Speaking Dutch in Africa

For over hundred and fifty years the photography world saw hardware evolving from simple wood and brass hardware to ultra-small sophisticated mechanical cameras. From brass sheets to celluloid, from pinhole to space age optics.  And ten, almost overnight, till all was made redundant by the digital camera technology. Old and established manufacturers vanished, and new players came from fields far remote from photography.

Same happened in all avenues of life and industry. Here is what happened to communications.

On a bright Saturday morning in May 1844, a fifty-three old accomplished painter sat by a desk in the US Capitol building at Washington D.C. and single handedly changed the face of communication. The painter tapped a lever attached to an odd-looking clockwork apparatus.

Replica of early Morse code transmitter
Replica of early Morse code transmitter

Some 40 miles to the north-east, in Pennsylvania station at Baltimore DC, sat Alfred Vail, tensely watching a similar apparatus. At 11AM, his machine woke up, humming and clicking, spitting out a 1” wide strip of paper. At a closer look one could notice series of indentations on the tape; some short and others longer. Than the machine came to rest. Vail cautiously snapped the paper off the machine’s jaws, and sat to compare the notches to a typed matrix; carefully marking each set of notches with a single letter. Once done, he copied the letters to a clean sheet of paper. The letters came to a sentence: ‘What Hath God Wrought’.

Using the same matrix, Vail turned to the back side on the machine, and tapped a series of clicks.

Back in D.C., a small crowd of dignitaries in attendance cheered in amazement, watching as the machine at their side was rolling out the tape.

The man was Samuel Morse, and he had just created the communication technology.

This was the first time for a written message to be transmitted and instantaneously read. Until then written long distance communication were capped by speed of human or pony. Messages were sent and replies returned in matter of days or weeks. The newly formed technology – telegraph, enabled wars and commerce, gambling and media, banking and diplomacy. The railway that shrank America could have hardly been imagined without real time two-way communication, being the harbinger of a shrinking globe and merging trade and culture. Pony Express, the leading US East-West communication company was to cease business in several years.

A young railway telegraph operator stationed in Stratford, rural Ontario, became fascinated with the emerging technology. At 19, being promoted to a post at Accessioned Press in Louisville, KY. Being bored with clicking and dead time in between, he began experimenting with electricity and conductors. This eventually got him to lose his job.  Finding refuge at a friend’s basement, Thomas Alva Edison set his mind on improving the telegraph efficiency, where he developed equipment allowing four different telegraph messages sent at once. From there the road was short to recognition and fame. Edison set shop at Menlo Park, NJ, gathering bright and eager troop of scientists, just as an early Silicon Valley.  The labs under Edison’s guidance produced a flow of breakthrough inventions and further improvements to existing technologies, all of which Edison registered to his personal name, depriving the real inventors of glory and wealth.

Among his lab inventions was the early microphone, converting sound vibration into variable electric pulses. This led to several attempts worldwide to harness this technology towards distant verbal communication. The first to come with a viable solution was Alexander Graham Bell of Boston University. Born in Scotland and brought up in Brantford, Ontario (later Wayne Gretzky’s home town), Bell researched ways to assist the deaf to communicate. His first working telephone was presented on 1872. The telephone was made of modules based on the early microphone – one end converting sound into electric pulses, and the other the opposite.

Initially based on existing telegraph infrastructure, the telephone network grew in leaps and bounds. By early 1900 telephones furthered ease of communication, freeing it from the hold of the railways and communication companies.

Here we reached the continental divide. Till this time discoveries and inventions were made by renaissance men (hold your pencils, the term ‘renaissance person’ was never used) who saw the need, had the vision, the knowledge to research the solution, mastered the skill to build and test the equipment, had access to funds to enable all that, and had the ear of decision makers.

Today, with knowledge specialization, these are called big corporations or Steve Jobs.

Meanwhile, use of written communication has expanded to all walks of commerce, banking, media and government. The early crude machines had evolved to faster and easier to use, producing readable text output. The growing need yielded more machines and friendlier operation. The telegraph network run over stagnant dedicated wire network, while the telephone network reached every corner. So, engineers in several countries searched for a solution to match – a way to use the telephone wires to convey written messages.

The claims as to which country came with the first viable machine vary, and are as many as the industrial nations at the time. There were German, American, Italian and French versions, all able to transmit and receive readable text. I am sure there was Russian claim somewhere as well but haven’t found one. Systems were named Telex, Teletype and Teleprinter, amongst others. Same as the railway gauges changed in width as it crossed borders, none of the newly developed systems were compatible with others. Efforts to unify the coding were carried well into the late 40’s. By the second half of last century telex machines were the backbone of global communication. Having been linked to the ever expanding telephone wiring network enabled hundreds of thousands of offices, large and small, to have easy and efficient in-house communication. Estimated 350,000 machines were in the US and about twice as much in the rest of the world.

Further, in the developing world where the telephone system was at its infancy, over-loaded or abused, the telex was the only available and reliable link to the rest of the world.

Early telex machine
Early telex machine

The telex apparatus looked like a typewriter on steroids. It had a telephone dial and a paper tape dispenser equipped with a nine pin punch, and a feeder / reader for same.

To communicate a message, one had to input it via a clunky keyboard. It was printed on a three ply paper, and simultaneously a paper tape rolled out. The tape was punched with series of patterns, each representing a single character. For a long message the paper tape could roll all over the room, followed with stark warnings of the operator not to touch, let alone bend or tear it.
Once message had been typed, the paper strip edge was fed into the reader. The remote
number was dialed. There was a pause, followed by series of clicks and clanks, being remote unit answering with its hard-coded name and number. The operator then flipped a lever for the tape reader to feed the paper tape, and the message was sent.  Reasons for not transmitting in-situ messages were two: long distance calls were expensive, and machine-read transmission was faster than manually typed. Further, the paper punch supplied constant flow of tiny paper confetti, which were diligently used by the office nerds to throw on each other.

Telex punched paper tape
Telex punched paper tape

Walking past a telex was perilous – many a coffee was spilled once the machine had suddenly erupted. By defaults, the machine produced the punched tape for all incoming messages, lest messages need outgoing re-transmitting. A morning in a busy international office looked like an abandoned paper mill, having endless tape for all messages received the night before.

Typing long messages was slow, which led to use of abbreviation and telex lingo. Long before the texting crowd used the LOL, BFN or CU. Though not sure about the LOL.

With technology advances, memory and monitors replaced the paper tape, and the machines became quieter, almost bearable.  An attempt was made to hook a telex to a personal computer. There was a box the size of a toaster hooked to the PC via serial port. The written message was to be converted into ASCII, and thereafter it was left to the PC gods – it either worked, or most likely didn’t.

At the early 2000’s, although fax and email services were long in use, some telex services were still in place.

Early image transmitting machine
Early image transmitting 

The media moguls needed a way to communicate images together for printed news. Attempts to transmit such messages were made as from the late 1880’s, none were transformed into commercial use. As with the telex, developments of such had been made in several countries, each claimed to be first.  In the 1920’s several systems were used by the news agencies. All were based on similar concept, where an image was converted into conductive / non-conducive areas, where the black was conductive and vice versa. The image was attached to a rotating drum, where a moving stylus scanned the image. An eclectic circuit was closed where the stylus reached conductive point. At the remote end a blank paper mounted over a same size drum rotating at the same rate had a pen hovering over it, touching the paper where the circuit was closed to produce a back and white image, with some emulated gray-scale.

As with the early telegraph that were installed at rail stations, the telepictures were first installed at media offices. Further, systems developed by AT&T, Western Union, RCA and AP were incompatible, and there was no exchange system to convey messages outside the legacy systems. All that in the US. In Europe more incompatible systems added to the confusion. A news agency supporting several media offices needed a farm of telepicture equipment.

World war II saw advanced image transmitting equipment with the American forces, but scope and complexity, let alone costs, were yet far from allowing it to be commonly used.

Early Xerox telefax machine
Early Xerox telefax machine

Again, corporations around the globe researched, designed and built telefax systems, yet none reached maturity. At last, Xerox, the copier manufacturer, presented an equipment to handle distance image transmission. In essence this were two copiers subscribing to a connecting protocol over telephone wires. In 1964, when the Telecopier was presented, a typical copier was about the size of a washing machine, and weighed accordingly. A single page was sent at a whopping eight minutes. The ease of communication, allowing operation by a lay person, sending and receiving any scribble within minutes, made this a must-have requisite for any size office. An evidence to the new fax mania was its obligatory appearance in many era movies. With any office scene there was a fax at the background. It played special roll in crime movies where there was always a picture of the culprit slowly sliding out of a fax machine.

From own experience: in the early 80’s I was posted to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, which in turn is in East Africa. My head office was in Amsterdam. On a visit I was introduced to the new wonder, so I ordered one. It was shipped to Lusaka and duly placed in the office. It was Panasonic big as a suitcase, with a nice dotted display and array of buttons. All duly labeled. In Dutch. I say placed, as it was yet to be connected to the phone line. To explain, the telephone network was under government control, and in the post-colonial days’ communication was sort of stagnant. We employed some 500 people, and had to make do with two phone lines. Not even hunting.

In reality, there was no real need for more lines. Almost anyone you’d needed talk to was around the downtown core so you could meet for lunch. That, or you’ll see them after hours in the golf club or in one of the few restaurants frequented by expat. And anyway, what’s the rush – what’s wrong with a letter?  So we applied for an extra line, reason being: fax. The officials didn’t really understand what and why. Furthermore, you were not allowed to hook anything your heart desires to the network, it required a ‘type approval’ from the concerned ministry. Until that time only telephones were approved, meaning that if you brought a phone from home it required a permit to plug it in. I am not making this up.  So, a team of officials and engineers showed up in my office, carefully taking notes. After much research (?) done, we got a type approval “to connect the following equipment: Fax”.

However, an additional line we didn’t get. So we retorted to plan B, connecting to an existing line. Here we faced a hindrance, the machine spoke Dutch. Although working for a Dutch company, my Dutch vocabulary was limited to goedemorgen and bedankt. We had staff speaking Nyanja and Bemba, Hindi and Tamil, even one Polish speaker, but no Dutch. So I had do summon a friend from the Dutch embassy, who came and translated the prompts to civilized terms.
But the fax had a sense of humor.  Once Alphonse left, it present fresh prompts that were never seen before. So we asked him back, and managed to replicate some of the prompts, and some new ones.
Finally, we deciphered all the machine vocabulary, and were ready to dial, which we did. Once, and twice, and more, till the cows came home. To sum it up – I’d last seen this fax in 1988, and yet not sure if it ever shook hands with another.

Fax machines found their way to small offices and homes. By the dawn of the third millennia there were about 50,000,000 fax machines in use worldwide. The question ‘do you have a fax’ made way to ‘what is your fax number’. With more demand prices dropped to a consumable level.

Now the communications world was all roses, riding into the sunset. For the spoken word there was a telephone (still on the desk). For a written word the fax.

And then, one day clouds covered the sky. When the gods of finally blew it way, all was gone.

The email has arrived.





Live performance of  a late telex machine.


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