Wireless: the “Horseless Carriage” of Telecommunications
To understand wireless, we must first understand the wired foundation that inspired it. Here we meet two of the greatest technology entrepreneurs in history: Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the electric telegraph, and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.
Even today there are people who will tell you that Morse did not invent the telegraph; that Bell did not invent the telephone; and that Marconi did not invent wireless. They have a point: there is evidence in each case that someone else conceived the invention first. However, it’s not enough to think up an invention or even build a prototype first. You have to convince others.
Morse is the easiest to dismiss. The man was an artist. He was not an expert on electromagnetism. But he believed that people would welcome faster communications between towns once they witnessed its power and convenience. Roughly twelve years from the time Morse first began working on the telegraph, the first trial telegraph service was introduced between Washington, DC and Baltimore.
Others demonstrated working telegraphs earlier. One scheme required a separate wire for each letter in the alphabet. The British inventor Charles Wheatstone came up with a clever system that could handle the entire alphabet using just six wires. Morse understood the need for a simple, reliable, and affordable system. He invented a sort of digital code making it possible to transmit and receive the entire alphabet with just two wires. He also invented an automatic relay that enabled him to construct lines of almost any length.
Creation of the first working undersea telegraph cable by Cyrus W. Field (Morse served briefly as an advisor) led to what author Tom Standage dubbed the “Victorian Internet.”
Morse proved that it is possible to convey intelligence over wires using electricity. However, it all boiled down to turning the electric current off and on according to a set of rules (a code). No one knew if it was possible to send human voices over the wires.
Alexander Graham Bell set out to develop a way to send more than one message over a telegraph circuit at the same time—what was called the “multiple telegraph.” He was soon attracted to the idea of sending different messages at different frequencies. He gradually realized that if you can send tones of different frequencies at the same time, then you should be able to transmit human voices.
Like Morse, Bell not only developed a simple solution, he convinced others it was worth the trouble. And like Morse, he spent years fending off unscrupulous individuals who suddenly remembered that they had invented it first. I call them “retroactive inventors.”