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Victorian Twitter: Microblogging and the Telegraph

Twitter has much more in common with telegraphy than it does with either broadcast media or with text messaging.
The Economist | 16.02.2012
A NASCENT industry links up ever larger networks into what becomes a global communications web. A relatively small group of experts then uses this web to dispatch short, condensed messages across the world. This, in a nutshell, is the story not just of microblogging and Twitter, but also of the telegraph. The 19th-century's Morse key was replaced in the 20th by the telephone (which is, in a sense, less efficient since the telegraph's format was inimical to rambling). Telephones required more wires but no real expertise, like being proficient at Morse code. Short text communications languished for 100 years.

As a consequence, Twitter has much more in common with telegraphy than it does with either broadcast media or with text messaging, with which it was initially designed to be compatible. This affinity is what inspired Martin Kaltenbrunner, at the Linz University of Arts, to create a functional, albeit obsolete, bit of kit. His Tworse Key project mixes open-source code and gorgeous gubbins. Plug the Tworse Key into a computer via an ethernet cable and let it find the internet. Tap away in Morse code, and the system converts messages into text and posts them via a Twitter account. The demonstration is wired to @tworsekey. (Your correspondent was alerted to the Tworse by a 24-year-old friend conversant in Morse code. No, you read that right; her family is full of "hams"—amateur radio operators.)

Mr Kaltenbrunner's aim was to build and document the operation of a bundle of software and hardware licensed on open-source terms. The idea was to give his students an example of how to create such projects. The key relies on Arduino, an open-source prototyping platform that has in the past few years spurred experimentation with hardware on a scale unseen since the home-electronics fad of the 1970s and 1980s, in which Babbage participated.

The Interface Culture programme at Linz examines the link between humans and computers by crafting working technological artefacts that are not necessarily designed with commercial production in mind. The required mix of functionality and aesthetics means that a student must be part engineer and part artist, vocations that rarely cross paths in normal curricula. The programme, which offers a master's degree, is conducted in English. "We can afford to create useless projects," Mr Kaltenbrunner says, "so maybe in the long run we can produce new ideas."

He encourages his students to publish their work so that the ideas spread more quickly. His pedagogical example is meant to inspire: the Tworse Key is lovingly constructed of gleaming gears and other titbits, and installed on a wooden box that hides a circuit board. The ethernet cable is wrapped in cloth for that classic feel.

The American Radio Relay League, the country's amateur radio association, has been in touch about including the Tworse Key in a book spotlighting projects that "hams" might build. The ability to tap Morse code at a rate of at least five words per minute was a requirement for a basic amateur-radio licence for 95 years, dropped in 2007. Mr Kaltenbrunner confesses that he knows just five letters by heart and must convert text to Morse code via a website before tweeting with Tworse. His next project is to learn the whole obsolete alphabet.
About the author: The Economist