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Monday December 17th 2018

Remembering the Telegraph: The First Digital Communication Method

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The month of April represents the 225th birthday of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph system used in America. Morse, who was a commercial artist by trade, successfully developed the first single wire telegraph system which revolutionized communications between distant locations both with the railroad industry and for the public at large, through the Western Union network of telegraph offices.

The Richmond Railroad Museum, along with the Richmond Amateur Radio Club will feature a special one-day exhibit on Saturday, April 16th. There will be demonstrations of actual telegraph systems and displays featuring over thirty pieces of antique telegraph equipment, some dating to the 1800’s. The Radio Club will also have live demonstrations of code-based radio communications which can often break through stormy weather conditions when voice cannot. The Richmond Amateur Radio Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary of service to the Richmond area. The Railroad Museum will be open from 11 AM until 4 PM.

One of the major beneficiaries of the Morse telegraph was the American railroad system. The telegraph made it possible to accurately track the position of trains by passing critical information between railroad stations. What had been previously dependent on lamps and other less reliable means could now be confirmed by railroad dispatchers. They could now know the exact whereabouts of each train, thereby avoiding multi-train collisions.

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A little known fact is that technically, Morse had developed the first system of truly digital communications, a concept which has only recently entered commercial use. His alphabetical, numerical and punctuation characters, represented by long and short electrical bursts, is not unlike the basis of the one and zero bits system employed in digital computers, digital TV and cell phones.

You can check out the museum on the web at RichmondRailroadMuseum.org. You can view a live webcam in the model room by clicking on the “model train” button. Admission to the museum is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.

The Richmond Railroad Museum is operated by the Old Dominion Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, Inc., a voluntary, non-profit Virginia educational organization.

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