Telegraphic tales from the Raj

rohit gupta | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on January 30, 2015

River as the conductor ‘An Indian Mosque on the Hooghly River near Calcutta’ (1846) by Auguste Borget. Wikicommons

Rohit Gupta

An incident involving telegraphs presaged over a century ago the phenomenon of electronic hacking and algorithmic trading in the stock markets

With the invention of the telegraph, information could travel faster than any mode of transport. This would transform the nature of administration, business and war almost entirely across the British Raj. In 1856, the Scientific American noted that, “In two years four thousand miles of telegraphic wire have been erected in India. Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Lahore are now telegraphically united...”

It appears that an enterprising officer of the East India Company once used the Hooghly River as an electrical conductor for passing telegraphic signals. He used a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of the river, in place of wire, to complete the circuit “without any metallic conductor, using the water alone as the sole vehicle of the electric impulses; and although he succeeded in transmitting signals, he found the battery power required for the purpose too enormous, and consequently too expensive for practical purposes.” Not mentioned in this account are the protests of bathing residents and fishes of the Hooghly.

This was only two years after Samuel FB Morse built his famous demonstration system in the US. But Irish inventor and physician William O’Shaughnessy’s telegraph used a different code and, at first, he transmitted the message by imposing a series of tiny electric shocks on the operator’s finger. He also suggested the use of the iron rails of a railway network as an insulated conductor for telegraphy.

O’Shaughnessy’s fascinating memoir also contains an account of the uprooting of telegraphic lines during the 1857 mutiny. “Then came the destruction of the lines by the mutineers, and in the thrilling episodes of that stormy time there is perhaps nothing more thrilling than the story of Charles Todd, the assistant in charge of the Delhi Office, who fell in the general massacre, but not before he had signalled to the Punjab the terrible events at Meerut and the march of the mutineers on Delhi.”

Some of his remarks demonstrate the erroneous (or shall we say, enthusiastic) understanding of the nature of light propagation at that time: “It may startle belief, but it is nevertheless strictly true and proved to be so by experiment, that the progress of electric influence through a copper wire in these signals is swifter for equal distances than that of sun’s light through space. In one second it travels 2,44,000 miles. Water conducts these signals with diminished rapidity, but still rapidly in less than a second of time, the influence would pass through a longer line than the circumference of the globe.” It took several decades before the nature of light was better explained by James Clerk Maxwell, who first realised that light was a kind of electromagnetic wave, and all of these waves travelled at the speed of light.

Scientist Saroj Ghose speaks at length of O’Shaughnessy’s career, saying he was “… handicapped by one of the serious drawbacks of a public enterprise — lack of discipline, which was even then pervasive in both Indian and European members of the staff from the beginning. In 1850, O’Shaughnessy had to dismiss all Bengali operators for their refusal to leave Calcutta on duty, and in 1851, he forced a European inspector to resign for his irresponsible activities.”

A remarkable episode in the same vein occurred in 1861, where the perpetrators were two Englishmen. The source of this is an early edition of the Bombay Gazeteer: “… the famous Peetall & Allen incident in 1861 when the two telegraph operators were bribed to publish a telegram on the notice board of the Electric Telegraph Office, carrying the signature of one O’Brien. The information thus contained caused a fluctuation in the price of opium, which depended on communication with the Chinese, which these thugs capitalised upon. The Bombay Times & Standard had reported thus: 35 telegrams from Galle had been falsified about the same date, and that advice about opium from China had been surreptitiously drawn from the wires while in transmission, by cutting the line on the Bombay side of Satara, and reading the messages off an instrument taken to the spot for that purpose. Mr Crawford of the Fort Police Court charged 10 signallers and gave them 18 months of jail, but this led to a complete revision of the internal workings. An old-timer had seen them poring over the huge baskets of telegrams in the open compound of the Colaba office….”

This incident presaged over a century ago the phenomenon of electronic hacking and algorithmic trading in the stock markets. The words used by Scientific American in 1855 to describe the rise of telegraphy continue to be relevant and significant today: “… we firmly believe the whole earth — through ocean and overland — in 10 years more, will be girdled with the lightning rail, and man will communicate with his fellow man, in a few minutes, from the most distant parts of the globe.”

Telegraphy also affected other areas of scientific pursuit, especially after the great trans-Atlantic cable was laid down across the vast ocean. When the thick undersea cables would be pulled up for inspection or repair, they would drag along to the surface many new marine species — crustaceans, plankton, mollusca, corals and radiolarians — hitherto unseen by the eyes of man.

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah

Follow Rohit on Twitter @fadesingh

Published on January 30, 2015

A letter from the Editor

Dear Readers,

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world completely in the last few months. All of us have been locked into our homes, economic activity has come to a near standstill. Everyone has been impacted.

Including your favourite business and financial newspaper. Our printing and distribution chains have been severely disrupted across the country, leaving readers without access to newspapers. Newspaper delivery agents have also been unable to service their customers because of multiple restrictions.

In these difficult times, we, at BusinessLine have been working continuously every day so that you are informed about all the developments – whether on the pandemic, on policy responses, or the impact on the world of business and finance. Our team has been working round the clock to keep track of developments so that you – the reader – gets accurate information and actionable insights so that you can protect your jobs, businesses, finances and investments.

We are trying our best to ensure the newspaper reaches your hands every day. We have also ensured that even if your paper is not delivered, you can access BusinessLine in the e-paper format – just as it appears in print. Our website and apps too, are updated every minute, so that you can access the information you want anywhere, anytime.

But all this comes at a heavy cost. As you are aware, the lockdowns have wiped out almost all our entire revenue stream. Sustaining our quality journalism has become extremely challenging. That we have managed so far is thanks to your support. I thank all our subscribers – print and digital – for your support.

I appeal to all or readers to help us navigate these challenging times and help sustain one of the truly independent and credible voices in the world of Indian journalism. Doing so is easy. You can help us enormously simply by subscribing to our digital or e-paper editions. We offer several affordable subscription plans for our website, which includes Portfolio, our investment advisory section that offers rich investment advice from our highly qualified, in-house Research Bureau, the only such team in the Indian newspaper industry.

A little help from you can make a huge difference to the cause of quality journalism!

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
You have read 1 out of 3 free articles for this week. For full access, please subscribe and get unlimited access to all sections.