When I ask people to name the most revolutionary technology, the most common answers are the Internet and the mobile phone. Both have certainly fundamentally changed our lives and it is difficult to imagine living without either of them. But a case can be made that the telegraph was just as impactful.
The telegraph, for those who are not familiar, was invented in the 1830’s, and operated by sending electrical signals over a dedicated wire between two locations. The so-called Morse code assigned a set of dashes and dots to every letter of the alphabet. SOS, the international distress signal, was chosen because it is easy to transmit: “S” is three dots and “O” is three dashes.
Researchers claim that the more revolutionary an invention is, the slower people adopt it because few recognize its potential. True revolutionary technology is not an improvement on existing methods but rather something brand new. As a result, people have to figure out why they want to use it – not just how to use it.
In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage makes the case that the telegraph faced this initial resistance:
It took years for people to see advantages with the telegraph. Even after the first lines were built, and the accuracy and speed of the communications they could carry verified, […] everybody still thought of the telegraph as a novelty, as nothing more than an amusing subject for a newspaper article, rather than the revolutionary new form of communication that he envisaged.
However, once the telegraph took hold, it fundamentally reshaped business and society. For example, before the telegraph, remote branch offices received infrequent communications from headquarters – requiring them to operate somewhat independently. Afterwards, daily communication between headquarters and branches created the business concepts of centralization and middle management.
Standage points out the telegraph even changed the way we waged war. Before its invention, countries typically shared detailed information about battle plans with their citizens knowing it would improve morale and that the plans could not reach their enemies before their soldiers did. Afterwards, battle plans became highly secretive as plans could be communicated far more quickly than soldiers could be dispatched.
By the early 1900’s, the telegraph became indispensable, just like the internet or mobile phone today. But by the 1960’s it had already dramatically dropped in popularity due to the rising popularity of the telephone. The very last telegram was sent in 2013.
This makes me wonder: Will some new revolutionary technology disrupt the internet and the mobile phone?
Let me know what you think in the comments.