When James Gleick opens his book on Information with reference to African drums, it is testimony to the way humans can solve a design problem collectively and over generations. In this case of African tribes, the problem of  conveying  information over long distances without using a physical message carrier. It was witnessed by the early European Colonials, who did not understand it at first.

For European Colonials who eventually understood that the drums could relay messages over long distances in short time, it was baffling because no such system had been invented by them and it took a few centuries longer before the electrical telegraph could do something similar.

The obvious analogy was then to compare the talking drum with morse code (1838). However, no European was able to decode the messages, simply because there was no such code to represent written words. African languages, Gleick explains, do not have an alphabet, the drums metamorphosed speech.

In short, used from the 1840’s on, the electrical telegraph is a point to point text messaging system which uses coded pulses of electric current through dedicated wires to transmit information over long distances. It consisted of two or more geographically separated  stations connected by wires, usually supported overhead on utility poles

And now we come full circle, drumming and utility poles.

Every morning, and later in the afternoon, I hear the woodpecker drumming his message across the street. At first I thought the sound was coming from the trees, then I thought there was not one, but multiple woodpeckers, as the drumming sounded different, deeper, and seem to come from a different angle or location. But then I spotted the ladder-backed guy, drumming away on the utility pole, right across from my window and I started to observe him. 

Drumming woodpeckers. The reason for drumming is generally thought of as territorial marking or to attract mates. Both males and females drum. Whether or not each bird has its own unique drumming pattern remains a question but some research indicates that differences possibly exists between the  sexes.

Yet when I watch my woodpecker, he seems to take great consideration in where to drum. He travels up and down and around the pole to play his next roll and I wonder how far the sound waves carry his information. Not  intended for me of course but for his conspecifics, the other woodpeckers I hear around. and some of whom I have seen and heard drumming on other utility poles. The poles perhaps have some good resonance, better than the trees. Perhaps the birds adapted, and the poles enable them to get their message across despite the human dominating sounds that can be so LOUD. It is only fitting that they choose the utility pole, designed as part of a system to convey information over long distances.


Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. New York: Pantheon Books.