Replica of Claude Chappe's optical telegraph on the Litermont near Nalbach, Germany

Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of textual messages where the sender uses symbolic codes, known to the recipient, rather than a physical exchange of an object bearing the message. Thus flag semaphore is a method of telegraphy, whereas pigeon post is not. Ancient signalling systems, although sometimes quite extensive and sophisticated as in China, were generally not capable of transmitting arbitrary text messages. Possible messages were fixed and predetermined and such systems are thus not true telegraphs.

The earliest true telegraph put into widespread use was the optical telegraph of Claude Chappe, invented in the late 18th century. The system was extensively used in France, and European countries controlled by France, during the Napoleonic era. The electric telegraph started to replace the optical telegraph in the mid-19th century. It was first taken up in Britain in the form of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph, initially used mostly as an aid to railway signalling. This was quickly followed by a different system developed in the United States by Samuel Morse. The electric telegraph was slower to develop in France due to the established optical telegraph system, but an electrical telegraph was put into use with a code compatible with the Chappe optical telegraph. The Morse system was adopted as the international standard in 1865, using a modified Morse code developed in Germany.

The heliograph is a telegraph system using reflected sunlight for signalling. It was mainly used in areas where the electrical telegraph had not been established and generally uses the same code. The most extensive heliograph network established was in Arizona and New Mexico during the Apache Wars. The heliograph was standard military equipment as late as World War II. Wireless telegraphy developed in the early 20th century. Wireless telegraphy became important for maritime use, and was a competitor to electrical telegraphy using submarine telegraph cables in international communications.

Telegrams became a popular means of sending messages once telegraph prices had fallen sufficiently. Traffic became high enough to spur the development of automated systems—teleprinters and punched tape transmission. These systems led to new telegraph codes, starting with the Baudot code. However, telegrams were never able to compete with the letter post on price, and competition from the telephone, which removed their speed advantage, drove the telegraph into decline from 1920 onwards. The few remaining telegraph applications were largely taken over by alternatives on the internet towards the end of the 20th century.