Old Fashioned Telegraphs
by Edward Eggleston
THE MUSKET TELEGRAPH.
There are many people living who can remember when there were no
telegraphs such as we have now. The telephone is still younger.
Railroads are not much older than telegraphs. Horses and stagecoaches
were slow. How did people send messages quickly when there were no
When colonies in America were first settled by white people, there were
wars with the Indians. The Indians would creep into a neighborhood and
kill all the people they could, and then they would get away before the
soldiers could overtake them. But the white people made a plan to catch
Whenever the Indians attacked a settlement, the settler who saw them
first took his gun and fired it three times. Bang, bang, bang! went the
gun. The settlers who lived near the man who fired the gun heard the
sound. They knew that three shots following one another quickly, meant
that the Indians had come.
Every settler who heard the three shots took his gun and fired three
times. It was bang, bang, bang! again. Then, as soon as he had fired,
he went in the direction of the first shots. Every man who had heard
three shots, fired three more, and went toward the shots he had heard.
Farther and farther away the settlers heard the news, and sent it along
by firing so that others might hear. Soon little companies of men were
coming swiftly in every direction. The Indians were sure to be beaten
off or killed.
This was a kind of telegraph. But there were no wires; there was no
electricity; only one flint-lock musket waking up another flintlock
musket, till a hundred guns had been fired, and a hundred men were
marching to the battle.
TELEGRAPHING BY FIRE.
The firing of signal guns was telegraphing by sound. It used only the
hearing. But there were other ways of telegraphing that used the sight.
These have been known for thousands of years. They were known even to
The Indians on the plains use fires to telegraph to one another.
Sometimes they build one fire, sometimes they build many. When a war
party, coming back from battle, builds five fires on a hill, the
Indians who see it know that the party has killed five enemies.
But the Indians have also what are known as smoke signals. An Indian
who wishes to send a message to a party of his friends a long way off,
builds a fire. When it blazes, he throws an armful of green grass on
it. This causes the fire to send up a stream of white smoke hundreds of
feet high, which can be seen fifty miles away in clear weather. Among
the Apaches, one column of smoke is to call attention; two columns say,
"All is well, and we are going to remain in this camp;" three columns
or more are a sign of danger, and ask for help.
A Smoke Signal.
Sometimes longer messages are sent. After building a fire and putting
green grass upon it, the Indian spread his blanket over it. He holds
down the edges, to shut the smoke in. After a few moments he takes his
blanket off; and when he does this, a great puff of smoke, like a
balloon, shoots up into the air. This the Indian does over and over.
One puff of smoke chases another upward. By the number of these puffs,
and the length of the spaces between them, he makes his meaning
understood by his friends many miles away.
At night the Indians smear their arrows with something that will burn
easily. One of them draws his bow. Just as he is about to let his arrow
fly, another one touches it with fire. The arrow blazes as it shoots
through the air, like a fiery dragon fly. One burning arrow follows
another; and those who see them read these telegraph signals, and know
what is meant.
TELEGRAPHS IN THE REVOLUTION.
Our forefathers sometimes used fire to telegraph with in the
Revolution. Whenever the British troops started on a raid into New
Jersey, the watchmen on the hilltops lighted great beacon fires. Those
who saw the fires lighted other fires farther away. These fires let the
people know that the enemy was coming, for light can travel much faster
than men on horseback.
Have you heard the story of Paul Revere? When the British were about to
send troops from Boston to Lexington, Revere and his friends had an
understanding with the people in Charlestown. Revere was to let them
know when the troops should march. They were to watch a certain church
steeple. If one lantern were hung in the steeple, it would mean that
the British were marching by land. If two lanterns were seen, the
Charlestown people would know that the troops were leaving Boston by
water. Revere was sent as a messenger to Lexington. He sent a friend of
his to hang up the lanterns in the church steeple.
"Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the somber rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,—
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all."
Old North Church Steeple.
Long before Paul Revere got across the water in his little boat, the
people on the other side had seen the lanterns in the tower. They knew
the British were coming, and were all astir when Paul Revere got over.
Revere rode on to Lexington and beyond, to alarm the people.
The lines above are from a poem of Longfellow's about this ride. The
poem is very interesting, but it does not tell the story quite
Paul Revere's lanterns were used at the beginning of the Revolutionary
War. There is a story of a different sort of telegraph used when the
war was near its end. It is told by a British officer who had not the
best means of knowing whether it was true or not. But it shows what
kind of telegraphs were used in that day. This is the story:—
A British army held New York. Another British army under Cornwallis was
at Yorktown in Virginia. General Washington had marched to Yorktown. He
was trying to capture the army of General Cornwallis. He was afraid
that ships and soldiers would be sent from New York to help Cornwallis.
But there were men in New York who were secretly on Washington's side.
One of these was to let him know when ships should sail to help
But Washington was six hundred miles away from New York. How could he
get the news before the English ships should get there? There were no
telegraphs. The fastest horses ridden one after another could hardly
have carried news to him in less than two weeks. But Washington had a
plan. One of the men who sent news to Washington was living in New
York. When the ships set sail, he went up on the top of his house and
hoisted a white flag, or something that looked like a white flag.
On the other side of the Hudson River in a little village a man was
watching this very house. As soon as he saw the white flag flapping, he
took up his gun and fired it. Farther off there was a man waiting to
hear this gun. When he heard it, he fired another gun. Farther on there
was the crack of another, and then another gun. By the firing of one
gun after another the news went southward. Bang, bang! went gun after
gun across the whole State of New Jersey. Then guns in Pennsylvania
took it up and sent the news onward. Then on across the State of
Maryland the news went from one gun to another, till it reached
Virginia, where it passed on from gun to gun till it got to Yorktown.
In less than two days Washington knew that ships were coming.
When Washington knew that British ships were coming, he pushed the
fighting at Yorktown with all his might. When the English ships got to
Chesapeake Bay at last, Cornwallis had already surrendered. The United
States was free. The ships had come too late.
A BOY'S TELEGRAPH.
The best telegraph known before the use of electricity, was invented by
two schoolboys in France. They were brothers named Chappé (shap-pay).
They were in different boarding schools some miles apart, and the rules
of their schools did not allow them to write letters to each other. But
the two schools were in sight of each other. The brothers invented a
telegraph. They put up poles with bars of wood on them. These bars
would turn on pegs or pins. The bars were turned up or down, or one up
and another down, or two down and one up, and so on. Every movement of
the bars meant a letter. In this way the two brothers talked to each
other, though they were miles apart. When the boys became men, they
sold their plan to the French Government. The money they got made their
About the time they were selling this plan to the French Government, a
boy named Samuel Morse was born in this country. Fifty years later this
Samuel Morse set up the first Morse electric telegraph, which is the
one we now use.
In the old days before telegraph wires were strung all over the
country, it took weeks to carry news to places far away. There were no
railroads, and the mails had to travel slowly. A boy on a horse trotted
along the road to carry the mail bags to country places. From one large
city to another, the mails were carried by stagecoaches.
A Mail Carrier.
When the people had voted for President, it was weeks before the news
of the election could be gathered in. Then it took other weeks to let
the people in distant villages know the name of the new President.
Nowadays a great event is known in almost every part of the country on
the very day it happens.