Immaculate Telegraphy

Immaculate Telegraphy was an experiment to build electronic communication from scratch in the wilderness. In summer of 2009, I set out in the mountains of western Montana without any modern tools or materials except information, and constructed a working electric telegraph from materials found on the ground. The experiment showed that electronic communication could have been constructed at any point in history given the right information.

This project was supported by the Eyebeam Honorary Residency, and hosted by the Johnson creek ranch.

7 minutes on how to build an electric telegraph in the wilderness, using nothing modern except information.

Here’s a composite of all the tools together, a sort of metal age electrician’s alphabet.Some people have viewed this project through the lens of sustainability. While self-sufficiency and locally sourced material would certainly seem to be sustainable, my methods fail quite spectacularly in environmental analysis. For one, I used an estimated 20 kg of charcoal to produce perhaps 20 g of metal. Much of this was wasted in the learning curve, but it was used just the same. This is a fuel to metal ratio of 1000:1. The worst modern metal process I am aware of, the Pidgeon process operating in China to produce magnesium with coal, has a ratio of 25:1, 4000% more efficient than my process. Sourcing charcoal from forest fire trees uses carbon that would probably end up in the air anyway, but this resource would run out so quickly if used on any scale. Moreover, I had zero emissions control. While roasting my copper ores, I directly vented all the gases being produced. The noxious sulphur dioxide, chief precursor to acid rain,  gagged me when I got too close. Moreover, I got sick twice after this phase of the process. At first I assumed this was from the sulphur, but after further reading, my symptoms more closely resembled mild arsenic poisoning. Arsenic is a heavy metal usually found in ores of copper that sublimates away during the roasting process. So I have to issue a “don’t try this at home” warning. The only way I can see this process being described as sustainable is that I was distracted from more effective activities of consumption for 6 weeks. But this is easily canceled out by the 3 round-trip cross-continental voyages taken to complete the project. Copper production on the island of Cyprus probably ended because of complete, and permanent, deforestation to make charcoal. In other words, more primitive or Earthy processes are not necessarily more sustainable. My project is about the origin of technologies- the ability for them to emerge out of context- but not their ability to sustain themselves.  A sustainable society is not really the most natural option; humans began as a nomads exhausting the resources of places and then moving on.  Maybe people in the future will look back on us just as we can look back on our predecessors, and see the answer to a lasting society lying on the ground all around us, just waiting to be put together with the right information.

Here’s a composite of all the tools together, a sort of metal age electrician’s alphabet.

Some people have viewed this project through the lens of sustainability. While self-sufficiency and locally sourced material would certainly seem to be sustainable, my methods fail quite spectacularly in environmental analysis. For one, I used an estimated 20 kg of charcoal to produce perhaps 20 g of metal. Much of this was wasted in the learning curve, but it was used just the same. This is a fuel to metal ratio of 1000:1. The worst modern metal process I am aware of, the Pidgeon process operating in China to produce magnesium with coal, has a ratio of 25:1, 4000% more efficient than my process. Sourcing charcoal from forest fire trees uses carbon that would probably end up in the air anyway, but this resource would run out so quickly if used on any scale. Moreover, I had zero emissions control. While roasting my copper ores, I directly vented all the gases being produced. The noxious sulphur dioxide, chief precursor to acid rain,  gagged me when I got too close. Moreover, I got sick twice after this phase of the process. At first I assumed this was from the sulphur, but after further reading, my symptoms more closely resembled mild arsenic poisoning. Arsenic is a heavy metal usually found in ores of copper that sublimates away during the roasting process. So I have to issue a “don’t try this at home” warning. The only way I can see this process being described as sustainable is that I was distracted from more effective activities of consumption for 6 weeks. But this is easily canceled out by the 3 round-trip cross-continental voyages taken to complete the project.
Copper production on the island of Cyprus probably ended because of complete, and permanent, deforestation to make charcoal. In other words, more primitive or Earthy processes are not necessarily more sustainable. My project is about the origin of technologies- the ability for them to emerge out of context- but not their ability to sustain themselves.  A sustainable society is not really the most natural option; humans began as a nomads exhausting the resources of places and then moving on.  Maybe people in the future will look back on us just as we can look back on our predecessors, and see the answer to a lasting society lying on the ground all around us, just waiting to be put together with the right information.

Here’s the last video from this session, showing the assembly of the telegraph. Step by step, I’ve shown how a person could have made an electronic technology without the aid of industry- and thus at any point in history. Of course, no one past modern times will ever need to do this, even in the event of complete social collapse; there will be so much metal and material lying around to repurpose. Human industry has had a significant impact on the landscape, and the boundary between natural and artificial origin would be an arbitrary distinction to future techno-scavengers. As I have said earlier, it also difficult to imagine someone in pre-modern times desiring this object, since it’s electronic effect is so subtle, and a group would need to adopt it together for it to become useful.

Really, my premise of creating a place outside history falls apart if it is subjected to much scrutiny. Mineral County Montana, where I executed the project, has plentiful metal ores. Most of the ores on the surface, however, have long been removed by people. I scavenged the piles left over from hard rock, pick axe and dynamite mines. Nowhere in this area could I find flint or sharp rocks needed to begin the project (200 miles away in Idaho’s craters of the moon was the closest) so I started the process making stone tools with non-local materials. This metal rich area is an unlikely site for a prehistoric internet because it was uninhabited. The Clark fork river valley barely had an Indian trail going through it in this area. It was tall, ancient trees and rocky cliffs, with little rainfall or game animals to hunt, probably beautiful but not hospitable.

Here’s a video of the successful smelting furnace in action. This technology was unquestionably the biggest barrier in the process. Once I had a fire hot enough to smelt copper, I was able to make iron in a couple extra days. The tiny little pocket of fire is about focus, I think- focusing the energy of charcoal and air to reach a temperature not found ordinarily in nature- in fact, probably the hottest sustained spot anywhere up to the radius between me and an industrial plant, a temperature beyond the scale of anything domestic or wild, probably only found naturally in magma and lightning. Creating these yellow fires, a transformative circumstance that doesn’t exist ordinarily, gave humans a leverage: we could create materials that had different properties than the things lying around us. I would like to convey that this is a really, really, powerful feeling. It made me feel like I could do anything. Of course, in the end, I came down from this buzz somewhat, once I realized I spent 6 weeks developing a skill set that was useless outside of the game I set up for myself. There is no reason for me to continue honing my metal age metallurgy; the experiment has only been useful in offering perspective, for myself and hopefully others.

Here you can see the voltage generated when the switch is closed, outputing to a voltmeter. .36 volts isn’t much, but it proves the concept. I was getting .7 earlier, but it drops as the potato slices dry out. To get a more useful voltage I would simply need to rinse, lather, and repeat, so to speak. Smelt more copper, forge more iron, and make the pile taller. Of course, at some point I would come to a crucial understanding: one person cannot build an electronic communication network by themselves, because you need at least two people to communicate. I have a switch, but no one to receive a signal, no cooperation to build a wire network to connect them, no one to learn a system of signals with. Even if one paleolithic person was bestowed with the knowledge I gathered over the past months, they would need to convince a group to participate. I suspect this is as great a barrier as anything. Even Morse’s telegraph in 1850 was mocked in congress as a conjuring trick.
I’ll be posting the video of the second session’s activities sometime this week, as well as some more documentation and musings. I’ll be thinking of what to do with my alternate industrial legacy, hopefully I can show it somehow. Thanks to everyone who followed and offered support along the way. Thanks especially to Elizabeth Wanda Filardi for coming out on the first session, creating all the video and media and calming down my inner caveman. Big thanks to Eyebeam for supporting the project through their honorary residency, and the Johnson Creek Ranch for hosting it and feeding me good, non-paleolithic food.

Here you can see the voltage generated when the switch is closed, outputing to a voltmeter. .36 volts isn’t much, but it proves the concept. I was getting .7 earlier, but it drops as the potato slices dry out. To get a more useful voltage I would simply need to rinse, lather, and repeat, so to speak. Smelt more copper, forge more iron, and make the pile taller. Of course, at some point I would come to a crucial understanding: one person cannot build an electronic communication network by themselves, because you need at least two people to communicate. I have a switch, but no one to receive a signal, no cooperation to build a wire network to connect them, no one to learn a system of signals with. Even if one paleolithic person was bestowed with the knowledge I gathered over the past months, they would need to convince a group to participate. I suspect this is as great a barrier as anything. Even Morse’s telegraph in 1850 was mocked in congress as a conjuring trick.

I’ll be posting the video of the second session’s activities sometime this week, as well as some more documentation and musings. I’ll be thinking of what to do with my alternate industrial legacy, hopefully I can show it somehow. Thanks to everyone who followed and offered support along the way. Thanks especially to Elizabeth Wanda Filardi for coming out on the first session, creating all the video and media and calming down my inner caveman. Big thanks to Eyebeam for supporting the project through their honorary residency, and the Johnson Creek Ranch for hosting it and feeding me good, non-paleolithic food.

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