The First Car Phone Was The Civil War Telegraph Wagon

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It's always a tricky thing to try and pinpoint the first of anything. The first working automobile, the first powered flight, the first beer of the night — all these things are usually surrounded by an impenetrable haze of uncertainty and occasionally, vomit. Often we can make some pretty decent guesses, but this time I feel pretty confident in making an out-and-out statement of what I think is fact:

The first vehicles with on-board electrical communication systems were Civil War Telegraph Wagons.

That means those battery-crammed wooden wagons are the direct ancestor of cars with radios, radiophones, car phones, all the way down to you sitting in your car with your iPhone or whatever in your hand.

Let that sink in.

Now, I hadn't heard about Civil War telegraph wagons at all until a few days ago. And know that I can practically hear the chorus of spit-takes from here. "You're a functioning adult who hasn't thought about Civil War mobile telegraphy until a few days ago? How are you even alive?" is what I'm sure all of you are shrieking at your laptops, flecks of partially-masticated Croissan'Wich dappling your screen.


I know, I know. But I've made up for lost time, and what I've learned is quite fascinating. What makes these mobile telegraph wagons so interesting is that they're one of those rare technological artifacts that exist well before the technology was really ready for them, because the need certainly was ready. See, both the North and South had a great need to be able to communicate while in the field. Telegraphy allowed for nearly instantaneous communication, but in the 1860s the telegraph network, while well-developed, did not extend into every battlefield and rural wilderness that armies found themselves in.

This is, of course, the perfect use of radio/wireless technology. Sadly, wires were still the only game in town for another several decades, but when the need is strong enough, you can overlook certain inconvenient details. Details like having to use a mule with a spool of copper wire to lay down thousands of miles of telegraph wire so the mobile telegraph wagons could connect to the larger telegraph network, or to another telegraph wagon at the other end.


The actual vehicles that are the ancestors of all our on-line cars were called Telegraph Battery Wagons. Just like the cell phone of today, most of the internal volume was consumed by battery needs. Open your cell phone and you'll find that most of the interior is packed with a form-fitting rechargeable battery. Open one of these telegraph wagons, and you'll find the same thing is true, essentially. Almost all of the wagon was packed with batteries.


Now, keep in mind these aren't the nice, clean, not-scar-you-with-acids batteries we enjoy today. These were likely something closer to a crapload of acid-filled jars. Common telegraph batteries of the era were Daniell Cells, which were, too keep things exciting in a moving wagon, open-topped jars. Closed-jar lead-acid Leclanché batteries, one of the first rechargable battery cells, didn't come around until after the war in 1866.

These Daniell Cell batteries made about 1.1 V each, and the number of batteries needed to send a signal a given distance varied on the type of wire it was sending over. Some estimates give 2V per 20 miles, some much more. Even if we estimate 1V per 10 miles, that's a lot of bulky, leaky batteries to get a useful distance. An average load of batteries for a telegraph battery wagon seems to have been about 100 cells.


In addition to being packed with battery cells, these wagons also had a small area with a telegraph key and a place for a person, very often a civilian contractor, to operate it. This is the key part that makes these clunky wagons so significant. Telegraphs were the first commercial/mainstream use of anything electrical at all, and the placement of a telegraph set in a wagon makes this combination the first electric component in any vehicle, ever. Unless someone finds evidence of a mobile electroplating setup in an ancient Persian chariot, at least.


Since I'm already pretty wildly diverging from our usual motor-driven fare, I may as well keep going, because there's some interesting stuff here. These mobile telegraph wagons would link one another with miles and miles of wire, and then at other points link into the larger established telegraph network. This would allow both inter-camp instant communication and also communication with Washington (or a bit less commonly, Richmond).

Since telegraphs use just one wire with simple coded pulses sent over them, it was very easy to connect these lines — when you have only one wire to connect, it's tricky to get it wrong. That also means the Civil was was the birth of the first cyberwarfare, cyberespionage, and hacking. I'm taking some liberties on the use of "cyber" but you can argue that a virtual electrical, Morse-coded world was made by the telegraph network, and that's roughly analogous to the internet.


Hacking/eavesdropping lines was pretty easy. You'd send some soldier/telegrapher out to a quiet section of telegraph line, and they'd splice in their own wire linking to their own telegraph sounder. That's it. To help combat this, the Union and Confederate armies used two tactics: shoot anyone they saw doing this, and codes.

These codes are especially interesting. According to the Civil War Signals site, an effective Union cipher was to use nonsense words mixed in the real message, and key words would signal a matrix layout for the words, and the order the words were to be read and/or ignored. The resulting encoded messages sound like hilarious dada-poetry:

Washington, D.C.,July 15,1863
A.H. Caldwell, Cipher-operator, General Mead's Headquarters:

Blonde bless of who no optic to get an impression I madison-square Brown cammer Toby ax the have turnip me Harry bitch rustle silk adrian counsel locust you another only of children serenade flea Knox country for wood that awl ties get hound who was war him suicide on for was please village large bat Bunyan give sigh incubus heavy Norris on trammeled cat knit striven without Madrid quail upright martyr Stewart man much bear since ass skeleton tell the oppressing Tyler monkey.


"Ass skeleton?" "Tell the oppressing Tyler Monkey?" That's gold. Aside from providing pre-written content for the 1863 Manassas Poetry Slam, this code remained undeciphered by the end of the war.


So the next time you're driving and you fling your phone to the floor after seeing a cop drive past, take a moment and reflect how stunningly easy it is to communicate with anyone, anywhere, instantly. Pause and be grateful you're not driving a wooden-wheeled box crammed full of open glass jars of acid, trailing 100+ miles of uninsulated copper wire just so you can tell your mom that you can't talk now because you're driving.