[This was written several months ago but just posted now due to my laziness and a requirement to get the OK from my company legal department. I managed to get the later long before I overcame the former.]
I’ve always loved the telegraph. Perhaps it’s because I’m 100 years old (as my wife always reminds me) but there’s just something soothing about the tappa tappa tappa sound of a telegraph at work.
I also love Twitter. I know, I know – a flash in the pan stupid fad for self-indulgant assholes – but still, I’ve actually managed to make a lot of friends (or at the very least least strong acquaintances) via Twitter and that’s important to me as someone who has an incredibly difficult time meeting people and making friends.
So, says I whilst drinking a beer and mulling over life’s problems, what if I married the two things into one beast? Superficially the two mechanisms already carry a lot of similarities. Specifically, they’re both suited for short directionless (or directed insofar as the message contents will allow) blurbs. With this in mind, I began to plan.
First, what do use for the device itself. On the backend I figured Arduino/Processing was a no-brainer but for the device I wasn’t so sure. My initial thought was to simply hook up a Piezo buzzer and a push button but that didn’t appeal to me. If I went that route the resulting construction would be interesting for a moment but then disassembled. I wan’t something authentic, something attractive. Basically I wanted a real honest to god Morse telegraph machine in my living room chittering away at me whenever someone @mentioned me on Twitter.
I hit eBay and discovered that authentic, working telegraph equipment from the turn of the century was actually relatively easy to come by at a reasonable price. I found a vendor in Arizona that had a multitude of options to choose from. There were standalone telegraph keys, sounders, and even pairs all of which were in restored and working condition. Again my laziness attempted to assert itself. All I really wanted was the sounder, right? Well, kind of. I don’t know Morse code and my prime motivation was to have the sounder as a curiosity in my living room. But if I went and only did half the job I’d regret it in the end. With this criteria in mind I narrowed my search to key/sounder pairs and started bidding. My first auction was a bust with the price rising well above my comfort level. The second attempt was successful – I secured a J.H. Bunnell sounder and key (which appears to be identical to the one produced in 1881 as found on the J.H Bunnell website).
My second stop was Sparkfun. Sparkfun is a dangerous place. You go there with a particular goal in mind and yet when it comes time to check out you’ve found you need to re-mortgage the house. Dangerous, dangerous place. Anyhoo, on the electronics side I wanted to be a bit clever. As I mentioned I wanted this to sit in our living room somewhere. The device would need to be connected to a computer and we don’t have one there (and dont want to put one there). I began considering my wireless options – Bluetooth and XBee. Bluetooth could be handier (perhaps interfacing with one of my BlackBerries) but it might be more expensive and by all accounts it’s a pain in the arse to work with. On the other hand XBee is affordable, has a handy shield available for Arduino, and seems easier to develop for. Plus, I like bees. My decision was made: an Arduino UNO, XBee shield, 2 XBee radios, an XBee USB interface for the computer, and a wall wart for power. Oh, and a whole bunch of other awesome stuff I didn’t need for this project. Any other bits and bobs I felt confident I could find at the local electronics store.
Now… the waiting game. The Sparkfun order managed to arrive in my hands before the shipping notification email was even sent (I see you’ve mastered time travel Sparkfun. Good. Very good) but I’m still waiting on the telegraph. This does nothing to sooth my impatience. Without the hardware in hand I set about working on the software… which is where I’ll have to stop for the time being. I’ll need to get the OK from the company lawyers to talk about the software or release anything resembling source code. You never know – there could be valuable IP to be derived from modern applications of 150 year old technology. Wait, what?
See also: TweetTelegraph – Part 2 (XBee Hardware), TweetTelegraph – Part 3 (Telegraph Hardware), TweetTelegraph – Part 4 (Software)