African Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation

By Zulumathabo Zulu © 2015

Abstract

Technological Innovation using indigenous knowledge systems in Africa is almost non-existent in modern scientific and engineering literature. This apparent hiatus of African technological artifacts by the African inventors tends to make it appear as though the African natives had neither the interest nor the intellectual curiosity to solve unique problems of their society using engineering principles especially in the area of telecommunication. This paper seeks to fill that gap by providing concrete analytical accounts of technological artifacts by the African natives like the talking drum, the trapezoidal drum, the double membrane and others designed to broadcast telegraphic information over long distances using the same principles of physics as is the case in modern telecommunication. The interesting fact is that the African engineering technologists of long ago had designed a wireless telecommunication system that was ahead of its time as confirmed by European observers in their historical accounts while the colonial authorities were still using the pony express-like system as a form of long distance communication before the invention of the electric telegraph in the 1800s. As a new society emerging from the harsh legacy of the past and given the shortage of technological expertise facing South Africa, these challenges should galvanize us to take a page from the past in order to create African solutions germane to the engineering challenges of the African problem domain.

Keywords: indigenous knowledge systems, African telegraphy, technological innovation, drum communication, networked drums, relay system, drum, talking drum, abstract drum machine, relay network graph.

Introduction

The popular myth is that a drum plays a musical function which confines it to producing sounds for purposes of dance and other forms of rendition. Even though that is what a drum is mainly used for nowadays, the Africans also used a drum as an appliance for long distance communication by means of a networked relay system. This enabled them to control and own the virtual telecommunication infrastructure at the same time. This concept of telecommunication should motivate the modern Africans to take stock of who owns the present day telecommunication infrastructure and how indigenous innovations overcame the problem of telecommunication infrastructure ownership.

The use of a mobile drum as a communication device as in a talking drum meant that the Africans were the system architects of their own telecommunication infrastructure, the message and the encoding of that message. The enterprise of this communication groundwork was not fixed to a certain location as is the case with present day fixed landlines. The system was mobile and able to broadcast while in motion in order to optimize the signal propagation and improve the signal noise ratio.

The utility of a drum machine for long distance communication raises the question of how the message was packaged for transmission. The African semiologists had to solve the problem of encoding as they had solved similar encoding challenges in other knowledge domains as demonstrated in their literary systems of communication, storytelling and preservation long before the advent of colonization as was the case in a West African country of Cameroon where the German missionaries in the 1800s found a printing press and books written in a native African script long before the advent of colonization under the great Bamum King Njoya. The missionaries also found a school that taught Bamum script using the syllabric encoding system.

Excerpt from the scholarly paper African Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation

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