In the 21st Century, communications are instant. iPhones, iPads, mobile phones, blackberries, PCs, laptops, telephones, Instant Messaging, email and alpine yodelling provide all the instant communication, news-broadcasting and information dispersement that we need to run our complex, fancy-schmancy super-whizzy lives. We think of electronic communication as something new and amazing, belonging to the 20th century and not before.
And yet, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Long before the 20th century was ever thought of, back in the first half of the 19th century, in a world of steamboats, horses, carriages, top-hats, pocket-watches, dip-pens, gas-lighting and cobblestoned streets, the world’s first instant-messaging system was born. It was called…the telegraph.
Before the Telegraph
To understand the impact of the telegraph, one needs to understand what communications were like before it arrived, and what they were like after it had become part of everyday life, because in the truest sense of these words, the telegraph was the world’s first instant-messaging system.
Before the telegraph, the only means of long-distance communications was by foot, horseback, watercraft and railroad and the only mode of communication was by the handwritten letter or printed word. After a letter had been written, signed, enveloped, sealed and stamped, it could only travel as fast as a man could walk, horse could gallop, ship could sail or steam, or as fast as a steam-powered locomotive could move along its rails. Although these last two methods of transport were significantly faster than any kind of natural horsepower, it could still take anywhere from several hours to several weeks for a message to travel from one state to another, one county or province to another, or from one country to another. In this last instance, it could be months before the communication had reached its destination, and weeks more before a reply had been returned to the sender by the original letter’s recipient.
The problems with such slow communication were obvious: In medical emergencies, vital messages between hospitals and clinics were days or even weeks out of date. In warfare, slow communication affected the outcomes of battles, troop-movements and the delivery of ammunition and supplies.
To the man famous for inventing the telegraph, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, this aggravating slowness of communication hit a personal note in 1825. His father sent him a letter by horse-messenger that Morse’s first wife, Lucretia, had died on the 7th of February, one month after giving birth to their third child: James Edward Finley Morse (born January 7th, 1825). A distraught Morse rushes home from Washington to New Haven, Connecticut to be with his wife, only to discover that she’d already been buried and that he’d missed the funeral. Such was Morse’s distress that he actually left Washington halfway through painting a portrait of the famous French Field Marshal, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette…or as he was more popularly-known in the United States: Major General LaFayette, the man who led French forces (then allied with American colonial forces) to victory over the British during the Revolutionary War…which Morse had been commissioned to paint during Lafayette’s last visit to America.
The Development of the Electric Telegraph
For the sake of clarification, I’ll use the term ‘electric telegraph’ when referring to Morse’s invention, for the rest of the article, so as to prevent confusion with other forms of telegraphy.
What is ‘telegraphy’, you ask? In its most basic form, ‘tele-graphy’ literally means ‘Writing from Afar’, from the two Greek words ‘Tele’ (‘Afar’) and ‘Graphein’ (‘Writing’). Given this definition of the word, any form of long-distance communication, such as smoke-signals, light-flashes, semaphore-towers or even flags, could be defined (and indeed, were defined) as forms of telegraphy. However, Samuel Morse’s invention was the first kind of telegraphy to use that wonderful and most instantaneous of discoveries – Electricity! Electricity, which could send messages across a wire as fast as a person could tap them out! Electricity, which didn’t require someone to read flags or examine semaphore signals or know smoke-signs…just listen to the electric pulses and write down the message. How wonderfully simple is that?
To be fair, Morse didn’t actually invent the electric telegraph. He merely developed it and improved on existing designs and inventions to create a viable communications system. Basic, rudimentary, simple, elementary…and thoroughly useless electric telegraphs…had existed before Morse’s time, but these were all experimental communications systems, none of them of any quality or substance to be used as a global communications method. Morse changed all that.
Throughout the 1820s and 30s, Samuel Morse created his famous ‘Morse Code’, the coded series of “dots” and “dashes” that symbolised letters and words, that could be sent quickly over his telegraph wires. Morse was a bit slow off the mark, though. The British had already developed their own form of electrical telegraphy by the mid 1830s. In 1837, the year that Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, a pair of English inventors, successfully demonstrated the world’s first practical long-distance electric telegraph. By 1839, the telegraph was being used to send messages along railroad lines between cities and was proving pretty darn successful! Morse would have to get a move on if he intended to create something amazing for the Americans before the Brits managed to sell their idea to Washington!
Together with his assistant, Alfred Vail, who helped Morse develop his famous telegraph code, Morse patented his own telegraph-system in 1837 and sent the first-ever electric telegraph-message in the United States on the 6th of January, 1838. Sent over two miles of telegraph-wire, the message read: “A Patient Waiter is No Loser”.
Morse tried unsuccessfully to interest various organisations and institutions in his new invention, but few agreed to take on this newfangled ‘electric’ telegraph. It couldn’t possibly work! But eventually, Morse got his way. Wanting to prove just how capable Morse Code electric telegraphy was, in December of 1842, Morse travelled to Washington. He set up two Morse-Code transmitter-receivers in different rooms of the famous Capitol Building in Washington and successfully transmitted messages between the two machines. Congress was impressed enough with Morse’s invention to give it a shot. A shot worth $30,000! This money was provided so that Morse could set up a telegraph-line between Washington, D.C and Baltimore, Maryland…which was thirty-six miles away! Far enough that no kind of underhanded trickery would even remotely be possible!
A simple Morse key. Pressing down on the key completes an electrical circuit. Releasing the key breaks this circuit. By tapping the key in a specific pattern of long and short taps, a series of audiable, electro-magnetic pulses could be sent along a telegraph-wire in ‘Morse Code’, which was a code made up of a series of short (‘dots’) and long (‘dashes’) electric pulses for each letter of the alphabet
On the 24th of May, 1844, the Washington-Baltimore telegraph line was officially opened by Morse himself. The opening message was a line that Morse had selected from the bible. He transmitted it from the Mount Clare Railroad Station in Baltimore to the Capitol Building in Washington…36 miles away! What was the message?
“What hath God wrought?”
Taken from the Book of Numbers in the bible, Chapter 23, Verse 23, Morse asked the question of what wonders God had created? ‘Wrought’ is an archaic term for ‘worked’ or ‘created’ (from which we also get the term ‘wrought iron’). Of course, God had done nothing at all…but Morse had heralded in and had created a whole new way for people to communicate long-distance at the flick of a switch!
The Impact of the Telegraph
Just like the internet over a hundred years later, the electric telegraph spawned an age of rapid, mass-communications and news-broadcasting. For the first time in history, two people in two different places could send and receive messages faster than any train, horse, bicycle, carriage, riverboat, steamship or hot-air balloon could ever possibly transport it. Soon, telegraph companies sprang up across the United States and Europe, with cables being strung out across the land and slung up on telegraph-poles. For ease of maintenance and installation, telegraph lines would follow roads, highways and railroad lines and soon, towns and cities of all sizes had at least one telegraph office where people could go and send or receive telegrams from other people who might be living hundreds or thousands of miles away.
The power of electric telegraphy was phenomenal. It changed how people did everything, from finance and marketing, by telegraphing stock-prices over the wire, to warfare, by telegraphing troop-movements and battle-plans back to military headquarters, to crime-fighting, by telegraphing important details to law-enforcement agencies who might be hundreds of miles away, to be on the lookout for a dangerous criminal. For the first time in history, news and newspapers could be updated within a few hours, a few minutes, even, whereas it had taken days or even weeks for news or updates on current news-stories to come from far-flung corners of the world before the telegraph’s invention.
In the second half of the 19th century, a major communications milestone was reached: International telegraphic communications. Although it took nearly a dozen attempts over a period of almost ten years, by the late 1860s, the American continent and Europe, the New World and the Old World, were literally joined together by an underseas telegraph-wire. For the first time in history, instant communications across vast oceans was possible. Now, people didn’t have to wait for mail-ships to come steaming into harbour…they could go to the telegraph-office and send a telegram from London to New York. Melbourne to Singapore. Singapore to Hong Kong. The telegraph had become the world’s first internet – the first truly instant global communications system where news travelled as fast as you could operate a telegraph-key and as fast as the receiver could operate a typewriter or use a pen.
The Telegraphic Heyday
The electric telegraph and its children, the little telegrams which whizzed around the world, survived for an amazingly long time; from the 1830s until well into the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s! Western Union, the famous American telegraphic company, didn’t finally stop sending telegrams until January of 2006!
The heyday of the telegraph was between the 1850s until the 1950s, the hundred years (give or take a few decades) that bridged the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries. When you consider that the telephone was invented in the 1870s, you’re probably wondering why the hell telegrams and telephones tolerated each other for so long and why the switchboard-operator didn’t just boot the telegraph-operator off his podium and claim 1st Prize in Communications the moment it came along?
The reasons for this are numerous. The most obvious one is price. A telegram cost a few cents. For those few cents, you could send a message from New York to Los Angeles, Melbourne to Perth, London to Edinbrugh, Paris to Rome or Anchorage to Miami in a matter of minutes. Telephone-calls, even short ones, were expensive. And not everyone could afford these new and fancy machines that interrupted their lives with rattling, jangling bells, poor reception and nosy switchboard-operators, who could drink in their entire conversations (of course, telegraph-operators could do the exact same thing with telegrams, but people probably conveniently forgot that little similarity as soon as possible). A telegram required no new, expensive machinery and it didn’t cost as much…and, especially in the early days, a telegram could travel faster and further than any telephone could.
Such was the telegraph’s popularity that in the 1920s and 30s, it was actually quicker and more cost-effective to send a telegram to someone on the other side of the country than to call them long-distance, even though by now, the telephone was becoming a common household and business machine. Soon, people developed their own jargon and slang centered around the telegraph. A telegram was a ‘cable’ or a ‘wire’. The short, clipped, precise and to-the-point messages were written in “telegram-style” English and the word ‘Stop’ became synonymous with the ending of sentences and telegrams.
The cost of a telegram was determined by its length and number of words. A telegram with a longer message cost more, while shorter messages obviously cost less. Sometimes, telegraph companies and offices set their own telegram-rates, such as 8c for the first 10 words and 2c for every word after that. Because of this, telegrams were kept as short and to-the-point as possible. Sending telegrams could only be done through Morse Code and while letters and numbers were easy enough to remember, punctuation marks were not. Marks such as full-stops, question-marks, colons and hyphens were harder to send over the telegraph and it cost more to add them into a telegram compared to a regular word. For this reason, people usually just ended their sentences and telegrams with the word ‘STOP’, to save money.
Some of the most famous events in history were communicated over telegraph wires. The completion of the American Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 was announced to the world via telegraph. The miner’s strike and rioting at the Eureka Stockade in Victoria, Australia, in 1854, was communicated to law-enforcement through the telegraph. In 1903, the news about the success of the world’s first heavier-than-air powered flight by the Wright Brothers was telegraphed to their father. The telegraph-operator asked the Wrights if he might also inform the local media-outlets. They forbade him to do so, but he went ahead and spilt the beans anyway.
The telegram sent by Orville Wright to his father, informing him about the success of their experimental airplanes. Orville and Wilbur’s father was supposed to inform the newspapers officially, but the telegraph-operator who sent the message beat him to it
The electric telegraph revolutionised the world and mass-communications. Faster by far than delivering mail, and cheaper than telephone, it remained in use well into the first decade of the 21st century. When wireless telegraphy was developed by Marconi, for the first time it was possible to send telegrams and information and news to places without the need for wires and cables, opening up the airwaves to places such as ocean-liners, personal radio-sets and airplane pilots. The term ‘wireless telegraphy’ was coined to reflect the new technology’s amazing capabilities, and it was to play crucial roles in such famous historical events as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the famous ‘Dam Busters’ raid during the Second World War, and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the famous aviatrix.
The End of the Telegraph
From experiment to novelty, luxury to acceptance, acceptance to commonplace, commonplace to essential, essential to supplementary, supplementary to outdated and finally, outdated to obsolete, the electric telegraph survived over a hundred years, saw the births of two centuries and the ends of two centuries and lived alongside with the internet in its last practical days on earth, but even though today it’s little more than a novelty, the electric telegraph brought the world closer together and showed people that instant communication wasn’t a dream, but something real and practical, something that showed us that anything is possible if we think it through. As the telegraph came to an end in the early 21st century, this article has also come to its end, finishing with the one word which everyone associates with electrical telegraphy to this day…