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Dead medium: The 'writing telegraph;' Gray's Telautograph; the military telautograph; the telewriter; the telescriber
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and its Predecessors in the United States by Lewis Coe TK 5115 C54 1993 McFarland and Company, Publishers ISBN 0-89950-736-0

(((Mr Coe's lovingly detailed, too-brief work is soaked with heartfelt nostalgia for the world of dead telegraphy.)))

page 20

"It was not until 1886 that inventors became interested in the idea of transmitting handwriting by wire. The first machine, the 'writing telegraph,' actually saw some limited commercial use. The writing was received on a moving paper tape, and since there was no pen-lifting mechanism on the receiver, all of the individual letters were joined by a continuous line on the tape.

"Telegraphic writing soon attracted the attention of Elisha Gray, the man who lost the telephone patent to Bell (...) Gray developed a practical machine, which he patented and christened the "telautograph." Gray's machine had a pen-lifting mechanism, and the received message was written in conventional format on a wide sheet of paper.

"A company called the Gray National Telautograph Co. was chartered in 1888 and purchased the patent rights to the machine from Elisha Gray. The telegraphic writing created a sensation at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. An improved machine in 1895 staged an impressive demonstration in transmitting handwriting 431 miles from Cleveland to Chicago.

"In 1900, Foster Ritchie, a former Gray assistant, perfected a new design that represented a great improvement over the original. This was the machine that was marketed for the next 30 years. At this time, telautographs were normally short-range instruments. They had technical limitations that prevented reliable performance at distances much over five miles.

"Even with its limitations, the telautograph managed to find a sphere of useful applications and held its share of the market in competition with the rapidly expanding telegraph and telephone industry. It remained a device that was little known to the general public since the applications were mostly in large metropolitan areas. A typical application was in the old Dearborn Street railroad station in Chicago where a telautograph in the main concourse kept baggage and mail handlers informed of train movements.

"Perhaps the ultimate triumph of the telautograph came in the late 1890s when it was selected by the U.S. Army for fire-control communication in the coastal defense system.

"First tested at Fort Wadsworth, New York, the system was eventually installed in the most important coastal forts of both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The nineteenth-century equivalent of Star Wars, the coastal defense guns were the wonder of the age. Before the days of air power and submarines, the only defenses needed against enemy attack were the coastal artillery batteries placed to protect important seaports. As typified by the guns at Sandy Hook and Fort Hancock, New Jersey, that protected New York harbor, the installations utilized the highest technology then known and were shrouded in extreme secrecy. In an 1898 article, the *Scientific American* lamented that no one from the media had been permitted to inspect the Sandy Hook installations since 1895.

"The guns were aimed on the basis of data received from observers stationed some distance away, and a reliable method was needed to transmit the data. Telephone or telegraph was not practical due to the deafening noise in the gun pits when the battery was firing. Special military models of the telautograph were designed to enhance ruggedness and reliability. The receiver units at the guns were enclosed in heavy brass, waterproof cases suspended on shockproof mounts. A plate- glass window enabled the message to be read without opening the case, and a small electric bulb illuminated the paper for night reading. None of the coastal guns was ever fired at an enemy, although there were active concerns when tension mounted with Spain in 1898.

"Redesign of the telautograph instrument that took place between 1940 and 1960 incorporated the latest developments in electronics. The modern versions are not limited in range and will operate on any channels normally used for telecommunication, including microwave and satellite facilities. Large numbers of the telewriters, or telescribers, as they are now called, are still in use throughout the world. Hospitals, hotels and factories find them ideal for quick, errorless interchange of written information. The current machines are a far cry from the first models, yet they still do the same thing -- transmitting a written message by wire. Officials of the Telautograph Corp. say that facsimile machines have now taken over most of the needs for communication that were first filled by the 'writing telegraph' of 1888."