Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of textual messages where the sender uses symbolic codes, known to the recipient, rather than a physical exchange of an object bearing the message. Thus flag semaphore is a method of telegraphy, whereas pigeon post is not. Ancient signalling systems, although sometimes quite extensive and sophisticated as in China, were generally not capable of transmitting arbitrary text messages. Possible messages were fixed and predetermined and such systems are thus not true telegraphs.

The earliest true telegraph put into widespread use was the optical telegraph of Claude Chappe , invented in the late 18th century. The system was extensively used in France, and European countries controlled by France, during the Napoleonic era . The electric telegraph started to replace the optical telegraph in the mid-19th century. It was first taken up in Britain in the form of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph , initially used mostly as an aid to railway signalling . This was quickly followed by a different system developed in the United States by Samuel Morse . The electric telegraph was slower to develop in France due to the established optical telegraph system, but an electrical telegraph was put into use with a code compatible with the Chappe optical telegraph. The Morse system was adopted as the international standard in 1865, using a modified Morse code developed in Germany.

The heliograph is a telegraph system using reflected sunlight for signalling. It was mainly used in areas where the electrical telegraph had not been established and generally uses the same code. The most extensive heliograph network established was in Arizona and New Mexico during the Apache Wars . The heliograph was standard military equipment as late as World War II . Wireless telegraphy developed in the early 20th century. Wireless telegraphy became important for maritime use, and was a competitor to electrical telegraphy using submarine telegraph cables in international communications.

Telegrams became a popular means of sending messages once telegraph prices had fallen sufficiently. Traffic became high enough to spur the development of automated systems— teleprinters and punched tape transmission. These systems led to new telegraph codes , starting with the Baudot code . However, telegrams were never able to compete with the letter post on price, and competition from the telephone , which removed their speed advantage, drove the telegraph into decline from 1920 onwards. The few remaining telegraph applications were largely taken over by alternatives on the internet towards the end of the 20th century.

The word “telegraph” (from Ancient Greek : τῆλε, têle , “at a distance” and γράφειν, gráphein , “to write”) was first coined by the French inventor of the Semaphore telegraph , Claude Chappe , who also coined the word “semaphore”. 

A “telegraph” is a device for transmitting and receiving messages over long distances, ie, for telegraphy. The word “telegraph” alone now generally refers to an electrical telegraph . Wireless telegraphy is transmission of messages over radio with telegraphic codes.

Contrary to the extensive definition used by Chappe, Morse argued that the term telegraph can strictly be applied only to systems that transmit and record messages at a distance. This is to be distinguished from semaphore , which merely transmits messages. Smoke signals, for instance, are to be considered semaphore, not telegraph. According to Morse, telegraph dates only from 1832 when Pavel Schilling invented one of the earliest electrical telegraphs.

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,  often shortened to a cable or a wire . Later, a Telex was a message sent by a Telex network, a switched network of teleprinters similar to a telephone network.

wirephoto or wire picture was a newspaper picture that was sent from a remote location by a facsimile telegraph . A diplomatic telegram , also known as a diplomatic cable , is the term given to a confidential communication between a diplomatic mission and the foreign ministry of its parent country.  These continue to be called telegrams or cables regardless of the method used for transmission.

Passing messages by signalling over distance is an ancient practice. One of the oldest examples is the signal towers of the Great Wall of China . In 400 BC , signals could be sent by beacon fires or drum beats . By 200 BC complex flag signalling had developed, and by the Han dynasty (200 BC–220 AD) signallers had a choice of lights, flags, or gunshots to send signals. By the Tang dynasty (618–907) a message could be sent 700 miles in 24 hours. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) added artillery to the possible signals. While the signalling was complex (for instance, different-coloured flags could be used to indicate enemy strength), only predetermined messages could be sent.  The Chinese signalling system extended well beyond the Great Wall. Signal towers away from the wall were used to give early warning of an attack. Others were built even further out as part of the protection of trade routes, especially the Silk Road.

Signal fires were widely used in Europe and elsewhere for military purposes. The Roman army made frequent use of them, as did their enemies, and the remains of some of the stations still exist. Few details have been recorded of European/Mediterranean signalling systems and the possible messages. One of the few for which details are known is a system invented by Aeneas Tacticus (4th century BC). Tacticus’s system had water filled pots at the two signal stations which were drained in synchronisation. Annotation on a floating scale indicated which message was being sent or received. Signals sent by means of torches indicated when to start and stop draining to keep the synchronisation. 

None of the signalling systems discussed above are true telegraphs in the sense of a system that can transmit arbitrary messages over arbitrary distances. Lines of signalling relay stations can send messages to any required distance, but all these systems are limited to one extent or another in the range of messages that they can send. A system like flag semaphore , with an alphabetic code, can certainly send any given message, but the system is designed for short-range communication between two persons. An engine order telegraph , used to send instructions from the bridge of a ship to the engine room, fails to meet both criteria; it has a limited distance and very simple message set. There was only one ancient signalling system described that does meet these criteria. That was a system using the Polybius square to encode an alphabet. Polybius (2nd century BC) suggested using two successive groups of torches to identify the coordinates of the letter of the alphabet being transmitted. The number of said torches held up signalled the grid square that contained the letter. There is no definite record of the system ever being used, but there are several passages in ancient texts that some think are suggestive. Holzmann and Pehrson, for instance, suggest that Livy is describing its use by Philip V of Macedon in 207 BC during the First Macedonian War . Nothing else that could be described as a true telegraph existed until the 17th century. Possibly the first alphabetic telegraph code in the modern era is due to Franz Kessler who published his work in 1616. Kessler used a lamp placed inside a barrel with a moveable shutter operated by the signaller. The signals were observed at a distance with the newly-invented telescope. 

In several places around the world, a system of passing messages from village to village using drum beats was developed. This was particularly highly developed in Africa. At the time of its discovery in Africa, the speed of message transmission was faster than any existing European system using optical telegraphs . The African drum system was not alphabetical. Rather, the drum beats followed the tones of the language. This made messages highly ambiguous and context was important for their correct interpretation.

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