in Coding

The Professional Telegrapher

Sometime ago, I read the similarities between the telegrapher and the computer programmer. I thought about this recently, and wanted to explore a bit more.

Granted, the duties and day-to-day responsibilities are almost nothing alike. The telegrapher deals strictly with morse code (which happens to be rudimentary coding, as it’s in binary) to encode and decode messages in a natural language, and whereas computer programmers work with a very powerful data manipulating machine to perform all sorts of functions for a variety of systems, in a variety of languages (I don’t mean to be so abstract, but I also want to be fair).

But in terms of social standing, and an advent of a new profession/class, there are interesting similarities. In my Googling efforts, I found this review: for this book: The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860-1900 (Class and Culture).

Some interesting bits:

  1. The industry had an influence from the military. Standardization, management, and documentation were borrowed from the military. Though not to that extreme, modern day computer programming, particularly in relation to networking came from military research, ARPANET comes to mind.
  2. Telegraphy was a step up the social ladder, and represented a new form of white collar workers. Today, software development is a profession that is solidly at least middle class in the United States. The salary band ranges according to region, but at the extreme, a base of 160K excluding stock options and incentives are not unheard of for a good and seasoned software developer in the San Francisco Bay Area. The review states that the pay for telegraphers was on par with that of skilled blue-collar workers.
  3. Some very smart/prominent people were telegraphers. Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie cut their teeth on telegraph machines. Then, there was Theodore Newton Vail who went on to found AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph).
  4. There was an effort for inclusion/diversity of telegraphers. There was a joint program between Western Union and Cooper Union Institute to train women to become telegraphers. Like software development, telegraphy was a male-dominated industry. The program sounds like the Grace Hopper Academy bootcamp of today.

The book also addresses some interesting bits about the oversupply and efforts to unionize their profession. The telegraph operating profession as Thomas Edison knew it didn’t last more than one to two generations. The advent of radio and telephone, along with automated telegraphy quickly made morse code telegraph operators obsolete. Interestingly, it was Thomas Edison who worked on the automatic telegraphy, which allowed 60-120 words per minute to be transmitted, compared to 25- 40 by hand operators.