For Hans Traub, the modern system of Morse code marches to the beat of an ancient drum. The phenomenon of communication (Nachrichten) arises from the primal urge to communicate (Mitteilungsdrang), which, in turn, forms the bonds of community (Gemeinschaft). Hence Traub‘s etymology of the word “message” (Nachricht) as “command” (Befehl) or “instruction” (Instruktion): “Die Nachricht war der Befehl zu handeln” (281).
For Traub, the idea of sending a message as issuing a command to act in society cuts across different periods in the history of technology. All that changes in the speed of communications.
Anticipating Marshall McLuhan’s examination of radio as “the tribal drum,“ Traub situates modern communications codes in a longer history of acoustic signals. His ethnography of drumming practices in Africa, Mexico, and New Zealand emphasizes the communicative aspects of communal drumming, a “code” that is in itself logical but which outsiders find difficult to decipher. Apparently, the Hamburger Kolonialinstitut in Africa recorded 95 African drum signals on gramophone records, and Reginald Hafelden (?) intercepted a “Trommeltelegramm“ that reported on the sinking of the Lusitania: “large ship by a white man downed, many white men drowned” (großes Schiff von weißem Mann gesunken, viele weiße Männer ertrunken, 282). What Traub finds most astonishing is that the drum signal that Hafelden intercepted was passed on among different tribes, all with different languages, and all that were currently at war with one another, making drum signals seem a form of universal language.
As the editors of Medientheorie 1888-1930 point out, Traub’s implicit reference text is the Karl Bücher’s Arbeit und Rhythmus (1897), which argues that primitive cultures are not “wild” but organized through principles of “rhythm.” In the Weimar Republic, the ideology of “Gemeinschaft” continued to draw on “rhythm” as an antidote to atomization and individualism. To recover a lost world of “joyous work” (fröhliche Arbeit), the duration and tempo of labor would have to be re-attuned to the organic rhythms of the human body, rather than to the arbitrary rhythms of the machine (see Michael Cowan, “The Heart Machine,” 228).
Ultimately, “work rhythms” are a form of “Morse code,” for Traub, only to the extent that “morse code” is itself a form of “drum signal.” This equation allows Traub to suggest that the mechanically-driven sounds of telegraphy may still provide a new “code” for the formation of new communities.
Hans Traub, „Arbeitsrhythmus als Morsezeichen,“ Tägliche Rundschau (May 21, 1927), reprinted in Medientheorie 1888-1930 – Texte und Kommentare, edited by Albert Kümmel and Petra Löffler (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2002): 281-84.