Sunday, September 28, 2014


I reasoned that there must have been telegraph hackers and sought to find them in the written history.  The telegraph came first.  Before hams broadcast in the ether, long before the telephone was regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, before Hermann Hollerith founded IBM, there must have developed prototypes of the things we take for granted in computing. 

Originally published online 4-SEP-1990 via USENET and Fidonet.  VERSION 0.75 August 26, 1990 -- A History of Early Cyberspace by = (c) 1990 by Michael E. Marotta. published by The World GRID Association, P. O. Box 15062, Lansing, MI 48901 USA. You can copy this.
Box cover for VHS tape showing two teenagers at a computer about 1982.

Consider an anti-Western Union song from the July 20, 1883 meeting of the Brotherhood of Telegraphers at Clarendon Hall, in New York City that boasted, “We've left our keys...Let Jay Gould walk the floor...The wires are full of bugs...”(1) Though the term "bug" later referred to a semi-automatic sending key, the context is clear.  I had always accepted the story of Grace Hopper scotch-taping an errant fly into her log book.

Today's keyboarder suffers from carpal tunneling and a telegrapher would get a "glass arm" from too much sending.(1)

Box cover for DVD movie showing two teenagers above a computer screen with a scullThis summer [1990] we saw Mitch Kapor and Steve Wozniak invest their money in the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in part to aid the defense of hacker Craig Neidorf. The Strike of 1883 was supported by Thomas Edison who gave $300(1) or $700(2) at Clarendon Hall. 

Telegraphers were generally regarded as intelligent, clean, and quiet; and women worked as equals to men -- equal in ability, though not pay.(1,2,3).  And there was turnover. "Boomers", operators who hopped a train for the next horizon, filled in for boomers who had just left for the next horizon.  One major difference is that Western Union enjoyed a monopoly that would be the envy of IBM.

Some similarities are too obvious.  The computer, according to Carolyn Marvin, is a telegraph with a prodigious memory.(3)  There is no doubt that the early electric age presaged our own.  Experts defined their own status, “users” were abused with jokes about their ignorance of technology, and preposterous predictions about the complete and permanent improvement of humanity were superabundant.(3)

So where are the hackers?  Thomas Edison was the foremost telegrapher, the ultimate hardware hacker, duplexing and quadriplexing messages on the same wire.  Telegraphers played checkers and pursued romances, though, it is asserted, "not on company time". During the Strike of 1883, union loyalists within the company used the lines to keep members nationwide informed.(1)  They used a secret code,(1) though it is obvious that an operator could send anything at all in the presence of Jay Gould, whose skills lay in other areas. 

(1) The Telegraphers: Their Craft and Union,Vidkunn Ulriksson, Public Affairs Press, 1953.
(2) The American Telegrapher: A social history, 1860 - 1900, Edwin Gabler, Rutgers University Press, 1988.
(3) When Old Technologies Were New, Carolyn Marvin, Oxford University Press, 1988.

  • "Of all the marvelous achievements of modern science, the Electric Telegraph is transcendentally the greatest and most serviceable to mankind.  It is a perpetual miracle, which no familiarity can render commonplace.  This character it deserves from the nature of the agent employed and the end subserved.  For what is the end to be accomplished, but the most spiritual ever possible?  Not the modification or transportation of matter, but the transmission of thought.  To effect this an agent is employed so subtle in its nature that it may more properly be called a spiritual rather than a material force." -- Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick The Story of the Telegraph and a History of the Great Transatlantic Cable, Rudd & Carleton. New York: 1858.
  • "Redeeming Charles Babbage's Mechanical Computer" by Doron D. Swade, Scientific American, February 1993.  (A successful effort to build a working, three-ton Babbage calculating engine suggests that history has misjudged the pioneer of automatic computing.)
  • "The Electric Telegraph" a poem, anonymous. from Chamber's Papers For the People.  Long.  The chorus is "Sing who will of the Orphean lyre/Ours the wonder-working wire."   And much more of the same on this and other topics.  (Telephones for the poor... do wireless transmissions harm operators... does use of the telephone cause deafness in the left ear...)

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