the mid-1880s, patented an electromagnetic induction system he called "grasshopper telegraphy", which allowed telegraphic signals to jump the short distance between a running train and telegraph wires running parallel to the tracks. This system was successful technically but not economically, as there turned out to be little interest by train travelers in an on-board telegraph service. ( , Means for Transmitting Signals Electrically, 1891). During the Great Blizzard of 1888, this system was used to send and receive wireless messages from trains buried in snowdrifts, perhaps the first successful use of wireless telegraphy to send distress calls. Disabled trains were able to maintain communications via the Edison induction wireless telegraph system.

The most successful creator of an electromagnetic induction system was William Preece in Great Britain. Beginning with tests across the Bristol Channel in 1892, Preece was able to telegraph across gaps of about 5 kilometers. However, his induction system required extensive lengths of wire, many kilometers long, at both the sending and receiving ends, which made it impractical for use on ships or small islands, and the relatively short distances spanned meant it had few advantages over underwater cables.

See also


  1. Leland I. Anderson, Priority in the Invention of Radio — Tesla vs. Marconi, Antique Wireless Association monograph, 1980, examining the 1943 decision by the US Supreme Court holding the key Marconi patent invalid (9 pages). (21st Century Books)
  2. Fahie, J. J., A History of Wireless Telegraphy, 1838-1899, 1899, p. 29
  3. "Defied the storm's worst-communication always kept up by 'train telegraphy,'" New York Times, March 17, 1888, page 8. Proquest Historical Newspapers (subscription). Retrieved February 6, 2008

Online resources

Further reading

  • Hugh G. J. Aitken, Syntony and Spark: the Origins of Radio, ISBN 0-471-01816-3.
  • Elliot N. Sivowitch, A Technological Survey of Broadcasting’s Pre-History, Journal of Broadcasting, 15:1-20 (Winter 1970-71).


File:German WW I field telegraph 001.jpg|German troops erecting a wireless field telegraph station during World War IFile:German WW I field telegraph 002.jpg|German officers and troops manning a wireless field telegraph station during World War I

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