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This question is inspired by the answer for another question.

What changes in technological development after the World War 2 could have led the telex machines to be more popular than telephones, worldwide (especially in underdeveloped countries), by 1980?

Transmitting a small message from a punched tape, using Radioteletype, would have been much cheaper, and much more affordable for poorer people in underdeveloped countries, than using telephones. Some technological development could have enabled it. What are the most scientifically plausible scenarios where this could have happened?

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    $\begingroup$ When and where was sending a Telex message cheaper than making a phone call? (And most people vastly prefer to speak instead of writing. Textphones were available in most countries for use by deaf people, but they were not at all popular outside their niche.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 12, 2020 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ I'd really question that bit about most people preferring to speak. A bit of searching suggests that these days people spend more time texting than voice calling, e.g. paldesk.com/why-do-people-rather-text-than-talk $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Sep 12, 2020 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ How will you deal with the fact that less than 10% of communication is by word, most of it being tone, pace and gesture? That's compounded by Telex, fax and even text being neither real-time medium nor even duplex, while phone is both Telex - and fax - were in use before WWII but the machinery is more expensive, and need Users both to write - which most don't handle well - and - Telex, anyway - type; ditto. One might ask what lack of or hindrance to development could make Telex more popular but since the technology is the same, how are you not on a hiding to nothing? $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ PS: That bit about most people preferring to speak holds true despite the obvious fact that people spend more time texting… Partly that's because many contracts make txt free… Partly that's because txt is much more about me, me, me than phone is. Partly that's because huge parts of tele-traffic is between teenage girls who wouldn't touch a Telex even if it didn't threaten their fingernails. They clearly qualify as "real people" legally, yet also tend to distort the demographics. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 20:24

9 Answers 9

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Western Union sets up Japanese or Chinese offices after WW2.

With a US occupation force in Japan after the WW2, this could've even been ordered by the US president.

The ITA2 system (from 1924 onwards) had 5 bits per character, and was really only suitable for the English language and those sharing its alphabet, it had 2 channels of 32 characters, one for A-Z, and one for numbers/symbols, giving an effective alphabet of about 60 characters. Other languages had to encode their characters in English, eg "Æ" -> "AE", or have their own local standard (Germany in the 1930s had their own standard incorporating Ä, Ö, Ü and ß/ss).

Japan and China couldn't use it efficiently, as their written language has many characters. Thousands. This is where the fax machine came from — Japan couldn't use the telex system with their complex alphabet.

Had Western Union set up offices in Japan or China, their language would've necessitated an extension to the telex standard. You'd basically get a team at Western Union doing a Unicode-like project and rolling out UTF-8-ish (or something in the same vein, probably a dynamic code page shift or something for maximum efficiency) in the 1950s.

Going to the effort to include all Japanese and Chinese characters you might as well include (or at least allow room for growth for) all the other Asian scripts, Russian characters, etc.

Then all the effort that went into the fax machine would've gone into the telex network.

We came so close, they had even invented a keyboard for this:
enter image description here

Close-up:

enter image description here

(Source)

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    $\begingroup$ Informative. But (1) How is this cheaper than telephones? (2) If this was indeed so easy, the Soviets, the Japanese, the Chinese, or even either of the Koreans could have done it. Why is it done by a company from Anglosphere in your scenario? (3) Since this predates ASCII, the choice of UTF-8 (where punctuations and modern numerals are catagorised as Basic Latin) is counter-intuitive. Why not multiple code pages? Or UTF-16? Also, most importantly for this scenario to be plausible, were households with telex machines more common than those with landlines, in Anglosphere in OTL? $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ Would you post the source for those images? I want to read up. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 12, 2020 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk I can't remember where I first heard that the fax motivation was the difficulty in using telex, but those images came from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_input_method . Also see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telex en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baudot_code $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2020 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ 1) Only with ecconomies of scale would it be cheaper, but audio is lossy and the potential for a misheard word could drive people to the more precise telexing. 2) I feel it makes sense as Western union was setting up a telex network in the 1950's, and Japan was under occupation, but anyone else could've done it, this is one potential scenario of many. 3) I tied it back to a modern concept, I did actually say "something like a dynamic code page shift", as every bit counted in this period and UTF-8 can be wasteful with Asian characters, setting a code page would be more efficient. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2020 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ 4) No, but a lot of businesses, (and then houses) in the Anglosphere had a fax machine. My childhood home had a fax machine in the 90s. If that R&D had gone into the telex rather than the fax, the telex could of stuck around until email. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 12, 2020 at 14:16
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Digital telegraphy gets an earlier start.

  1. 1943 - The Colossus Computer is invented. This is the first digital computer and is used to break codes.

timeline diverges..

  1. It is realized that multiple Colossi working in parallel can greatly reduce the time for computation, and the redundancy also reduces the impact of mechanical failures. The parallel Colossi must communicate with each other and their language is binary. Binary radio communication is established to link the computers.

  2. Binary computers can do more than solve math problems. With light speed radio communication and redundant brains, computers model complex events and even direct real time operations in the real world. The year is 1955.

  3. Much of the binary bandwidth established for these computers is not used at all times, and is available for other functions. Sending binary text messages is an obvious use. Civilian and other human to human communication is sent using the same binary radio channels, and results in a telex like message when the binary is translated to characters. They can be any characters and in fact are. Nonlatin characters find their way into the Latin alphabet, initially serving specialized purposes but then being incorporated into words. The same is true for languages using non-Latin alphabets. Except for Greek which somehow still stays pure; they have practice at that.

  4. For all intents and purposes, the Internet comes into being by 1969. Computers rule the world in a way that would not be seen in our timeline for another 30 years. Text messages descend directly from telex and become the standard mode of communication. Spoken word telephones are a charming anachronism.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is also an excellent answer. Thanks a lot! If this answer is developed into a transnational cybernetics race between Victor Glushkov and Stafford Beer one one side, and Tommy Flowers and Bob Taylor on the other, that would be an awesome alternate history fiction. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like using an encrypted radio link to connect two computers designed to break encrypted radio communications is going to be an uphill battle. Especially as keeping the codebreaking efforts secret was a major strategic concern. Besides which, it's probably more efficient to parallelize at a higher level - instead of two computers each crunching half the data about one message, have each one work on a separate message. The throughput is the same and it's a lot less hassle to coordinate. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Sep 13, 2020 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence - interesting speculations. A radio link transmitting machine language will probably not be much use to persons who listen in. I think if you team up on a message you will get that solution quicker and in wartime quicker can be important. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 13, 2020 at 2:35
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Essentially you'd have to invent most of the modern cell phone: an input system and display that doesn't depend on mechanical devices printing things on paper. This was basically the email system of the 1990s. Had cell phones not been developed, a more widespread email system linked to "phones" could have easily replaced a lot of calling. Indeed, it did displace a lot of voice calling in university & commercial environments where everyone had ready access to a computer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. Why a "display that doesn't depend on mechanical devices printing things on paper"? If it is cheap enough, a small slip of paper being printed with the message would be nice. It even enables asynchronous communication. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Jayadevan Vijayan: Because the printing is complex, error prone, and uses lots of consumables. Just ask anyone who dealt with line printers in say the mid to late 1980s, when full-screen text editors were displacing printouts. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Sep 12, 2020 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ Could "monochrome LCD character display" be cheaper than OTL, in 1960s or 1970s? $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 4:39
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It would have taken cheap telex terminals that could be placed on every desk.

In real life, I have had the choice between sending a telex or making a phone call. I had a phone on my desk, but would have to take a telex message to a central communications office. Unless there was some complication such as international calling and time zone differences, it was much quicker and easier to use the phone.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. But any technology which can radically make teleprinter terminals cheaper than telephone devices would have tilted the situation in favour of teleprinters. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ Telex does not need to be cheaper than phone, just comparable cost. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ Noting the introduction of Minitel in France in the 1980s, and its enduring popularity, I think an interesting question is whether there's any possible technology which could have built a teleprinter cheaply enough before the invention of the microprocessor in the 1970s. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 9:55
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Encryption declassified

Telex was how the Lorenz machines communicated.

After WWII, the Lorenz and Enigma encoders were kept classified, as was the work of Bletchley Park. Some documents are still not available, but it is widely suspected that these were given to friendly nations who had no crypto themselves, as a "good enough" solution to get them up and running. (And of course a solution the British and Americans could break.)

Suppose this didn't happen, and the existence of Lorenz became widely known. Companies used telexes extensively for vital information, and there was always the problem of sending in the clear. Widespread military-grade crypto would have been adopted immediately.

From there, all it needs is someone to see that it doesn't want to be printed on paper tape, it can go on a display. That could be multi-segment Nixie tubes, one of the new CRTs, or something. Once you remove the paper tape, it becomes a mechanism people can use to chat directly. Remember that we have perfectly good phones today - and we still often use text chat.

It may not replace phones, but it will certainly get widespread adoption and heavy use, just as text chat has since it first came around.

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  • $\begingroup$ "That could be multi-segment Nixie tubes, one of the new CRTs, or something." Any plausible suggestion? Could "monochrome LCD character display" be cheaper than OTL, in 1960s or 1970s? $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 4:37
  • $\begingroup$ @JayadevanVijayan Those seem plausible! :) Another possibility I thought of was a mechanical version of the "starburst" LED/LCD character pattern. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Sep 13, 2020 at 8:31
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An obsessive need for a permanent record.

You need a trained person to translate it, and so either to learn it yourself (at the expense of at least time and probably money) or to pay someone else to do it. It's slower than the telephone. Its only possible advantage is that you can preserve the tape.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. I was expecting something technological, like some technology which could make telex machines cheaper and more affordable, and which could have been developed had such a research been funded. It would be insightful if you can share some knowledge about of some research project which was not funded, but which could have revolutionised telex had it been funded. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 15:02
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The main driver for a popular telex system would have been the price of copper. Copper was required for telephone lines but radio transmission of telexes avoided this.

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  • $\begingroup$ I may be missing something, but why would radio transmission of voice be ruled out in that case? $\endgroup$
    – IMSoP
    Sep 13, 2020 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ @IMSoP the same reason mobile phones only came into power with digital transmission. radio doesn't scale without digital -- you can only transmit one voice on one frequency, everybody else has to listen, or interrupt. so radio broadcasts work, millions of individual conversations don't $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Sep 14, 2020 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ That feels like a missing link in your answer then: with a shortage of copper, radio frequencies would be at a premium, and that premium would drive up the cost of voice communication relative to encoding text. Text transmission over radio still has the same fundamental limitation as voice transmission, it just runs into it much slower because it uses much less bandwidth. $\endgroup$
    – IMSoP
    Sep 14, 2020 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @IMSoP exactly. that's not my answer though :) $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Sep 14, 2020 at 12:17
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Your want a tech approach so that is what I will give you. A lot of World War Two era tech was actually made out of stamped sheet metal which was used in earlly mechanical calculators. Multistampe to form shapes and die cutting to cut out the parts. Now change that to happenning 60 years earlier and throw in some dicoveries that happened to late to really affect that industry. Using advance methods light is directed onto a mask to etch very precise dies for mass production stamping of sheet metal parts.Throw in a henry ford type character around 1870's that comes up with the model T of telex and have radio communication ealier. Then mess up the development of the telephone. The original telephone developed by bell had a serious issue with the microphone. Edison was hired to make a new improved version of the microphone. Have that never happen and no one either figure it out or have the answer expensive. So cheap tough telex machines are everywhere and telephones are a neat novelty where you try and figure out what whoever is on the other side is saying. As it is it took moch longer for radios that could be developed to be able to handle voice so that could still be a issue as well. The early marconi tech was strictly morse only even though phones had been around awhile by then.

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An answer for current times: how about some sort of pandemic that induces deafness. If a substantial portion (20%?) of the population, especially older adult population (those with the money) were deaf, telex would soon become more popular, particularly if discrimination laws were passed mandating that any business with a telephone also had a telex.

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