Albert Einstein? Shah of Persia? National Telegraphic Union? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein was once asked to explain radio communication, and he supposedly gave the following answer:
You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.
Personally, I doubt that this quotation should be credited to Einstein, but I still find it fascinating. Could you determine who created this joke?
Quote Investigator: There is no significant evidence that Einstein ever wrote or spoke the passage above. The earliest cite QI has located for this text was within a 1985 source code listing of a computer program called “fortune”. This program was part of the installation of the popular Unix operating system, and “fortune” was inspired by the notion of a fortune cookie.
When the program was run it displayed one saying from a large collection of texts that was kept in a simple database file. The quote above appeared in a version of the program that was distributed on February 28, 1985. 1 The quote may have been present in the program for several years before this date.
QI has not yet found any connection between Einstein and the anecdote predating the “fortune” program version. But the jocular comparison of telegraphy and very long animals has an extensive history. The earliest instances of the comical remarks featured a dog instead of a cat. Here is an example in 1866: 2
A Novel Illustration of the Telegraph.—A most ludicrous conversation took place a few weeks ago in a small village near Paris. Two peasants were discussing about the war between Austria and Prussia, when one of them remarked that he could not understand how messages could be sent by the electric telegraph. His companion after having tried to make him comprehend the manner in which the telegraph works, at last, struck with a bright idea, exclaimed:
“Imagine that the telegraph is an immense long dog-so long that its head is at Vienna and its tail is at Paris. Well, tread on its tail, which is at Paris, and it will bark at Vienna. Do you understand now, stupid, what the telegraph is like?”
“O, yes,” replied the other. “I have an idea now what a telegraph must be.”
This basic anecdote was retold over a period of many decades with a shifting cast of characters. For example, a diary entry in 1873 claimed that the workings of the telegraph were explained to the “Shah of Persia” by using the simile of an “immense dog” stretched between London and Teheran. In 1877 the joke was moved to America, and the dog was used to connect Brooklyn and Hoboken.
By 1917 a new elaboration was added to the evolving story. This variant joke discussed telegraphy with and without a wire. The animal used for transmission was a dog which was spelled “dawg”. The punch line in heavy dialect stated that the operation of the wireless device was “prezactly de same” except that “de dawg am ‘maginary”, i.e., exactly the same except that the dog is imaginary.
By 1924 another variant entered circulation that featured a cat. This variant also spoke about telegraphy with and without a wire. The punch line was “wireless is precisely the same thing without the cat”. This version strongly matched the joke attributed to Einstein, but his name was not mentioned in 1924. Special thanks to correspondent Andrew Steinberg for identifying this important early citation with a cat instead of a dog. Further details for these evolving instances of the joke are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The initial anecdotes were about the telegraph and not the wireless telegraph because the innovation of wireless communication was introduced at a later time. The excerpts from citations that are given in this post reflect stereotypes that are offensive to many modern readers. QI includes these cites to accurately trace the history of the development of the narrative.
The tale of the two French peasants was printed in numerous newspapers in August 1866 including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of New York, 3 the Providence Evening Press of Rhode Island, 4 and the Cleveland Leader in Ohio. 5 The version given above was published in Providence.
Two months later the peasant anecdote was featured in The Telegrapher periodical of the National Telegraphic Union based in New York. 6 The following year The Cultivator & Country Gentleman magazine reprinted the tale. 7
A dated diary entry for July 26, 1873 in “Story of My Life by Augustus J. C. Hare” recorded an interesting variant of the anecdote told by Lord Stanhope. The book containing the diary was published in 1901: 8
“Lord Stanhope talked of chess – a Persian game: in Germany they retain the old names: checkmate is Shahmate. He said when the Shah of Persia was in London it was quite impossible to make him understand how the telegraph worked, until some one had the presence of mind to say, ‘If your Majesty will imagine an immense dog, so big that his tail is in London while his head is in Teheran, your Majesty will see that if some one treads upon his tail in London, he will bark in Teheran.’
In 1877 a collection titled “Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes: A Volume of Choice Telegraphic Literature, Humor, Fun, Wit & Wisdom” was published and it contained a version of the anecdote written in dialect and set in the United States: 9
“Now, you see, Sam, s’pose da was a dog, and dat dog’s head was in Hoboken and his tail in Brooklyn.” “Go ‘way, da ain’t no such dog.” “Well, s’pose da was.” “Well, s’pose da was.”
“Well, den de telegram is jest like dat dog. If I pinch dat dog’s tail in Brooklyn, what he do?” “Dunno.” “Why, if I pinch that dog’s tail in Brooklyn, he go bark in Hoboken. Dat’s the science.
Eight years later in 1885 a version featuring the character Sam was still being circulated. Instead of connecting Brooklyn and Hoboken, the dog in the following instance connected New York and Pennsylvania. In addition, the dialect phrases were altered: 10
“Sam, do you know what de ‘lectric telegraph is?” “No, I don’t know what it am.” “But I can ‘splain one to you.” “Well, ‘splain away, den.” “S’pose dere was a dog with his head in New York and his tail in Pennsylvania.” “But dere nebber was sich a dog as dat.” “I said, s’pose dere was sich a dog.” “Werry well, s’pose away, den.” “S’pose dere was a dog with his head in New York and his tail in Pennsylvania. Well, when I tread on dat dog’s tail in Pennsylvania, he would bark in New York, wouldn’t he? Dat’s de ‘lectric telegraph.”
In 1894 a variant of the anecdote that once again featured the “shah of Persia” was published in “The Engineering Magazine”. Interestingly, the magazine pointed out that the propagation of an electrical signal on a wire is in some ways similar to the movement of an electrical pulse along a nerve: 11
An amusing counterpart may be cited in the attempt to explain to the shah of Persia how the electric telegraph acted. He could understand very well that, when a dog’s tail was trodden on, the dog barked, and so he was told that the telegraph was like a very long dog with his head in Teheran and his tail in Constantinople.
When his tail was trodden on in Constantinople his head barked in Teheran, and so when the key was pressed in one place the sounder clicked in another. The idea may seem ridiculous, but perhaps there is not such a great difference between nerve force and electric force after all, and the parable may have had more truth in it than its author knew.
In 1898 a condensed variant of the tale was printed in “The Life Story of the Late Sir Charles Tilston Bright” with a different punch line: 12
When the Shah of Persia was told that in sending a message the speed was as rapid as if a dog, whose head was in London and whose tail was in Teheran, barked with one end when the other was pinched, he begged to be shown the barking operation of the telegraph apparatus.
In 1914 “The Electrical Review” printed a short instance of the tale referring to an “Oriental potentate” followed by a Latin phrase. The words “Hinc illae lachrymae” mean “Hence these tears”: 13
For the benefit of our artless contemporary, however, we may recall, with suitable modification, the explanation of the telegraph given to an Oriental potentate:— The telegraph is like a dog with its tail in New York and its head in London: if you pinch its tail in New York, the dog barks in London. Hinc illae lachrymae
By 1917 a significant new variant of the tale was being circulated. A novel punch line about the wireless telegraph was now appended to the anecdote which was presented in heavy dialect in “The Country Gentleman” magazine: 14
“Pap,” said a colored youth, “Ah’d like you-all to expatiate on de way dat de telegraph wo’ks.”
“Huh! Dat’s easy ‘nuf, Rastus,” said the old man. “Hit am dis yere a way: Ef dere was a dawg big ‘nuf so his head could be in New Yo’k an’ his tail in Bosting, den ef you all tromp his tail in New Yo’k, he bark in Bosting. Is you understand, Rastus?”
“Yessah! Yessah! But how am de wireless telegraph?”
For a moment the old man was stumped. Then he answered easily: “Jes prezactly de same, Rastus, wid de exception dat de dawg am ‘maginary.”
The last sentence means “Just exactly the same, Rastus, with the exception that the dog is imaginary”. The absurdist humor of this line was comparable to the line later attributed to Einstein: “The only difference is that there is no cat.” However, the animal involved in 1917 was still a dog instead of a cat.
The original joke based on telegraphy with wires continued in circulation. In 1918 a biography of David Lloyd George who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom used the anecdote to illustrate the need for political representatives who were closely connected to their districts: 15
“What sort of a man do we require as the Parliamentary representative of these Boroughs?” inquired one of the local Liberal journals in its editorial columns; and forthwith it proceeded to give the following answer to its own inquiry: “A countryman once asked his neighbour to explain to him the then new invention, the telegraph—which the neighbour did in the following manner: ‘Suppose a dog long enough to reach from York to London. When the tail is pinched in York the dog barks in London. That’s the way it works.’ Now that is the kind of man we want in these Boroughs,” continued the local journal; “when we are pinched and pressed in Wales our representative should cry in London. In fact, he should be a part of our nervous political system in such a way that we could not be hurt without his feeling it.
At last, in 1924 a cat was substituted for the dog in the comical tale, and this instance closely matched the version ascribed to Einstein; however, the famous scientist was not linked to joke until many decades later: 16
“Jack” McCloskey was overheard explaining wireless to a bunch of the boys. Said Jack: “Well, if you had a very long cat, reaching from New York to Albany, and you trod on its tail in New York, it would throw out a wail in Albany. That’s telegraphy; and wireless is precisely the same thing without the cat.”
Skipping forward to 1925, the propagation of the wireless version of the joke with a dog continued. A Tennessee newspaper printed an instance with a final line that was closer to the Einstein attributed line: 17
“Mose, can you explain wireless telegraphy to me?”
“Yessuh, it’s like dis: Ef you-all had a long, long houn’ dawg, and’ he stretched from Cincinnaty to Cleveland, and you stept on his tail in Cincinnaty, he would howl in Cleveland. Dat am telegraphy. Only in wiahless you does de same thing without de dawg.”—Columbus Dispatch.
In 1934 the author Konrad Bercovici writing in Golden Book Magazine presented an instance of the anecdote that was based on his gardener: 18
Fred, my gardener, explained wireless telegraphy to his wife in the following manner:
“First I gotta explain to you telegraphy with wires. Imagine a big dog with a tail that reaches one end of the village and a head that reaches the other end. Can you imagine such a big dog?”
“Sure,” the wife said.
“Now, when you pull the tail the head barks. That is telegraphy with wires.”
“But what is telegraphy without wires,” the wife insisted.
“It is the same thing without the dog,” Fred answered.
In 1949 the author Immanuel Olsvanger published three versions of comical explanations for the secret of telegraphy. The Russian version incorporated a horse instead of a dog. The jokes were also printed in 1951 in Commentary magazine as follows: 19 20
Arabic—”Imagine a huge dog having its head in Beirut and its tail in Damascus. Pull the dog’s tail in Damascus and the bark will be heard in Beirut.”
Russian—First Russian: “Imagine a horse, its head in Moscow and its tail in Tula. Pinch the horse’s nose in Moscow and it will wag its tail in Tula. And so it is with telegraphy.” Second Russian: “Yes, but how do they telegraph from Tula to Moscow?”
Jewish—First Jew: “Imagine, instead of the wire, a dog, whose head is in Kovno and whose tail is in Vilna. Pull the tail in Vilna and the bark will be heard in Kovno.” Second Jew: “But how does wireless telegraphy work?” First Jew: “The very same way but without the dog.”
In conclusion, QI was unable to locate any data confirming that Albert Einstein made a humorous remark comparing a long cat and a telegraph. Evidence reveals that this jape developed over an extended period during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Initially, in 1866 the telegraph was compared to a very long dog. By 1917 the wireless telegraph was being compared to a non-existent elongated dog. By 1924 the wireless telegraph was being compared to a non-existent very long cat. The set of individuals who over time created and modified the jocular description of telegraphy was largely anonymous.
(Many thanks to Kevin Kelly whose original query inspired the construction of this question and provided motivation for this exploration. Kevin Kelly’s influential blog is called The Technium. He helped launch Wired magazine and served as its first executive editor. Kelly also was a founding board member of the WELL. Much thanks to Andrew Steinberg for pointing out the April 1924 citation, and great thanks to John McChesney-Young for obtaining scans of the cite.)
Update: On April 25, 2013 the citation with a cat dated April 1924 was added, and sections of the article were revised. Also, the bibliographical formatting was switched to a numerical style.
- 1985 February 28, Usenet Newsgroup: net.sources.games, Subject: sunybcs’s fortune(6), From: Col. G. L. Sicherman, [Source code listing for fortune computer program distributed via Usenet] (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed February 23, 2012) (Note: the following words preface the quotation given above: “Albert Einstein, when asked to describe radio, replied:”) link ↩
- 1866 August 31, Providence Evening Press, A Novel Illustration Of The Telegraph, Page 2, Column 2, Providence, Rhode Island. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1866 August 28, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Miscellaneous News Items, Page 1, Column 7, Brooklyn, New York. (Fulton) ↩
- 1866 August 31, Providence Evening Press, A Novel Illustration Of The Telegraph, Page 2, Column 2, Providence, Rhode Island. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1866 August 31, Cleveland Leader, General News, Page 2, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1866 October 15, The Telegrapher, Page 43, Column 2-3, Published by the National Telegraphic Union, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1867, February 21, The Cultivator & Country Gentleman, Miscellanies, Page 131, Column 3, Published by Luther Tucker & Son, Albany, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1901 Story of My Life by Augustus J. C. Hare, Volume, Diary entry dated: July 26 1873, Page 103-104, [George Allen, London], Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1877, “Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes: A Volume of Choice Telegraphic Literature, Humor, Fun, Wit & Wisdom”, Page 71, W. J. Johnston, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1885, Platform Echoes, or, Leaves from My Note-Book of Forty Years by John Bartholomew Gough Page 235, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1894 May, The Engineering Magazine, Volume 7, Number 2, Mechanical Engineering: Conducted by Henry Harrison Suplee, Page 287, Column 1, The Engineering Magazine Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1898, The Life Story of the Late Sir Charles Tilston Bright by his brother Edward Brailsford Bright and his son Charles Bright, Volume 2, Appendix, Page 647, Archibald Constable and Co., Westminster, London. (HathiTrust) ↩
- 1914 December 18, The Electrical Review, Censorship of Cable Telegrams, Volume 75, Page 823, Column 2, H. Alabaster, Gatehouse & Co., London. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1917 July 7, The Country Gentleman, Volume 82, Number 27, Chaff: Telegraphy, Page 24, Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1913 to 1918, The Life of David Lloyd George, with a Short History of the Welsh People by J. Hugh Edwards, Volume 2 of 4, Page 186, The Waverley Book Company, London. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1924 April, Commercial Telegraphers Journal, Volume 22, Number 4, Headquarters Notes, Quote Page 143, Column 1, Published by Commercial Telegraphers’ Union of America, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system) ↩
- 1925 June 07, Kingsport Times, To Amuse: Dogless, Page 4, Column 4, Kingsport, Tennessee, (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1934 May, Golden Book Magazine, The Wisdom of the Illiterate by Konrad Bercovici, Start Page 556, Quote Page 558, Column 2, Volume 19, Number 113, Published by The Review of Reviews Corporation, Albert Shaw, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949, L’Chayim!: Jewish Wit and Humor, Gathered and Edited by Immanuel Olsvanger, Quote Page 184 and 185, Schocken Books, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1951 November, Commentary, Volume 12, “Is Jewish Humor Dead?” by Irving Kristol, Start Page 431, Quote Page 435, American Jewish Committee, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩