Today, the telegraph connects Europe and Asia. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
At its height, the Ottoman
Empire stretched from the gates of Vienna to Yemen,
from Algeria to Baghdad. By 1837, the Empire was in
a long slow decline. But that was also the year
Samuel F.B. Morse perfected his telegraph system.
Almost immediately, a Morse representative went to
Istanbul to sell the Sultan on telegraphy. But his
equipment failed. He started back to Vienna for
repairs, but then his boat capsized on the Danube,
and he drowned.
A few years later, the Sultan finally saw a working
telegraph system and was intrigued. At the same
time, the British were building an ambitious
telegraph system far on the other side of the
Ottoman Empire -- in
India. By 1855, the India system was running,
and the Ottomans, joined by the British and French,
were at war with Russia in the Crimean Peninsula.
All this was making the role of the Ottoman Empire
as Europe's land link to Asia very clear. And the
Crimean War, just across the Black Sea, was
exposing the need for telegraphic communication.
The British had quickly connected Europe to the
Crimea with a 340-mile cable in the Black Sea. But
lines would have to run all the way across the
Ottoman Empire to link Europe with India. Historian
Yakup Bektas tells how the Sultan's interest in
telegraphy initially made his subjects nervous. It
would clearly strengthen his control in remote
regions of the Empire.
But the system was built, first from Edirne, near
the Bulgarian border, to Istanbul, and then all the
way to Karachi -- still a part of India. Local
pashas resisted the telegraph, religious
fundamentalists objected that corrupt ideas could
travel those wires, and citizens raided the lines
for wood and copper. Finally, a small army was
given the task of protecting the system. Alphabets
posed another difficulty. Turkish, whose alphabet
was then a version of Arabic, needed special
equipment. But English and French were also used.
The system went on line in 1865. A year later, the
opened to service in the West, and the world was
linked all the way from Bengal to Alaska. The world's first global
communication network had been built. For a while,
as the Sultan had hoped, telegraphy helped shore up
his regime. The Ottoman Empire lasted until it
became a casualty of WW-I.
The Allies divided the Ottoman Empire among
themselves in 1919. But then, the legendary leader
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose up to unite an
underground army and create the new republic of
Turkey. And Turkish school children today read
about heroic operators who used the Ottoman
telegraph to organize and rebel against their
European occupiers. The ironies of that story echo
in today's Internet. For we watch it, like the
telegraph, promising to serve us as a fine new
instrument of commerce -- as well as a potential
weapon in every sort of rebellion.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bektas, Y., The Sultan's Messenger: Cultural
Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880.
Technology and Culture, Vol. 41, No. 4, 2001,
I am grateful to Baris Bayazit, UH Mechanical
Engineering Department, for his counsel on this
The Mosque at Edirne, Turkey -- the city where the
began. (Notice the communication wires in front of
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul (with
communication wires in front of it).
Where the wires went from Istanbul: The view across
Bosporus into Asian Turkey, or Anatolia, as
it is called.
Photos by John Lienhard
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.