The Languages of Telegraphy

The Languages of Telegraphy

In a world of over 7,000 languages, humans’ ability to communicate successfully across the globe seems an improbable miracle. For many centuries, translation and interpretation was an infrequent problem, encountered only by the intrepid explorer, traveling diplomat, or soldier in a far-away land. Most people stayed in their small area speaking their local dialect, and the idea of a foreign language was, well, foreign. However, colonialism and the construction of telegraph systems made the world a lot smaller and enabled rapid communication between far-flung corners of the globe. Solutions were needed to facilitate successful communication and ensure the clarity of messages.

The Marconi Code

Brevity was of great importance in telegraph messages so codes were created to shorten words and phrases so that they could be transmitted more quickly. Various codes were in circulation, with different companies creating their own codes, for efficiency or for secrecy! One such code was the Marconi International Code, named after Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor credited with the invention of the first commercially successful wireless telegraphy system. The Marconi Code was detailed in large volumes (copies of which can be found in PK’s archives) and explained in nine languages, but the code remains the same across every language, which was important for its international use. Each word or phrase corresponds to a series of letters making up the code, for example ‘Board of Trade’ is ASSAG and ‘harbour’ is FYTOF. The book contains detailed information for transmitters and receivers on constructing and decoding messages sent in this code, and how to correctly interpret erroneous messages. These books were used by Marconi Wireless operators across the whole world. 

The Titanic disaster uses SOS and CQD distress signals

Probably the most famous use of a Marconi Company code signal was during the Titanic disaster of 1912. Although SOS had been adopted as the international Morse code distress signal in 1906, CQD, the signal used by Marconi wireless operators was still widely used by British ships. Therefore, the Titanic’s radio operator sent CQD, the old distress signal, before the junior operator half-joked that it might be their last chance to use the new SOS, after which he alternated between the two. The signal CQD has an interesting history as it comes from the signal ‘CQ’ (sécu from the French sécurité) which was used by land telegraphers as an alert signal and then by maritime telegraphers as a ‘general call’ to ships and land stations. The Marconi Company added a ‘D’ to make CQD meaning All Stations: Distress.

The RMS Titanic British Passenger Liner

The Marconi Map

Drawn in 1917 for use alongside the Marconi codebooks, this map shows the volumes that would be of most use for operators in different parts of the world due to the language spoken there. Each country is colour-coded to show the language and therefore codebook needed, so it offers a valuable insight into the linguistic makeup of the world. It is interesting to note it is primarily European languages that are represented in the codebooks, and the suggested language in colonised countries is unsurprisingly that of the primary coloniser, and not of the local language, even if this is more widely spoken. The correlation between colonialism and language use is particularly striking when the Marconi Map is viewed alongside the Daily Mail World Map of War and Commerce, also from 1917, which shows the possessions of many empires (although it excludes some territories of countries such as Spain and Portugal as they were neutral in WW1).

The Marconi Map and Code books held in PK’s archives give a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the telegraph: not the cables, wireless transmitters, and electrical equipment that we are used to seeing, but the messages themselves, and the complex web of codes and languages used in global communications.


This article was researched by and written by Hannah Reeves.

Hannah is a recent graduate of Exeter University and Citizen Curator at Porthcurno

This blog was created as a part of our Digital Takeover Day 2021. To explore more articles from our Young Curators, Citizen Curators & International Volunteers head to our #digitaltakeover NEWS page.

The Languages of Telegraphy
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