Could the world’s first laptop be 150 years old?

Communication is key. Proper communication can keep a business’ doors open and keep its clients happy. It can prevent disasters and can lead to victory on the battlefield. Communication in the military is important as battlefield assets need to get where they are going at the time that they are scheduled to arrive. Powerful desktop, laptop and tablet computers allow the instantaneous transfer of information so generals down to privates can in theory know exactly what is going on. Today it is done via radio or the Internet. 150 years ago generals were not so lucky.

The American Civil War ushered in many new technologies. Wooden ships became obsolete in March of 1862 when the U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia squared off against each other in Hampton Roads. Two years later the C.S.S. Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in world history when it sunk the U.S.S. Housatonic in Charleston Harbor. While many of the armies still traveled using wagons and their own two feet the railroad was utilized to transport soldiers and supplies over the nation’s vast rail network, sometimes with decisive results. Combat photography brought images of the war home to a curious and soon to be shocked public. Repeating rifles increased the firepower of the infantry and while it only saw limited service in the war Richard Gatling’s new gun was the world’s first machine gun. Balloons allowed for aerial observation and the telegraph allowed for real time information to be received on the battlefield.

The telegraph itself was not new. Samuel Morse’s invention had been in use since 1837 but it’s military use was new. Both armies carried miles of telegraph cable and the equipment to patch into existing telegraph lines and both armies utilized the telegraph to its maximum capacity. It allowed for orders and situation reports to be transmitted in seconds for a real-time view of the battlefield. No more miles-long ride by a courier that could be shot or get lost, at least in theory.

To operate the telegraph electricity was required and batteries were used to charge and sync the system. By pressing the small lever impulses were sent along the line and by sending different combinations of dots and dashes (Morse Code) a message could be sent. The downside was that a skilled operator was required to both sent and receive the message.

An inventor named George Beardslee sought to change that. He devised a system that would not need the cumbersome batteries that Morse’s system needed. A hand turned magneto would provide the electrical power. What was more important was the system he developed for transmission. A dial on the device with each letter of the alphabet was used to both send and transmit messages and was capable of transmission of about 5 words per minute. The devices would be synced and would have a range of about 10 miles. Once synced when the dial was moved on the sending device it would move on the receiving device as well. It allowed for the same instantaneous communication but now anyone that was able to read the alphabet could operate it. It also came in a compact box and was extremely portable. Could this have been the world’s first laptop?

The Beardslee Telegraph was adopted by the Union army in 1862. It saw use during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862 and the Battles of Fredericksburg in December of 1862 and Chancellorsville in May of 1863. At Fredericksburg it provided the Union commander Ambrose Burnside with real time information from across the Rappahannock River when fog obscured his view which made signal flags useless.

There were drawbacks that could not be overcome that lead to its demise. Its transmission rate was too slow. By the time an operator would spell out a word a message could be sent by a regular operator. When an operator came under fire this proved to be a huge drawback as they found it hard to concentrate on sending a message with bullets whizzing by. It was also found to not be practical to use on a single circuit which lead to a mess of wires and intricate planning was required to set it up. Maintenance was also a headache. The man who adopted it for military use, Albert Meyer, believed that it would be practical in a fixed environment and would only be improved upon.

The exigencies of the Union army could not wait for new developments and removed the Beardslee from service in the fall of 1863. Only its insulated wire and poles were kept in service and today the devices are extremely rare. They are to some degree devices well ahead of their times and one has to wonder about the possibilities had the device been allowed to mature rather than just simply scrapping it.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top