Speaking Tubes, telegraphy, telephony - constrained networks
and the Winston explanation
In the early 18oos, Jean-Baptiste Bio had experimented with how sound travels through long tubes, using the water pipes of Paris, and found that the confines of the piping served to keep speech intelligible over a good 1040 yards, compared to how well sound carried in free space. Increase the diameter of those pipes, however, and there would be a corresponding decrease in intelligibility.
Speaking tubes date back to around 1849, when an article in Scientific American described an "acoustic telegraph" that would enable people to converse with friends "as far as 60 miles away" (!) via a tube made of gutta percha (a latex material derived from trees in Southeast Asia). That proved to be a bit ambitious, but the article also noted that such devices would be extremely useful for communication within factories, foundries and other public buildings.
There were, indeed, many patents issued for various components of speaking tube
systems between 1860 and 1890, usually for communication within a single
building. And an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci,
whom many credit with inventing the telephone before
You might have spent a lot of time and excess energy running up and down the stairs between the kitchen and the second floor. Unless, that is, you happened to be a scullery maid in a classic shingle-style home designed by Henry Walker Hartwell and William Cummings Richardson, who saw fit to install a built-in speaking tube between the pantry and the second floor corridor, along with an electrical buzzer system. Considering that Alexander Graham Bell's patent for a prototype telephone wasn't issued until 1877, Mssrs. Hartwell and Cummings were on the technological cutting edge.
Although the intercoms of the last century couldn’t deliver music, they could handle ordinary household business with great effectiveness. There were two major components: bell systems and speaking tubes.
At the outer doors, both below and above the stoop, bells were activated through a knob next to the door that the visitor pulled. A long wire, run through a tube and attached to a tongue that struck the bell, announced the visitor’s presence. There were separate bells for basement and parlour floors.
The interior bell system was more complicated. Wires for separate bell-pulls in different rooms-parlour, dining room, master bedroom, perhaps other bedrooms or a library, ran through the walls to separate bells in the kitchen, these bells, quite small, were suspended from large spirals of coiled springs. A pull on the wire from an upstairs room could start a bell jingling on its spring for a considerable length of time-a minute or two-long enough for a servant, hearing it, to look over, or come in perhaps from the extension where she might have been doing the laundry, to identify the bell and thus the location of the summoner. http://www2.townhouseexperts.com/nineteenth-century-intercoms-speaking-tubes-and-bells-2/
Pneumatic Tubes (especially in shops)
Pneumatic tubes (or capsule pipelines; also known as Pneumatic Tube Transport or PTT) are systems that propel cylindrical containers through networks of tubes by compressed air or by partial vacuum. They are used for transporting solid objects, as opposed to conventional pipelines, which transport fluids. Pneumatic tube networks gained acceptance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for offices that needed to transport small, urgent packages (such as mail, paperwork, or money) over relatively short distances (within a building, or, at most within a city). Some installations grew to great complexity, but were mostly superseded. In some settings, such as hospitals, they remain widespread and have been further extended and developed in recent decades
Pneumatic capsule transportation was invented by William Murdoch. It was considered little more than a novelty until the invention of the capsule in 1836. The Victorians were the first to use capsule pipelines to transmit telegrams, to nearby buildings from telegraph stations.
In 1854, Josiah Latimer Clark was issued a patent "for conveying
letters or parcels between places by the pressure of air and vacuum." In
1853, he installed a 220-yard (200 m) pneumatic system between the London
Stock Exchange in
While they are commonly used for small parcels and documents – including as cash carriers at banks or supermarkets – they were originally proposed in the early 19th century for transport of heavy freight. It was once envisaged that networks of these massive tubes might be used to transport people.
There is an oddity here because the pneumatic tube methods superseded the telegram system which was highly successful for sending electrical messages (which were then decoded back into english) between cities, or from railway to railway station to give advance notice of train movements or even across the Channel (1852) but were inefficient sending the mass of messages between offices in the City of London. There was always a backlog. So Clark instituted the pneumatic tube system for sending messages quickly even business in the small but highly intensive message driven system of traders and prices info within the City in the mid-19th C.
For a good history see this: http://lapsedhistorian.com/get-blower-londons-forgotten-pneumatic-messaging-tubes/
Back in the 19th century, it was all part of the communications revolution that began with the invention of the telegraph and the telephone. A telephone’s transmitter contains both a wire coil and a small magnet. Speaking into the transmitter causes the coil to vibrate in response to the sound waves within a magnetic field. This turns the sound wave into an electrical signal, which can be transmitted over the telephone wire. That current is detected by the receiver’s coil, producing a second magnetic field. And this causes a thin membrane, similar to the human eardrum, to vibrate in response to the electrical signal, turning it back into sound
is the long-distance transmission of textual or symbolic (as opposed to verbal or audio) messages without the physical exchange of an object bearing the message. Thus semaphore is a method of telegraphy.
A telegraph message sent by an electrical telegraph operator or telegrapher using Morse code (or a printing telegraph operator using plain text) was known as a telegram. A cablegram was a message sent by a submarine telegraph cable.
Telegraph wires along railway lines became a familiar feature of the
landscape. In Charles Dickens’ Hard times Mrs Sparsil observed that the electric
telegraph wires ruled the staves of ‘a colossal strip of music-paper out of
the evening sky’. By 1852 an estimated 4,039 miles (6,500 km) of telegraph lines
had been erected in
increased to c. 35,000 km. Railway locomotives and electric telegraphs formed a
formidable partnership in Victorian Britain, speeding up transport and communications
to a degree previously unattainable.
a letter by post from
The late 1880s through the 1890s saw the discovery and then development of a newly understood phenomenon into a form of wireless telegraphy, called Hertzian wave wireless telegraphy, radiotelegraphy, or (later) simply "radio"
Brian Winston - how we explain an invention
graph on p. 7 of MTS
the position taken here, rather, is that Western civilisation over the past three centuries has displayed,
despite enormous changes in detail, fundamental continuity—and that it continues to do so. The popular literature on these matters and the media resound with
visions of techno-glory or apocalypse.... there is nothing in the histories of electrical and electronic communication systems to indicate that significant major changes have not been accommodated by preexisting
social formations. The term ‘revolution’ is therefore quite the wrong word to apply to the current situation.
the primacy of the social sphere as the site of these activities, conditioning and determining technological developments.
a field (the social sphere) in which two elements (science and technology) intersect.
The model thus suggests that we view discrete communications technologies within the social sphere as a series of performances (‘utterances’) by technologists in response to the
ground of scientific competence.
The possibilities of using electricity for signalling, including photoelectric phenomena, march, from the mid-eighteenth century on, virtually hand-in-hand
with the growth of the scientific understanding of electricity itself. Similarly, the development of photography involved knowledge of the different effects light has
on various substances, a scientific agenda item from at least the Middle Ages on. The propensity of certain solids to conduct sounds seems to have been known in ancient
times and was certainly a well-observed phenomenon by the late eighteenth century. It is such knowledge and understandings that form the ground of scientific
competence which can then be transformed into techno
Ideation occurs when the technologist envisages the device—gets the idea, formulates the problems involved and hypothesises a solution. Those
mysterious mental forces—creativity, intuition, imagination, ‘the will to think’— are subsumed by ideation as are the general constraints of culture and the limits
imposed by social forces of all kinds on the technologist’s mind.
Ideation transforms the processes of science into the testing of solutions—that is, the building of devices which is the business of technological performance. This
will go on until the device is widely diffused and even beyond, as spin-offs and refinements are developed. In the first stage the technologists begin to build devices
working towards fulfilling the plans which emerged from the ideation transformation. The devices they now construct can be thought of as prototypes
a concentration of the generalised social forces which have hitherto been determining the process of innovation. Now these generalised forces coalesce to function as a transforming
agency which I will call supervening social necessities (Figure 4). Just as ideation worked upon the ground of scientific competence to create prototypes, so more
general supervening social necessities now work on these prototypes to move them out of the laboratory into the world at large.
The prototype can be rejected because a supervening necessity has not yet operated and no possible use for the device is seen. Ronalds’ demonstration of a
working telegraph in 1816 would be an example of this. The British naval authorities, understanding that the semaphore was the only machine to use in longdistance
signalling, simply refused to acknowledge the superiority of his electromagnetic technology.
The prototype can be accepted because the early and incomplete operation of a supervening necessity has created a partial need which the prototype partially fills.
a species of spin-off.... the radio came into its own with the development of the ironclad battleship. With these, for the first time, naval battle
plans called for ships to steam out of sight of one another, thus rendering thetraditional signalling methods useless.
there must be the possibility of a fifth class of ‘prototype’, as it were, one which is either synchronous with or subsequent to the operation of a supervening necessity.
The production of such machines is the business of further technological performance and leads to what is commonly called the ‘invention’. So within the
laboratory the work continues as it did in the prototype stage but the supervening necessity transformation means the devices now produced are inventions (
necessity (the rise of the modern corporation and its office)
The invention now moves into the market place. Yet acceptance is never straightforward, however ‘needed’ the technology. As a society we are
schizophrenic about machines. On the one hand, although perhaps with an increasingly jaundiced eye, we still believe in the inevitability of progress. On the
other hand we control every advance by conforming it so that it ‘fits’ to pre-existing social patterns.
the ‘accelerator’ is the supervening social necessity transforming the prototype into an ‘invention’ and pushing the invention out into the world—
causing its diffusion. But there is also a ‘brake’: this operates as a third transformation, wherein general social constraints coalesce to limit the potential of
the device radically to disrupt pre-existing social formations. I will refer to this particular ‘concentration’ of determining social factors as the ‘law’ of the suppression
of radical potential. It is the ‘law’ of suppression that ensures any new communications technology takes decades to be diffused.
Supervening social necessity guarantees that the ‘invention’ will be produced. The ‘law’ operates as a constraint on that production.
This final transformation thus occasions a tripartite phase of technological performance—production, spin-offs and redundant devices or redundancies, which reflects
the effects of the contradictions which are at work.
More on the Impact of telegraphy and then radio
Here is an extract from Burn's history of telegraphy and radio - note how telegraphic developments are explained re: the material networks of ideas and socio-political and scientific relationships
A chance encounter with Morse on
young man, 16 years younger than Morse and of a mechanical turn of mind,
enabled Morse to submit a proposal for a telegraph to the Government. Vail was
fascinated by what he had seen of Morse’s work, and, three weeks later, agreed,
in exchange for a share of the rights of a potential patent, to construct, by
carried out his task at
Vail owned and managed the Speedwell Iron Plant. During this time Morse
prepared a dictionary for use with the telegraph
Morse’s idea was not to produce on paper letters, or signs representing them,
but to use 10 numerals for the 9 digits and 0 and, by means of a code dictionary,
words.... Such a system of coding was
undoubtedly cumbrous and restrictive and, in basic principle, was similar to that
which Edgeworth had suggested in 1767. Following the demonstration Morse
Vail regarded Morse’s earlier procedure as tedious and preferred to use a code
in which a succession of symbols represent particular letters of the alphabet.
The ‘Morse code’ that was devised, and subsequently extensively used, seems to
have been the work of Vail for it has been stated : ‘Vail tried to compute the
relative frequency of all the letters in order to arrange his alphabet; but a happy
idea enabled him to save his time. He went to the office of the local newspaper
The code was then arranged so that the most commonly used letters
were indicated by the shortest symbols – a single dot for an E, a single dash for T
and so on’. The dots and dashes formed the elements of an alphabetic binary
code and were the precursor of the later Morse code. There can be little doubt
that Vail’s practical experience, enthusiasm and financial resources aided the
impecunious Morse in
his endeavours. On
were held at
(8th February), and, on 20th February the instrument was shown to the Committee
of Commerce of the
the committee, F.O.J. Smith commented favourably upon the system. He soon
became another partner in the Morse enterprise
In December 1842 Morse travelled to
Congress to provide the necessary funds. He demonstrated  his apparatus
between two rooms in the Capitol building – sending messages back and forth –
and eventually on
89 votes to 83, which allocated $30,000 for a
telegraph line along the
Seventy congressmen abstained from voting ‘to avoid the responsibility of
spending the public money for a machine they could not understand’.
Following the early work of the telegraph pioneers the electric telegraph
developed rapidly, particularly in
11,750 km of wire and 198 stations had been installed. For the year 1878 the
numbers of messages sent in
14.4 million and 14.54 million respectively.
Table 4.2 Growth of the number of paid messages sent for the years 1853
Country Date of construction 1853 1855
Electric Tel. Co.
1846 350,500 1,017,529
Unlike the situation that prevailed in the
States, the electric telegraph systems of the major continental powers were
operated almost from the start as state monopolies. The telegraph lines were
considered primarily to be the means by which military and government intelligence
could be transmitted quickly and no important lines were constructed by
private enterprise. In July 1847 the Minister of the Interior, Lacave-Laplagne,
declared in the Chamber of Deputies: ‘The telegraph will be a political instrument,
and not a commercial instrument’. Metternich declared the electric telegraph to be a
monopoly of the state and it was not available for use by the public until June
and others for a nationalisation of the several British electric telegraph
companies. The opening move – which subsequently led the Government, on
to acquire, maintain and work the Electric Telegraph in the
was initiated by the Belgian Government. In 1851 it suggested that the transmission
of international telegraphic communications should be regulated by a
treaty signed by
was predicated on the assumption that the governments of these countries
would control their telegraph systems. The issue was referred to the President of
the Board of Trade, who, in a confidential memorandum, was advised: ‘The time
seems to have arrived for the Government to determine whether it will exercise
any more systematic control over the telegraphic communication of the country
than it has hitherto done’ . Telegraphs were undoubtedly important as a
means of conveying intelligence, and, for the reasons put forward earlier for the
Post Office being the
government department responsible for the
case could be argued for the various electric telegraph companies being placed
under state control or management.
There, the telegraph was ‘at once seen and understood as so powerful
an engine of diplomacy, so important an aid to civil and military administration,
so efficient a service to trade and commerce’ that all the continental
countries had instituted state telegraphic systems.
In February 1868 Disraeli became Prime Minister, following the resignation
of Lord Derby, and on 1st April the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Ward
Hunt, introduced the Telegraph Bill ‘to enable the Postmaster General to
acquire, maintain and work the Electric Telegraph in the
The Bill became law on
Country Population No. of messages sent
‘News’: either universal news of events at home or overseas describing
or commenting upon, for example, military campaigns, political changes and
scientific discoveries; or specialist commercial news, such as commodity and
stock market prices. The dissemination of such news by telegraph led to the
establishment of news agencies. In
before the first practical electric telegraph – and was given privileged access to
the French semaphore system. Of the agencies set up during the era of electric
telegraphy the most important were the Associated Press of New York
(1848), the Wolff Bureau of
Exchange Telegraph of
Reuter chose an opportune time to start his
telegraphic system that was rapidly expanding in the
to the lines being erected in the
Reuter soon developed a network of agents who despatched news messages by
wire or cable. Where these did not exist the messages were sent by ship, railway
or mail to a principal telegraph centre such as
In 1870 Reuters and the other news agencies mentioned above combined
together in a ‘ring’ – to prevent expensive and possibly cut-throat competition –
according to which news gathering and dissemination throughout the world
was shared between them. Havas was allocated most of western and southern
be a neutral region where any of the agencies could collect news, but in practice
supplied most of the news from
Wars, particularly those near at hand or those involving British troops, were
primary news sources for reporters in the field. When the Franco-Prussian war
of 1870–1871 was being fought, the Daily News and the Daily Telegraph were
spending approximately £70 to £80 per day on telegrams.
Table 5.1 Submarine cables laid worldwide by private companies – 1893 
Direct Spanish 1 708
Spanish National 5 1,163
India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Tel. Co. 3 145
West African 12 3,015
Indo-European 2 15
Great Northern 24 6,948
Eastern 76 25,376
Eastern and South
Eastern Ext. Australasia, &
Anglo American 14 10,400
Compagnie Français du Télégraphe
de Paris a
The Commercial Cable 6 6,908
Halifax and Bermudas 1 850
Brazilian Submarine 6 7,369
African Direct 7 2,746
Français des Tel. Sous-marins 14 3,754
Western and Brazilian 15 45,408
River Plate Telegraph 1 32
Mexican Telegraph 3 1,559
Central and South American 12 4,898
West Coast of
Totals 289 125,115