Recently, while researching an ongoing project, I came across a fairly amusing account laid down in the annals of obscure gaming history. It’s an early account of multiplayer gaming taking place across an electronic network. It also depicts a possible account of 19th century trolling.

It came as a slight surprise that, as early as the 1870s, telegraph operators were playing games over the established networks. One such account is depicted in Sam Johnson: The Experience and Observations of a Railroad Telegraph Operator, a book by John Albert Clippinger that was published in 1878. The book is a collection of experiences from railroad telegraph operator Sam Johnson. One of Sam’s memories was of playing checkers over the telegraph wire on unused channels with another telegraph office operator in the overnight hours.

BidwellRailroadOffice“The modus operandi was as follows:

Walt and Sam each had a checkerboard, with spots numbered from one to thirty-two. All the checkers were placed on both [men’s] boards. If Walt wanted to move from one to three, he would make the figures on the [telegraph] line ‘1 to 3,’ and make the move on his own board, and Sam would move the same men on his. When Sam played he would move his own men on his board, and Walt would make the same move on his. They played on a line that was not used at night and so they did not interfere with business”

Sounds pretty cool to me. It could be viewed as an early example of network multiplayer gaming. It seems that people will always find ways to goof off at work! The account goes on to say:

“Now and then some operator who was listening in would make figures [for a move], while Sam or Walt was waiting for the other to move. But as these moves were always ‘wide of the mark’ they caused no confusion.”

There you have a depiction of ole fashion troll attempts, ladies and gentleman. Like most trolling efforts, these were pretty much ineffective. However, all it takes is the right situation for trolling to actually get the best of even the most rational folks.

People started to gather at the respective telegraph offices of Sam and Walt as word spread of these novel games. The book goes on to detail the night “two hotly contested games had been played.” Both Sam and Walt had won one game each, and one more game would have decided the championship among the dueling checker enthusiasts.

rr_telegraph_oper“Both combatants played very cautiously and slowly, each planning deeply intricate maneuvers to entrap the other. Sam and his backers had ‘dug a pit’ for Walt, and were anxiously awaiting him to fall into it, when, sure enough, the instrument clicked off the figures [they] wanted. Sam immediately made the next move.”

“Hold on,” said Walt, “it is my move.”

“No, sir” said Sam, “you just this moment moved so and so.”

“That won’t do,” replied Walt, “I had you in an uncomfortable situation, and you have adopted this underhanded way to get out of it.”

After a few more gentlemanly words of disagreement, things got a bit heated. Both Sam and Walt gave up the game that night—essentially rage quitting the contest. Walt had written Sam the next day accusing him of unfair playing. Sam replied that he was “not guilty” and told Walt that he was being unfair. No more checkers were played between the two after this.

The book continues:

“It afterward occurred to Sam that probably some disinterested operator had accidentally made the figures he wanted, and thus caused the confusion and misunderstanding.”

He told Walt of his thoughts, but Walt was having none of it; he turned it around as a partial confession of guilt on Sam’s part.

“They were never warm friends afterward,” this particular entry in the book says, wrapping up the account.

We will never know for certain, but it does seem entirely plausible that a third-party telegraph operator essentially crashed their friendly competition. I like to think it was someone who knew the two and was just doing it for laughs.

This is a great account of some long-distance game-playing with the available technology. It’s also a bit enlightening to see certain patterns established in multiplayer gaming so early on… if only today’s gamers could be as polite as Sam and Walt.


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Josh Bray
Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a focus on A/V production. Amateur photographer with a passion to make things work... by any means necessary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand