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. 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:
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.