Spotlight

An Early Telegraph Idea: Physicians Often Feel Attracted to Engineering

An illustration of how old, wide, and intermingled science and technology are

The objectives of medicine are to restore, maintain, and improve human health applying the biomedical sciences. The objectives of engineering are to restore, improve, and maintain human wellbeing applying the physico-­chemical and mathematical sciences. Both are practical activities with similar targets, for health is the first requirement of feeling well. No wonder, then, if over the centuries, physicians and engineers often crossed the now rather diffuse border between both.

FIGURE 1 Guillermo Rawson’s picture as it originally appeared in [1] and can now be also found on Wikipedia.

FIGURE 1 Guillermo Rawson’s picture as it originally appeared in [1] and can now be also found on Wikipedia.

Guillermo Colesbery Rawson Rojo (Figure 1) (1821–1890), son of a North American medical doctor, was born in what is now the province of San Juan in western Argentina. He was a prominent physician as well as a politician. One of Rawson’s significant contributions was the creation of the Argentine Red Cross in 1880. On the 100th anniversary of Rawson’s birth, Dr. Eliseo Cantón (1861–1931), native to the province of Tucumán, offered a long conference [1] remembering him, his personality, and his many works and concerns (Figure 2). In the conference, Cantón mentioned that when Rawson was 19 years old (1840), studying physics with the Jesuit Father Gomila gave him the idea of using electricity to transmit messages. Many years later, in 1878, while visiting Rome, Rawson recalled the story in a personal letter written to a friend and published by Alberto B. ­Martínez in Estudios y discursos del doctor Guillermo Rawson [Studies and talks of Doctor Guillermo Rawson], in 1891; unfortunately, the full reference could not be located. The English translation reads:

I was studying physics in 1840 under the supervision of the Jesuit Father Gomila. One day, when the Father was experimentally teaching us the action of the voltaic pile and the celerity of the electric current, I took a wire connected to one pole of a pile, got out to the patio with the wire, and strechted it to its full length, while asking one of my classmates to apply successive discharges touching on and off alternantingly the other pole, as the teacher had shown us. I called thereafter Father Gomila, who trusted me much, and we had the following dialog: —Sir, here I instantly receive the successive discharges of a pile. Should the wire extend to the Plaza Victoria, wouldn’t we receive over there the discharges with the same celerity? — Surely yes, said the Father — And if the wire reached the city of San Juan, wouldn’t it be the same? — I think so, answered him, if the wire could be kept isolated up to that place. And … what is your deduction from this fact? — I wonder, Sir, that by giving a conventional meaning to the discharges, according to a number, we could transmit words to longer distances, and I could talk with my father, who is in San Juan.

FIGURE 2 The front cover of the booklet in which Cantón’s conference was reproduced.

FIGURE 2 The front cover of the booklet in which Cantón’s conference was reproduced.

The same story was told later on in a very short note published in an unknown and long ago discontinued South American journal [2]. In the latter, it is added that, after the telegraph news was broken to the press in the mid-1840s, Rawson’s father told him, “Son, this is your telegraph.” This was an expected comment from a father and a sweet, condescending, well-meant smile was the son’s answer, according to [2].

The Voltaic Pile

The voltaic pile was invented by Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) in 1800 and was the first and a rather efficient means of generating and keeping electricity. In the 1870s, the dynamo was introduced as a better direct current generator. In 1830, Joseph Henry (1797–1878) demonstrated the potential of the electromagnet for long-distance communication by sending an electronic current over 1 mi of wire to activate an electromagnet, which caused a bell to ring. William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, in 1837, patented another telegraph system using the same principle of electromagnetism. However, it was Samuel Morse (1791–1872) who successfully exploited the electromagnet, and he is the recognized inventor of a telegraph system with practical and commercial success. Morse, who was more of a painter in his inner feelings than an engineer, started tinkering with the idea perhaps as early as 1832 and further developed it later with the addition of a transmission code.

He gave a public demonstration in 1838, and it took six more years to first transmit through the newly built telegraph line, from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., to his partner in Baltimore, Maryland, with the first message that read, “What hath God wrought?” (A quote from Numbers XXIII, 23). This event took place on 24 May 1844, which was later established as Telegraphist’s Day. When I was working as a telecommunications engineer in Transradio International (an RCA Communication subsidiary in Argentina that disappeared with the advent of the satellite) in 1955–1960, I recall the free day given to the personnel at large on that date, usually celebrated around a charcoal barbecue of Argentine meat. The Morse code hand-operating telegraphist and his day are now only a memory. Telegrams were sent by keying a lever and received by ear. A trained Morse operator could transmit 40–50 words per minute. Automatic transmission, introduced in 1914, could handle twice that number.

A Physician Claiming Priority in the Morse Code Idea

In the United States, Morse held his telegraph patents for many years, but they were both ignored and contested [3]–[5]. In 1853, the case of the patent reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where, after a very lengthy investigation, the court ruled that Morse had been the first to combine the battery, the electromagnet, and the correct configuration into a practical system. The system was conceived by Morse himself in October 1832 onboard the packet ship Sully on her voyage from Havre, France, to New York. He claimed to be a painter by profession and in 1829, had gone to Europe to perfect himself in that art. On his return home, there was among the passengers a physician, Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson (1805–1880), with whom he entered into a nice dialogue regarding the affinity of electricity to magnetism. In the course of this discussion (other persons intervened as well), it occurred to ­Jackson that by means of electricity, signs representing letters or words might be legibly written down at any distance. These ideas were kept in Morse’s mind, and during the rest of the trip, he devised a possible sketch, including the now famous dots and spaces code [3], [4]. All of this led to long and complicated legal actions between Jackson and Morse that ended up in the Supreme Court in 1853, in the case previously mentioned, in which the court ruled in favor of Morse [5].

However, Jackson also had a role in the initial development of anesthesia, showing again his battle spirit for legal suits, as he claimed that the idea was his. This story, which is complex and unfortunate in its outcome, is nicely told in [6].

Why Not Something About Fibonacci?

One point that is quite interesting is that Morse code can be considered a forerunner of digital communication codes and,
moreover, can be described by the Fibonacci sequence [7]. This set of numbers is built following the integer sequence

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 … …

By definition, the first two numbers in the Fibonacci sequence are zero and one, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. Mathematically, it is described by a recurrent relation, i.e.,

Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2,

with seed values

F0 = 0, F1 = 1.

The sequence was named after Leonardo de Pisa, Pisano, or Bigollo (c. 1170–1250), also called Fibonacci—a mathematician whose invention made him famous and a predecessor of modern practical uses and theoretical studies. Fibonacci is the short form of the Latin filius Bonacci, which meansthe son of the Bonacci (in plural, the Bonaccios) as his father’s name was Guglielmo Bonaccio. This is similar to the English names Robinson and Johnson.

Discussion

As anticipated in the quote at the beginning of this article, physicians and engineers are quite alike in their objectives and the avenues they follow; the former still rely quite a bit on experience and qualitative information, while the latter are by sheer education setting their feet on general physical laws and quantitative data. However, this statement represents a somewhat old, oversimplified, and even naïve vision since a lot has changed over the years. Today, the medical field extensively uses the vast amount of information coming from engineering research, while engineering, likewise, addresses concepts typically addressed by the medical field, such as substantive, qualitative (and also quantitative) biological phenomena. Hence, it is no wonder that physicians have shown interest in engineering subjects especially when spurred by possible medical uses.

What about Rawson’s idea? He perhaps could have claimed at least partial ownership. Remember that his test was carried out in 1840, the year of the first patent by Morse, and separated out by thousands of miles in a world of very slow communications. However, it turned out to become a mere historical curiosity with no further consequences.

I mentioned a letter written by Rawson, and it is well known the importance of manuscript letters in the Galvani–Volta controversy. Thus, it provides a nice opportunity to reminisce with a grain of sadness that now old-fashioned means of personal communication [8].

In this article, I wanted to point out the close relationship between medicine and engineering, not infrequently stretching out to unthinkable subjects (such as the Fibonacci sequence) and occasionally stained by collisions but fruitful in the end as in any family… because they are blood cousins, no doubt in my mind.

References

  • E. Cantón. (1921). Conference about Dr. Guillermo Rawson, his contributions as legislator and hygienist, on the first centenary of his birth, (in Spanish), Printed as booklet by the Academia y Facultad de Medicina de Buenos Aires, pp. 7–94. [Online].
  • M. Valentinuzzi (Sr), “An Argentine precursor of the telegraphy, (in Spanish), Actualidad Médica Mundial, vol. 8, no. 87, July 1938.
  • S. Morse, “Improvement in the mode of communicating information by signals by the application of electro-magnetism,” US patent 1647, June 20, 1840.
  • S. Morse, “Improvement in the mode of communicating information by signals by the application of electro-magnetism,” US patent 1647 (Reissue #79), Jan. 15, 1846.
  • (1853). U.S. Supreme Court case O’Reilly v. Morse. [Online].
  • H. E. Hoff, “Dentistry and the centenary of anaesthesia,” McGill Dental Rev., vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 18–30, 1947.
  • S. Sato, “Fibonacci sequence and its generalizations hidden in algorithms for generating Morse codes,” in Applications of Fibonacci Numbers, G. E. Bergum et al., Eds. New York: Kluwer Academic, 1993, vol. 5, pp. 481–486.
  • M. E. Valentinuzzi, “Manuscript letters… Are they forever past?,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 48–51, May 2013.