Building a telegraph out of stone-age materials

In this episode, artist Jamie O'Shea from Substitute Materials shows how you can build a telegraph from materials that were readily available 50,000 years ago: "It's the ultimate salvagepunk experiment, a DIY exploration of what makes innovation possible, and an attempt to prove that the future could happen at any time (even if the world isn't always ready for it)."

Video: Immaculate Telegraphy: How One Man Built a Telegraph Using Only Stone Age Materials (Thanks, Zorca, via Submitterator!)


  1. Ummm … that’s a voltaic cell, not a telegraph. I was really psyched to see a stone age telegraph, so the potato battery cop out was a huge disappointment. Need a unicorn postmodern-artist-woo chaser.

    1. The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne has a good explanation for how to get a working telegraph from what he made in the video. Once you have working electrical sources, it’s not a big step up from that to a telegraph system.

  2. Put the Mythbusters on this; they’ll probably have a functioning stone-age internet within a week.

  3. Wow, he invented the resistor. He should have gone whole-hog and claimed to invent television or the Internet instead of just a telegraph.

  4. Granted, he did things I didn’t even realize could be done, but I was sorely disappointed. From having to use the lighter, to using the voltmeter. Is that what was making the beep? If so, this wasn’t even close to making a telegraph. How would you connect one telegraph to another? The “technology” existed 50,000 years ago to make a very very long telegraph wire?

  5. It’s nice how he spent his time doing research on how to do this.

    Perhaps a different video title: ‘If some cataclysmic event occurs that wipes all technology out, at least all is not lost’

    In regards to his art, it’s same as every time I saw an artist approach technology, it was something that regular people admired, but anyone with any kind of technical knowledge was looking at the things, holding their heads and thinking ‘what a waste of money’.

  6. You need wires in order to make a network. That’s really the difficult bit. Also, they didn’t have battery-operated multimeters in neolithic times, so you’d need some other way of turning that tiny bit of current into an observable signal. That’s the other difficult bit.

  7. This reminds me of this Joe Rogan joke from one of his standups where he’s talking about preserving all the smart people.

    “If I drop you off in the woods with a hatchet, how long before you can send me an email?

  8. A battery is cool. Kind of low-hanging fruit though.

    The impressive bit would be creating the wires to transmit the signal.

  9. Hasn’t *.punk pretty much run it’s course as flagbearer for edgy design neologisms? At this rate, the inevitable steampunk revival scheduled for 5 year from now will be forced into the world with the unfortunate tag of ‘steampunkpunk’, and no amount of unicorns or double rainbows will be able to rinse that from our palates.

  10. Cool idea – I wonder how you would go about making a magnet and coil? I’m not sure how a telegraph would be possible without these.

    1. I wonder how you would go about making a magnet and coil?

      If you have a current source and a coil you’ve already got the makings of a magnet.

      I’d be interested to see someone work copper into usable wire starting with stone-age tools.

      Fat wire wouldn’t be too difficult I suppose, but I’d guess it would eat through a voltaic pile at a rate that would make routine operation extremely costly.

      Maybe an alternator would be a better option, since it can get started with a small field current and then self-generate the required power from mechanical input (a water wheel for example) without requiring constant maintenance of the voltaic pile.

  11. Yeah, I don’t know where all the hate is coming from on this one. I know he didn’t cobble together an entire network, but he pulled everything he needed to make a battery right out of the ground and then used found natural materials he to construct it. That’s pretty goddam impressive.

  12. Sorry for the string of posts in a row.

    The amount of traveling around he had to do to get all the materials is interesting. It seems to me that this has some impact on the idea that this technology could be brought to practical reality 50,000 years ago.

    I’m not sure what the trade systems looked like then. I gather there is some evidence for world-wide copper trade as early as 5000 years ago, but 50,000 seems like a stretch, that’s /at least/ 40,000 years before the copper age. Even if you could tell traveling traders what you wanted, who knows when you might be able to get it.

    As Mr. O’Shea has observed, this isn’t something one can create by oneself. Beyond the obvious point of needing someone to talk to, after the projects of developing the manufacturing techniques and deploying the system, there are operational issues to consider, such as the cost of consumables, telegraph wire maintenance (you’re going to need a big crew to walk those lines and knock down the vegetation), creation of a customer base to justify all the effort, etc.

    His point that the telegraph technology could be created from natural materials at most any point in history is, IMO, fairly obvious. That a working system could be built with the civilization in place 50,000 years ago I think is probably not realistic.

  13. …if by stone age materials he means raw materials, then, yes. raw materials from the earth, PLUS 21st century knowledge and the capacity to very quickly and cheaply search virtually all of it (via internet).

    1. I think that the ‘plus knowledge’ part is the ‘what if’ premise of the exercise.

      Think of it like taking a random sample of a hundred thousand or so 21st century people and transporting them 50,000 years into the past and giving them each a ‘Quantum Leap’ style sidekick who lives in the future and can look up whatever knowledge is required (except maybe known locations of various resources) What could be accomplished by those people?

      Assuming they don’t starve to death, die of exposure or disease, or kill each other off fighting for who gets to control the government, I would guess they could have something resembling 1850-ish New York City (in tech and organization if not size) within about 20 years.

      They would likely have utterly destroyed or enslaved any existing native populations through superior firepower and military strategy. Agriculture would progress much faster, given modern knowledge about plant breeding and land usage.

      They’d likely have radio in 10 years (less if it was high priority, they could probably get a few custom-built spark transceivers going in 2 years if it was necessary for military purposes) and discrete transistor computers within 40 years.

      I think the biggest challenges would be government and planning. Developing technology from established knowledge is easy. I’d think that it would be far harder to get a functioning society going so that they would have the stability necessary to develop and deploy the technology. Imagine how hard it would be just to get them to agree to some kind of legal system!

  14. For someone who is so very interested in memory, he doesn’t seem to think very highly of knowledge. Not all tools can be held in the hand.

  15. It’s easy, the bitter comments come from the video not delivering. And rightly so, ‘Bait and Switch’ is BS.

  16. I think the dude sums it up well at the end: it’s PROOF OF CONCEPT.

    Using materials available to any stone age traveler he was able to smelt iron and copper and construct a battery and switch. Awesome! It is not a huge stretch to imaging smelting more copper and banging out some basic copper rod or thick rough wire.

    If this dude was suddenly transported 50k years into the past he could totally make a telegraph. Short range, sure, like from a watch tower to a valley below it or something. Yet even this would totally give you enough advance warning to throw rocks at those damn time-traveling Scientologists lizard-people coming at you with their e-meters.

  17. Proof of concept? Here’s a proof of concept for you. Every piece of technology we have is ultimately made from materials that existed on the planet 50,000 years ago, or 500 million years for that matter. The materials only matter if you don’t have them (e.g., needing uranium but you’re stuck on Fiji – wait, just invent the clipper ship first!). Knowing what to do with them and having the necessary infrastructure is all.

    Basically he’s shown that you can make a voltaic cell with one person, stone age infrastructure, a few hours of work, 19th century knowledge and attitude, and quite a few hours off-camera working out the details of how to do it from scratch. Which is interesting, just like the people recreating Stonehenge were, but hardly earthshaking.

    (Heh, just realized I’ve had “You Can Built a Spaceship from the Things You Find at Home” running through my head for the past five minutes.)

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