The Beginning of Telecommunications: What About the Soup?

Long before widespread communication technologies, particularly the telegraph which came about in the 1830s, long-distance communication was dependent upon material mediums through which a message could be transmitted. Whether sending a letter, walking, riding horseback, or even travelling by train, communicating a message couldn’t be done without the presence of a physical carrier, in one form or another, to transport the idea across both space and time.

While the invention of the telegram was a groundbreaking innovation in the communication industry, the people of that time were extremely unfamiliar with this form of technology, and hence, struggled to understand how the physical medium carrying the message remains, while the information component is decoupled and sent elsewhere.

During the Frankel Prussian War of 1870, the mother of a frontline soldier approached the telegraph office to send a message to her son, wishing him to be safe and to eat his soup, before presenting to the telegrapher a jar of the broth to send alongside the message. While the message was able to be sent to the woman’s son, the jar of soup remained, with the woman struggling to understand how her physical message was able to be transmitted, yet not the physical jar of soup – “What about the soup?”.

Despite the humour found in this interaction nowadays, this service and technology was completely unfamiliar and new to the people of that time. Arguably, the invention of the telegraph was even more confronting than that of the internet in the 1960s, as it was the very first instance where a message or idea was able to be detached from the physical medium carrying it, and transmitted at incredible speeds across space and time.

2 thoughts on “The Beginning of Telecommunications: What About the Soup?

  1. Clear, concise, and great use of the famous story.

    I would also add that because the invention of the telegraph was a technology so incomprehensible and caused such a drastic shift, it is reasonable to conclude that we are living, not in the digital age, but in the ‘telegraph age’. Or maybe the ‘age without matter’. Either way, your story is excellent.

    Notably, however, it doesn’t address today directly. A concluding statement about where it leaves us could wrap it up more succinctly.

    Awesome way of explaining and exploring it though! It has given me ideas for my own post…


  2. Great blog! Both our posts focused on the idea of the transport of information that’s been extracted from the physical. It’s worth mentioning that the complexities of this concept are still something we deal with today (e.g. trying to explain cloud storage to older generations). Furthermore, while these messages are delivered, separated from the original physical material, to receive them, sender and receiver must share technologies and therefore, be connected to “the network”. I love the way you’ve tied the future with the past using the baby Yoda – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that meme.

    Liked by 1 person

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