On 24 October 1861, Western Union built the first transcontinental telegraph uniting both sides of the country resulting in the speed of communication to be drastically improved. So why was the telegraph so important to the world? Let’s take a look.
For many of us it is hard to conceive a world without television, telephones, and the Internet. Sending important communications took time if significant distance was involved. And would increase exponentially if the recipient was on another continent. The speed of the horse, the foot, and how good the wind was would determine how quickly the message was delivered. Samuel Morse on 6 Jan 1838 demonstrated for the first time how electric impulse could transmit messages. He was not the only one who was working on the same concept but the first to get it beyond a concept to a working means of communication.
His prototype demonstrated the use of using dots and dashes to represent letters and numbers. In the demonstration of 1838, he showed that this method of communication was possible. Morse, who had attended Yale University interested in art and electricity, became intrigued when he learned coming home from Europe about the newly discovered electromagnet and decided to work on the telegraph. Convincing skeptics took some doing. Not many were convinced sending messages in this fashion were possible or practical. It required the use of telegraph lines that would transmit the data over long or short distances. And it meant people would have to be trained to understand this Morse code. Morse convinced U.S. Congress to fund construction of the first telegraph line between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. The first telegram sent in May 1844 said: “What hath God wrought!”
Soon private companies would emerge using Morse’s patent to set up telegraph lines all over the American Northeast. Western Union, formerly called the New York and Mississippi Valley Company, completed the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. Telegraph systems would spread in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Underwater cables would connect both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Messages of all kinds could be sent by telegraph. Since telegraph companies charged by the word, messages became succinct no matter whether it was happy or sad news. The period was replaced in most messages with the word “stop” as that was free.
One of the chief constraints of the telegraph is that it relied on the telegraph line and undersea cables. Thus messages could be delayed or lost by downed poles, military actions, weather related issues, or problems in the receiving office. Radio telegraphy was developed by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895. Sending the same messages over the air meant they were no longer restricted to telegraph lines. But it too could have its problems as what happened with Titanic. You have messages get mixed and mashed up resulting inaccurate information being reported. Radio telegraphy would lead to radio transmission allowing voices to be heard for the first time and the radio would be born. Wireless telegraphy would continue for business and governments and develop ultimately into the radioteletype networks.
The old fashioned telegraph continued on. Western Union introduced the singing telegram in 1933 and was still a means of communication until after World War II. During the war the sight of a Western Union courier became dreaded because the War Department sent telegrams to families informing of a death or sometimes a serious injury. The scene in A League of Their Own where Tom Hanks grabs the telegram from the messenger so that he could deliver it was not made up but reflected what most knew telegrams would announce.
The telephone though ultimately replaced the telegraph for most communications. When you could pick up a phone and tell someone important news, there was no need to go down to the Western Union office and pay by the word for a short succinct message when an inexpensive phone call would do it. Telegraph companies folded up, were bought up by larger companies, or completely rebranded. Today Western Union primarily transfers money (money orders, money transfers, and commercial transactions) and no longer performs any telegraph service.
The development of the telegraph allowed for more rapid dissemination of information unlike anything before. No longer were messages tied to the speed of ships, horses, trains and even feet. Major events could be learned quickly rather than weeks or months. It was a major technological step that unlocked other technologies that has changed the world dramatically.
Samuel Morse (Encyclopedia Britanica)
Morse Code & the Telegraph (History.com)