The Birth of Electronic Communication

by Jason S. Bardi

Gauss The holiday season is upon us, and spending the weekend at the relatively unconnected house of a close relative makes me long for all those modern conveniences I take for granted: cell phones, PDAs, digital cable, and high-speed wireless. Lack of wireless is going to force me to find an internet café in a little while, as soon as I am done writing this. Meanwhile, being cut off from the Web is the perfect entry into telling the story of how our modern era of electronic communication came to be — its ancient origins — a story that I recount in my latest book “The Fifth Postulate,” which is hitting store shelves this month (published by John Wiley & Sons).

This year, 2008, is the 175th anniversary of electronic communication, though the anniversary passed quietly and went, to my knowledge, unnoticed. It was born 175 years ago thanks to a clever invention by the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, who in the 1830s invented an early working telegraph. Though he was never able to develop the technology further, he clearly saw its potential. A single tap, he would write, would enable instantaneous communication between distant cities.

Like many of the great discoveries Gauss made in his life, Gauss's telegraph was not appreciated until after his death. Neither was non-Euclidean geometry, another one of Gauss's great inventions. Both developments are featured in my new book.

Now here's the story:

The Sunday churchgoers in the town of Göttingen discovered a new feature adorning the steeple of their beloved St. John’s Church in 1833. Two lines of curved wires, one up to the top of the church and one down again on the other side, had been installed at the orders of the local celebrity scientist, Carl Friedrich Gauss, a man who in some depictions bears a strangely strikingly similar resemblance to Ebenezer Scrooge. He was, by all accounts, extremely un-Scrooge like as a scientist, and this was most apparent in his collaborations with those in his life with whom he shared scientific or mathematical interest. He devoted himself generously to such collaborations at various times in his life.

You have to understand that Gauss devoted himself to these collaborations despite the fact that he may not have had much to gain from any of them. There were none in his day and very few in the history of mathematics who could have taught him much of anything. Gauss is often grouped with Isaac Newton and Archimedes as one of the three greatest mathematicians in history. Gauss was, like those other two, a solitary genius who made his greatest discoveries while working alone, without ever consulting anyone else. While it is hard to know how Archimedes treated his collaborative peers, if indeed he had any, Isaac Newton struggled to maintain civility in the collaborations throughout his life. At times, his collaborations erupted into nasty disputes.

Somehow, though, Gauss managed to have several very fruitful collaborations, and one of the most fruitful was his work with a twenty-four-year-old scholar named William Weber, who arrived at Göttingen to be a professor of physics when gauss was in his 50s. Gauss was a patron of sorts for Weber. The death of a Göttingen professor had created a vacancy at the university, and the government bureaucrat in charge of filling it wisely asked Gauss whom he should hire. Gauss had met Weber four years earlier at a conference in Berlin, and he enthusiastically supported the young scholar for the position. Weber's arrival sparked the final period of great productivity in Gauss’s career.

Though Weber was half Gauss's age, their relationship quickly grew close. They became fast friends and were often dinner guests in each other’s homes. More than that, they had countless scientific discussions, performed experiments together, and started a journal to publish their results.

The main subject of their discussions was not mathematics, the subject for which Gauss is most famous today, but physics. Specifically, they were interested in one of the hottest areas of research in those days — electricity and magnetism. This was a very old field, but in Europe the most exciting work was just now being done. The previous decade had witnessed amazing advances, and several scientists were revolutionizing this area of physics. Michael Faraday had just discovered induced current, the ability of magnets to induce an electric current in conductors, and was beginning to publish his results.

Gauss was intensely drawn to the study of magnetism, and in the 1830s he would become aware of Faraday's work as well as that of André-Marie Ampère, Michael Faraday, Hans Christian Ørsted, and Jean-Baptiste Biot — scientists whose names were later associated with the fundamental units of electricity and magnetism were then in their prime of discovery. These were exciting times for Gauss, and he gladly welcomed the collaboration with Weber.

They formed one of the great research teams in history. Gauss was older and wiser, and Weber, more nimble in his youth, was particularly adept at instrumentation. Together they had two brains, four hands, and one mind. Their collaboration bore its greatest fruit when they constructed their great galvanic circuit, a truly advanced bit of communicative wizardry. This is what the Sunday churchgoers in Göttingen discovered adorning the steeple of their St. John’s Church in 1833.

Our modern urban landscape is crisscrossed with electric lines of all types. They stretch from pole to pole and roof to roof, and it would be strange for any of us, even in the most rural settings today to consider a single 8,000-foot stretch of parallel wires. Still, such a single stretch would have been even stranger 175 years ago. One wonders what the townspeople of Gottingen in Germany thought. They had no telephones, no radio, no wires at all. Nobody in the tiny community could have guessed that this little wire was the auspicious birth of a new era. They had no way of knowing that this was the means for the first successful electronic transmission of information ever.

Some 8,000 feet of wire in all stretched over the houses of Gottingen and connected the university astronomical observatory, where Gauss lived and worked, to the university physics laboratory that Weber managed. It hailed the dawn of the age of communication. Up to that time, all communication was done by physical means — whether written, spoken, or done in hand gestures, smoke signals, cannon reports, or the like. Now, in their small town, electronic communication had arrived for the first time.

At each end of the wires were two devices made of coils of wire surrounding heavy magnets, with Gauss at one end and Weber at the other. The two end devices and the wire connecting them comprised the world's first working telegraph — something Gauss called his “great galvanic circuit” and that historians later renamed the Gauss-Weber current-reversing great galvanic circuit.

“Carefully operating my voltaic pile, I can cause so violent a motion of the needle in the laboratory to take place that it strikes a bell, the sound of which is audible in the adjoining room,” Gauss wrote. “We have already made use of this apparatus for telegraphic experiments, which have resulted successfully in the transmission of entire words and small phrases. This method of telegraphing has the advantage of being quite independent of either daytime or weather; the ones who receive it remain in their rooms, and if they desire it, with the shutters drawn.”

The device represented a major step forward in the history of communications. Just a few years earlier, when Napoleon’s armies were dominating warfare in Europe, the best form of battlefield communication had been large towers erected at appropriate intervals that allowed individual soldier-communicators in the towers to convey messages from one to another by using hooded lamps or some other means of purely visual communication. A message could be relayed from one tower to the next and so on. Technologically, speaking, these towers were barely more advanced than smoke signals.

Then the telegraph arrived. “I don’t remember my having made any previous mention to you of an astonishing piece of mechanism that we have devised,” he wrote to his friend Henry Olbers towards the end of 1833. And that letter, written exactly 175 years ago, signaled the birth of electronic communication.

Visitors marveled at the circuit’s operation. The Duke of Cambridge visited the Göttingen laboratories and is said to have taken a special interest in the device. Solely by constructing a circuit using the standard electric and magnetic equipment available to them, Gauss and Weber made the first working electronic telegraph and were able to connect their two laboratories across a distance of 5,000 feet.

In his first communications about the early telegraph, Gauss said that it served merely as an amusement. The first transmission was “Michelmann kommt” (Michelmann, come), which was intended for the servant Michelmann who ran errands for the two. Probably missing the significance of this, some of Gauss’s friends discouraged him from pursuing this endeavor further, however, calling it frivolous and unscientific. But Gauss saw the potential for the invention, and both he and Weber had greater ambitions.

He conceived of operating a telegraph alongside the train tracks. They had a plan to transfer their technology to the German railroad authority, which was then constructing a network of rails to link the urban centers of the land. Although nothing came of it, Gauss thought that the new railroad could be used to connect German cities via communication as well as conveyance. He envisioned burying copper wires alongside the rails that would connect to his apparatus in different cities and be used to carry messages. Weber was even more ambitious. He envisioned conducting current along one rail and back along the other so that no additional wires would be needed.

“Could [sufficient funds] be spent on it, I believe electromagnetic telegraphy could be brought to a state of perfection and made to assume such proportions as almost to startle the imagination,” he wrote to a former student in 1835. In his first detailed published report about his early telegraph, he was equally optimistic. “The employment of sufficiently stout wires, I feel convinced, would enable us to telegraph with but a single tap from Göttingen to Hanover, or from Hanover to Bremen.”

This was a great discovery in the history of communications. Theirs was the first device to use electrical currents to carry messages over long distances — even though their 5,000-foot two-node network was nothing compared to the separations and number of connections that characterize electronic communication takes place today. All it really did was connect two nearby points in Göttingen. A cannon fired at one of these two points — either end of the network — would probably have been clearly audible at the other.

But even though the Gauss and Weber invention was technologically more advanced than anything the world had ever seen, it was soon forgotten. In the end, the railroad authorities rejected both Gauss's and Weber's proposals because of the uncertainties and costs involved, and the Gauss and Weber current-reversing great galvanic circuit was soon forgotten. The railroad itself did not arrive in Göttingen until 1854, and by the time it did, Gauss was on his deathbed, his great discovery long since forgotten, and the technology he first invented was being pursued avidly by people who never knew what he had done.

So obscure was Gauss and Weber's invention that when the telegraph was taking off as a technology in the 1850s, the British historian Sir David Brewster was surprised to learn of Gauss’s discovery. He wrote to a very old Gauss at the end of 1854, “As I am, at present, writing on the subject, I would esteem it as a particular favor if you would oblige me by a notice of what you have done, and of the time when you used it publicly.” Gauss’s reply to Brewster was the last letter he ever wrote. Many years after he died, his great invention appeared at the World’s Fair in Vienna in 1873 and again at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. By that time, of course, the world had become increasingly connected through communication of electronic means.

What of the wires? They were not grounded, apparently, and though they remained there for more than a decade, they were eventually destroyed in an electrical storm. Lightning struck the wires on top of St. John’s steeple in December 16, 1845 and blasted the wires into small pieces a few inches long and into tiny specks of metallic flak. “All of which formed a brilliant rain of fire,” recounted Gauss at the time. Apparently nobody was hurt.

And here's my own epilogue: it turns out that there is an internet connection here… on an old laptop with a dial-up modem. This makes me thankful for one other modern convenience — thumb drives.