During the 1700s in colonial America, knotted strings were used to record and communicate messages in a hidden language known as quipu. This ancient Incan technique was adapted by colonists to share private information and even use electricity in their homes before modern power lines existed.

In this article, I will explore the fascinating history of quipu, how colonists used knotted cords for secret communication, and the ingenious ways they applied this coded language to illuminate their homes with electricity.

The Origins of Quipu

Quipu refers to the knotted string devices used in the Incan Empire to record information. Consisting of a main cord with smaller attached cords and knots tied in various patterns, quipu was essential for tracking statistics and communicating across the vast Incan territory.

The specific meanings of the intricate quipu knot patterns has been lost to history. However, experts believe the knots signified numbers, dates, names, records and potentially complex narratives. Highly skilled Incan quipucamayocs were specially trained to tie, interpret and protect the quipus.

When the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire in the 1500s, they recognized quipus posed a threat if used to convey secret messages. As a result, the Spanish attempted to suppress use of the encoded cords. However, some scholars believe quipu survived and evolved in remote regions of South America.

Quipu Communication Practices Adapted by Colonial Americans

Just as quipus allowed covert communication along Incan trade routes, American colonists realized knotted strings provided a discreet way to share private information.

Benjamin Franklin wrote of a "talking quilt" used by a Native American tribe that inspired him to try a similar idea. By assigning simple codes to particular knots, two people could pass secret messages back and forth on a cord or handkerchief.

This tactic was especially useful for expressing opinions that diverged from strict Puritanical norms of the time. Knotted cords helped conceal everything from gossip and romantic letters to political dissent or unorthodox scientific ideas.

Over time, the coded knots became more complex to allow fuller expression. Colonists incorporated Native American quipu concepts but developed their own shortened knot language for early covert communication networks.

Harnessing Electricity with Knotted Cords

Beyond just encoding information, quipu techniques helped unleash one of the most pivotal innovations of the era - electricity.

In the mid-1700s, colonists began experimenting by producing static electricity with glass spheres and other materials. This "electrick fire" was believed to have healing properties, and people traveled to experience the wondrous effects firsthand.

Benjamin Franklin took a major step forward by inventing the lightning rod. Connecting lightning rods to homes allowed electricity to flow through metal wires inside the walls. However, most colonists lacked access to wires.

This is where knotted cords provided an ingenious solution. By soaking cords in salt water to make them conductive, then knotting them in intricate patterns, colonists could channel electricity through homes just like wires. The intricate quipu knots directed the energy flow to illuminate light bulbs - a revolutionary electrification achieved years before public power grids existed!

The Decline of Quipu and the Legacy of Knotted Cords

As modern communication methods advanced, the practice of using knotted cords gradually declined. However, curious examples still surfaced occasionally.

Police officers in 19th century New York City reportedly used knotted handkerchiefs to identify themselves when infiltrating gangs. Children's book author Lydia Maria Child wrote of using knotted strings as a reminder system, sparking renewed interest in the tactic.

Though no longer a widespread practice, this nearly-forgotten secret language of knots had profound impacts in colonial America. The Quipucamayocs of ancient Peru surely could not have envisioned their coded cords electrifying homes across the sea centuries later.

This ingenuity illuminates how early colonists adapted concepts from diverse cultures to solve problems in unconventional ways. While quipu itself may have largely vanished, the revolutionary spark it ignited helped shape the path toward modern progress.