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 Bell, also built an acoustic speaking tube system in his home, similar to the pipes used for communication on ships.


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 Tube

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 Threadneedle Street, London, and the offices of the Electric Telegraph Company in Lothbury.[2] The system is known as 'Pneumatic Dispatch'

While they are commonly used for small parcels and documents – including as cash carriers at banks or supermarkets[3] – 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.

Berlin 1865; Paris 1866; Vienna 1867.



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 England, and by 1868 the total length of these lines had

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.


By 1852, National systems were in operation major countries as follows:[21][22]

  • . United States, 20 companies with 23,000 miles of wire.[23]
  • . Great Britain, Cooke-Wheatstone company and minor companies, with 2200 miles of wire.[24]
  • . Prussia, 1400 miles of wire, Siemens system.
  • . Austria, 1000 miles of wire, Siemens system.
  • . Canada, 900 miles of wire
  • . France, 700 miles of wire;


Before Telegraphy, a letter by post from London took


to reach


New York in USA


Alexandria in Egypt


Constantinople in Ottoman Turkey


Bombay in India


Calcutta in Bengal




Shanghai in China


Sydney in Australia








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 (


Bell and his rival Gray filed patents for a speaking electric telephone on the very same February day in 1876. Since they were both responding to the same social

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 2nd September 1837 by Alfred Vail, then a

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

1st January 1838, at his own expense a telegraph based on Morse’s design. Vail

carried out his task at Morriston, New Jersey, where his father Judge Stephen

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

on 28th September 1837 filed a caveat in the patent office at Washington [66].



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 [68]: ‘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

in Morristown and found the result he wanted in the type-cases of the compositors.

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 11th January 1838 the partners in

Morristown publicly demonstrated their apparatus. Further demonstrations

were held at New York University (24th January), and at the Franklin Institute

(8th February), and, on 20th February the instrument was shown to the Committee

of Commerce of the US House of Representatives. The chairman of

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 Washington hoping again to persuade

Congress to provide the necessary funds. He demonstrated [78] his apparatus

between two rooms in the Capitol building – sending messages back and forth –

and eventually on 3rd March 1843 Congress passed the Telegraph Bill, by

89 votes to 83, which allocated $30,000 for a telegraph line along the Baltimore

and Ohio railroad between Washington and Baltimore, a distance of 64 km.

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 England. Here, by 1851 2,819 km of line,

11,750 km of wire and 198 stations had been installed. For the year 1878 the

numbers of messages sent in England, France and Germany were 24.6 million,

14.4 million and 14.54 million respectively.








Table 4.2 Growth of the number of paid messages sent for the years 1853

and 1855

Country Date of construction 1853 1855

Austria-Hungary 1850 120,001 209,208

Belgium 1851 25,420 35,635

Denmark 1854 – 26,380

France 1851 142,061 254,532

Germany* 1850 158,213 339,930

Italy (Modena) 1852 9,136 19,635

Netherlands 1852 26,087 78,508

Norway 1855 – 24,683

Portugal 1855 – –

Spain 1855 – 2,085

Sweden 1853 851 60,607

Switzerland 1852 76,343 146,688

Electric Tel. Co.

(United Kingdom)

1846 350,500 1,017,529




Unlike the situation that prevailed in the United Kingdom and in the United

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



...in the UK from c. 1850, to be superior to the overall system that had evolved in Great

Britain. From this date arguments began to be advanced by private individuals

and others for a nationalisation of the several British electric telegraph

companies. The opening move – which subsequently led the Government, on

1st April 1868, to introduce the Telegraph Bill ‘to enable the Postmaster General

to acquire, maintain and work the Electric Telegraph in the United Kingdom’ –

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 Belgium, France, Great Britain and Prussia [34]. This proposal

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’ [34]. 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 UK’s mail, a

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 United Kingdom’[39].

The Bill became law on 31st July 1868.



Country Population No. of messages sent

England  33,799,000             24,600,000

France    36,900,000              14,400,000

Germany 42,700,000             14,540,000



‘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 Paris the Havas agency was formed in 1835 –

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 Berlin (1849), Reuters of London (1851), the Press

Association of London (1868), the Central News of London (1871) and the

Exchange Telegraph of London (1872).


Reuter chose an opportune time to start his London agency. The

Dover to Calais submarine cable had just been laid (1850) and so the

telegraphic system that was rapidly expanding in the United Kingdom was connected

to the lines being erected in the German States, France and elsewhere.

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 Trieste, Marseilles, Liverpool,

Plymouth and Southampton.


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

Europe and the French empire; Reuters covered the British empire, China and

Japan; and Wolff had eastern and northern Europe. The USA was considered to

be a neutral region where any of the agencies could collect news, but in practice

Associated Press supplied most of the news from America.


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 [24]

Direct Spanish 1                                                     708

Spanish National 5                                  1,163

India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Tel. Co. 3               145

West African 12                                                      3,015

Black Sea 1                                                              346

Indo-European 2                                     15

Great Northern 24                                  6,948

Eastern 76                                                               25,376

Eastern and South Africa 9                     6,645

Eastern Ext. Australasia, & China 25     15,130

Anglo American 14                                                 10,400

Direct United States 2                                             3,100

Compagnie Français du Télégraphe

de Paris a New York 4                                            3,496

Western Union 8                                     7,743

The Commercial Cable 6                                         6,908

Halifax and Bermudas 1                                          850

Brazilian Submarine 6                                             7,369

African Direct 7                                                      2,746

Cuba Submarine 4                                   1,049

West India and Panama 22                      4,557

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 America 7                                        1,699

Co. T-T del Plata, Co. T. del

Rio de la Plata 2                                                      56

Totals 289                                                               125,115