Yakety-Yak, How We Do Talk Back: The Hydraulic Telegraph of Aeneas – Long-distance Communication of Antiquity

communicationThrough the ages humans have sought to communicate with each other. On a primal level, language developed out of necessity:  “Sabre-toothed tiger…run!” or “Fire…ow!” served obvious purposes and were intended to preserve the species. Memorializing their lives was a common force driving early cultures, and communication took many forms. Lacking any type of writing, people relied on memory, oral histories, art, monuments and other elements to document who they were.  The ability to communicate and record contemporary times became more important as societies evolved and grew. The passing centuries brought the realization that in communicating with others, there were limitations to perfecting a memory, drawing pictures and shouting to the next village (hoarseness being a little known driver of human innovation). As a result, the 3rd – 4th centuries BCE found the Phoenicians creating an alphabet and the Sumerians devising cuneiform writing (pictographs on clay tablets). The Egyptians were also hard at work recording their life and times through hieroglyphics. Here’s a look at some other advances we take for granted today that are courtesy of our ever-chattering ancestors[1]:

  • 1775 BC- Greeks use a phonetic alphabet written from left to right.
  • 1400 BC- Oldest record of writing in China on bones.
  • 1270 BC- The first encyclopedia is written in Syria.
  • 900 BC- The very first postal service – for government use in China.
  • 776 BC- First recorded use of homing pigeons used to send message – the winner of the Olympic Games to the Athenians.
  • 530 BC- The Greeks start the very first library.
  • 500 BC to 170 BC- Papyrus rolls and early parchments made of dried reeds – first portable and light writing surfaces.
  • 200 BC to 100 BC- Human messengers on foot or horseback common in Egypt and China with messenger relay stations built. Sometimes fire messages used from relay station to station instead of humans.

AntiquityNOW’s partner Ancient Origins, is an organization that “seeks to uncover…one of the most important pieces of knowledge we can acquire as human beings—our beginnings.” Their blog post below looks at what Greek ingenuity brought to the development of mass communications. As you read, think about what propelled the Greeks to innovate, and how humans are always striving to top themselves—two dynamics of the human condition that have fueled advancements for thousands of years.  It is precisely these two qualities that resound most decidedly today, and reflect our perpetual search through the millennia for simpler, faster and more efficient ways of sharing what’s on our minds.

So next time you fire up your tablet, pop open your laptop or thumb your way through a text, take a moment to give homage to those early Greeks who thought, “Water…not just for drinking anymore.”

Check out the Lesson Plan on communications that follows the blog post below. It is crafted as an adjunct to the social studies programs currently used in the United States and correlates with the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. All materials are produced to enable teachers to address different ways of learning in children, particularly those with learning challenges.

The hydraulic telegraph of Aeneas – long-distance communication of antiquity


Advances in technology have drastically changed the way we live today compared to those of our ancient past. One type of technology that many of us may take for granted is the ability to communicate with others over long distances, or to large groups of people. A look back at ancient civilizations can give us insight today into the very first methods of long-distance communications. In 350 BC, a Greek named Aeneas invented the hydraulic telegraph, which was a means of communicating important, fairly detailed information, quickly over long distances.

Aeneas was a Greek writer who focused on military history, strategy, communications. He was one of the first authors to provide a guide on military communications, which were important for ensuring that any society had the ability to anticipate possible invasions, and to communicate strategy and tactics back and forth between groups. Aeneas was frustrated by the limitations placed on communications via torches and beacons. Torches allowed some messages to be conveyed, for example, they could indicate danger, or communicate that an objective had been accomplished, but they could not send messages with any level of detail or description. Essentially, they could communicate that something had occurred, but there was no way to communicate what had occurred.

Information transmission through beacons

Information transmission through beacons. Image source: Nature

Aeneas therefore developed the hydraulic telegraph in an attempt to overcome these obstacles. The telegraph involved a system of water-filled vessels containing rods that contained agreed-upon messages (such as “horsemen entering the country”, or “ships”). The two groups who wished to communicate would both have an identical set of supplies, and would be positioned far away from one another, but still within a line of sight, usually upon a hill. When one party wanted to send a message to the other, they would raise a torch. Upon seeing the torch raised, the second party would raise their torch to confirm they were prepared to receive the message. When the initial sender lowered his torch, both sides would simultaneously pull the plug from the bottom of the water-containing vessel. As the water drained, different messages on the rod would be revealed. When the intended message reached the top, the initial sender would again light his torch, signaling that the receiver should re-plug the vessel and read the message on the rod. For this to work properly, both parties had to have vessels of the same size, filled with the same volume of water, and rods containing the same messages. They also had to be very precise, starting and stopping drainage at the correct moment.

A replica of the hydraulic telegraph of Aeneas

A replica of the hydraulic telegraph of Aeneas. Credit: Augusta Stylianou

While the technology of the hydraulic telegraph seems very simple, its creation was marveled as a significant advancement in communication technology by allowing pre-determined messages to be sent long distances. In the event of an intrusion or an enemy approaching, they would only see the brief torch flashes, and would not be able to intercept the message in any way. This advancement in communication was also a great advancement in military communication and strategy.  Messages were sent from Sicily to Carthage during the First Punic War (264-241 BC) using the hydraulic telegraph, also known as a Semaphore line.

A stamp depicting the hydraulic telegraph in use

A stamp depicting the hydraulic telegraph in use. Image source: mlahanas.de

Through the hydraulic telegraph, the military now had the ability to communicate specific messages that allowed other groups of military personnel, as well as civilians, to better prepare for potential invasions by land or sea. This early form of long-distance communication was advanced for its time, and it paved the way for future forms of communications, which have led to the many methods we have available today.

Featured image: Greek Hydraulic Telegraph of Aeneas relief. Image source: Wikipedia


The ”hydraulic telegraph” of Aeneas – Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. Available from: http://kotsanas.com/gb/exh.php?exhibit=1201002

The Telegraph – Connected Earth. Available from: http://www.connected-earth.com/Journeys/Firstgenerationtechnologies/Thetelegraph/Firststeps/index.htm

The Hydraulic Telegraph – History of Information. Available from: http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=1612

The Hydraulic Telegraph – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_telegraph

By M R Reese

Lesson Plan Time Travel copy


  • To introduce students to the ways that ancient people memorialized their lives
  • To realize how language and other communication forms were natural developments in cultural advancement
  • To help students develop research skills
  • To promote music and art in expressing an original idea
  • To promote language arts in expressing an original idea
  • To encourage cross-cultural understanding of concepts and ways of thinking


  • To evaluate and think critically about the antecedents of today’s hyper-mediated world
  • To realize how certain human behaviors transcend time and geography
  • To understand how language is fundamental to the human species and integral to how our brains are wired for social interaction
  • To use storytelling to explicate different points of view


  • Group Activity: Create a timeline of communication technologies from ancient to modern times. Discuss the following in your group:
    • Do you see any similarities (e.g., cultures creating systems simultaneously)? Any differences (e.g., cultures with different approaches to innovation)? What could be the influences that affect how cultures create new systems?
    • Did you ever hear the quote “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” by Charles Caleb Colton? How does that figure into cultural adaptation and change?
  • Share your timeline and results of the above discussions with the other groups.


  • Consider the comments below. Read other predictions about innovative ideas that were disregarded but today are part of our daily lives. Why would people react this way? Why were these inventions not immediately seen as revolutionary?
    • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876.
    • “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
    • “Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” — William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899.
    • “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
  • What does the phrase “Necessity is the mother of all invention” mean? How would the people quoted above react to this concept? Write a play with two characters: one against an idea, another in favor. Think what each would say in arguing for his/her point of view. You can draw from the quotes above or use other examples.


“To be kept in solitude is to be kept in pain,” writes the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, “and put on the road to madness. A person’s membership in his group—his tribe—is a large part of his identity.” This quote comes from The Atlantic magazine. Click here to read the article. Write an essay (250-500 words) on what this quote means. Include an example from your life relevant to the article’s central point.


  • Write a short story featuring yourself as an inventor of a new technology. Make sure it’s compatible with a particular genre such as drama, comedy, science fiction or horror. Include in the story:
    • Your motivation for your invention: why your character believes it is important
    • The reaction of those around you to your invention
    • A story arc that includes a climax (high point of a story) and denouement (tying up the story at the end).


  • Group Activity: Do you know what the phrase “yakety yak” means? Look up the definition. Listen to this popular song from the early days of rock and roll titled Yakety Yak. Who’s speaking? To whom? (I wonder if our ancestors when first forming words could ever imagine what teenagers today would become.)  Discuss the following:
    • How has popular culture driven, and been driven by, communications technology? Research the topic and find at least two points from experts.
    • See how many earlier forms of communication technology you can identify from the song. Make a list and give a history of each. See how far back you can go.
    • With all our devices and methods of communicating nowadays, do you think we are becoming more, or less, connected to each other? Research three different views on this topic. What is your opinion?
    • Do a parody of the song Yakety Yak adapting the original lyrics to an ancient time period. For example, if this were a parent in Ancient Rome speaking to a teenager, how would you rewrite the lyrics of the song?
  • Share your findings with the other groups.

[1] Bellis, M. (2014, March 5). The History of Communication. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bl_history_of_communication.htm

4 responses to “Yakety-Yak, How We Do Talk Back: The Hydraulic Telegraph of Aeneas – Long-distance Communication of Antiquity

  1. Reblogged this on Tome and Tomb.

  2. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Greece | AntiquityNOW

  3. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Asia | AntiquityNOW

  4. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

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