In our last installment, we saw how the component parts that could be used to build an electromagnetic telegraph came into being. Now let us see how they were put together.

The Time Ripens

By the 1830s, the time was ripe for the development of the telegraph on a large scale.

In the U.S. and Britain, the age of the projector was waning, and the age of the entrepreneur being born. New inventions had automated first the spinning then the weaving of cotton, transforming a whole sector of the economy and bringing together hundreds of unskilled workers into vast factories to tend the machines. The U.S. and France had created patent systems to encourage further innovations by granting a temporary monopoly to their creators, and the British had refined theirs. Joint-stock companies, chartered by the state to allow projects of special interest to raise capital from the public, were becoming more commonplace and would soon be regularized into law. Projects to transform the world with novel ideas were no longer targets of fun, but things undertaken by serious men.

Then there was the rapid growth of the railroads. In the U.S., each state hoped to gain a commercial advantage over its neighbors, so they fed the fledgling railroad companies with large grants of land, bond purchases, and other aid. By the end of the 1830s, they had built 3200 miles of track, and more than double that by the end of the next decade.1 In Britain, growth was fueled by investment from private speculators looking for an alternative to government bonds. Their enthusiasm for railroad companies reached a manic peak in 1845-6, then collapsed, leaving behind dozens of failed companies but thousands of miles of track.2

opening_liverpool_and_manchester_railway
Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1830)

Railroad and telegraph would grow in symbiosis. The railroad networks provided a ready-made trellis of pre-existing rights-of-way over which the telegraph wires could grow. The telegraph provided railroad companies with the means to  better coordinate trains, preventing jam-ups and accidents and increasing throughput.3

Into of this new environment came a number of men, in Europe and the United States, who believed they could at last bring the telegraph out of the laboratory and the lecture hall, and into the wider world.

Schilling

You may recall that in the early 1800s, Samuel Sömmering of Bavaria constructed a curious telegraph, that signaled letters with bubbles generated by the electrolysis of water (splitting it into to hydrogen and oxygen). Here we must return to that story, because, through a serendipitous sequence of events spanning the European continent, it played a part in the creation of the first electric telegraph to see commercial use.

Sömmering had a visitor in 1810, Baron Paul Ludovitch Schilling, from the Russian embassy to Bavaria. Schilling was fascinated by Sömmering’s device, and wanted to bring the electric telegraph to the Russian Empire. At the time, France and Russia were nominal allies under the Treaty of Tilsit of 1807, but tensions were already running high. Napoleon insisted that the Tsar cooperate in his Continental System, which excluded (in theory) the British from all commerce on the European mainland. Unable to sustain the economic cost, Russia withdrew from the compact in the same year as Schilling’s visit. It seemed likely that war would come again, and soon. Schilling hoped that the telegraph could help to coordinate Russia’s forces in the event of a French-led invasion.

In the event, Schilling was not able to build a telegraph in time for Napoleon’s 1812 crossing of the Neman River, though he did devise a method for remotely detonating mines by electricity. He evidently tinkered with ideas for a telegraph for the following decade, but as far as can be told, he made no real progress until the mid 1820s, when he developed a device using the Schweigger galvanometer as his detector. He used a single needle, hung from a wire and dampened by a mercury bath to prevent wild oscillations. A disc on the wire was painted black on one side and white on the other. When a current caused the needle to turn, it would expose one side or the other of the disc to the recipient, depending on which direction that the current flowed through the circuit. Each letter was encoded a series of these white/black signals (e.g. if the disc showed white then black, that indicated ‘A’) – a bi-signal code, one of many that predated the famous Morse code.

schilling-telegraph
Schilling’s telegraph. The device on the left is the receiver; on the right is an alarm which would be on a separate circuit, to notify the recipient to start paying attention.

In 1835, Schilling demonstrated this device before a meeting of naturalists in Bonn, where Geheime Muncke, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, was in attendance. Suitably impressed, Muncke had a copy of Schilling’s telegraph made for his own demonstrations in his lecture hall at the University.4 Schilling managed to interest the Tsar in an eight-mile line between the Peterhof palace and the island fortress of Kronstadt, but died in 1837, before he was able to bridge that shadow between idea and reality, and establish a long-distance telegraph line in his own country.

Cooke and Wheatstone

Yet Schilling’s encounter with Muncke proved fateful. For it so happened that William Cooke, the son of an English surgeon, came to study in Heidelberg soon thereafter. Cooke had spent five years in military service in India before falling ill and returning to Europe as a convalescent. He came to Heidelberg with the idea of learning how to make anatomical models, at which he proved quite skilled. But he became all afire with a new mission after seeing Muncke demonstrate his telegraph in March, 1836. As he wrote two decades later5:

…I happened to witness one of the common applications of electricity to telegraphic experiments, which had been repeated without practical result for half a century. Perceiving that the agent employed might be made available to purposes of higher utility than the illustration of a lecture, I at once abandoned my anatomical pursuits and applied my whole energies to the invention of a practical Electric Telegraph…

Cooke spent the next year working on a variety of telegraph designs, but remained stymied by the ‘Barlow problem‘: he could not get any of his designs to work through a significant length of wire. So he sought aid from the great scientific minds of Britain, starting with Michael Faraday. Faraday tried to pass off this presumed crank as quickly as possible, especially after Cooke mentioned his other great idea, for a perpetual motion machine. Cooke next turned to Peter Roget, Secretary of the Royal Society (and now most famous for his thesaurus), and Roget referred him to Charles Wheatstone, whom Cooke first met in February 1837.6

Wheatstone was a maker of musical instruments by trade, but also professor of experimental philosophy at the newly formed King’s College in London. And it so happens that he, too, had been experimenting with electric telegraphy. He was sufficiently intrigued by Cooke’s proposals to make a verbal agreement to a partnership by March. The two jointly filed for an English patent for their electric telegraph in May and signed a formal agreement in November.7

Here we enter turbulent waters, because the relative contribution of each man to this partnership became a matter of hot dispute after their falling out in 1840. We need not adjudicate that dispute here, but there is one interesting question worth lingering on: how did Cooke and Wheatstone overcome the ‘Barlow problem’, the problem of triggering electromagnetic effects over long circuits? On March 4, 1837, Cooke wrote that he and Wheatstone were still stymied by the fact of “the electrical fluid losing its magnetising quality in a lengthened course.”8 Yet certainly by the time they filed for a patent in May, Wheatstone and Cooke had a telegraph that worked over miles of wire.

How did they make this leap? There are several narrative lines that one could draw to connect the dots of the available evidence, but one seems most convincing to me. As we saw in our last installment, what they needed was a theory of circuits that would explain the configuration of equipment needed to send a signal through a long wire; and two were available: the mathematical model of the German Georg Ohm, and the descriptive model of the American Joseph Henry.

On April 1st, 1837, it so happens, Joseph Henry himself called on Wheatstone at King’s College. Henry was in the midst of a scientific tour of Europe. He records that Wheatstone informed him about Ohm’s law, and showed him a French translation of Ohm’s work from 1835; Henry, for his part, told Wheatstone about his electromagnetic experiments, in particular how he was able to use an intensity (high-voltage) circuit of great length to control a quantity (high-current) circuit with a powerful electromagnet.9

Some have claimed that this meeting was the decisive event, and that hearing Henry’s account of his experiments made Wheatstone realize the significance of Ohm’s law to the telegraph.10 However it seems probable from Henry’s own account of the meeting that Wheatstone was already well aware of the applicability of Ohm’s law to his telegraph – in particular the need for an ‘intensity’ battery with many cells in sequence to drive current through a long wire. It is tempting, though, to imagine Wheatstone saying a hasty farewell to Henry, then rushing to his lab to fix his telegraph, the volume of Silliman’s Journal with Henry’s paper on the electromagnet in one hand, and his translation of Ohm in the other.

The design on which Cooke and Wheatstone settled in their patent application consisted of five circuits, each controlling a single needle in basically the same manner as in Schilling’s telegraph. A clever keyboard devised by Wheatstone was used to pivot two needles so that their intersection would point to one of twenty desired letters (the less common letters such as Q were left out). Since there was no code, no special expertise was required of either sender or receiver. Ultimately, though, cost outweighed ease-of-use, and the charming five-needle design for which Cooke and Wheatstone are famous was in fact only ever used on the very first line, built. After that, the partners switched to two- and then one-needle receivers, which encoded each letter as a series of left/right needle positions.

cooke-wheatstone-five-needle

The year after forming their partnership, Cooke and Wheatstone snared their first client, the Great Western Railway. The railroad company agreed to install a five-needle test line between Paddington in central London and West Drayton, a distance of about 15 miles. Business after that was slow, though they found a few other railroads willing to build a modest test line. Not until 1842 did the Great Western Railway agree to extend their line the additional 6 miles to Slough, and then in 1843 to Windsor.

argus-great-western-railway
Argus, a Great Western Railway passenger locomotive

In the meantime, Cooke and Wheatstone successfully defended their patent against Edward Davy and William Alexander, fellow Britons with rival telegraph designs, ensuring that they would hold a monopoly on the telegraph in the United Kingdom for the near future.11 Then two great publicity coups helped to spur interest in their device: the announcement from Windsor of the birth of Queen Victoria’s latest child, and the capture of a murderer who had tried to escape from Slough into the city on a Great Western train. Soon new contracts came in; most notably a 30 mile line for the Admiralty, which had come around to the electric telegraph some three decades after roundly rejecting Francis Ronalds.

Cooke and Wheatstone’s partnership began to disintegrate in 1840, when they fell out over who deserved credit for their invention: each earnestly believed that the other was merely a midwife to their own creation. In a longer perspective, they were both midwives to a whole complex of electrical ideas that was decades in the making. But to be midwife to a thought is not nothing – without men like Cooke and Wheatstone, the telegraph would have remained, no more than a device for “the illustration of a lecture,” as Cooke put it.

Whoever its author, the creation would continue to operate for decades to come, under the auspices of the Electric Telegraph Company, with Cooke as director, until 1870. In that year the state took over all electrical telegraphs in the U.K., under the auspices of the Post Office, following the continental pattern. Wheatstone, meanwhile, returned to his own scientific and technical interests, and would play a major role in the development of submarine telegraph cables.12

Gauss, Weber, and Steinheil

What was probably the first electric telegraph ever used for practical communication was also one of the oddest. It was built by the famed mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and his physicist collaborator, Wilhelm Weber, in the city of Göttingen, then part of the Kingdom of Hanover.

Gauss and Weber had worked closely together on electricity and magnetism for years, and were in 1832 engaged in a deep study of geomagnetism – the structure of the magnetic field of the Earth itself.  To this end, the built a mile-and-a-half long circuit, strong across the housetops between their two workplaces: Gauss’ observatory, and Weber’s physical cabinet, in order to synchronize their magnetic measurements. One can only imagine the bemusement of the locals at the curious wires of Herr Doktor Professors Gauss and Weber.13

They soon realized, though, that they could also use the circuit they’d built to collaborate in other ways, by encoding letters in the signal. The system was quite unlike any other, largely because it was primarily a scientific instrument, and only incidentally a communication device. First, the electricity was generated not by galvanic action, but electromagnetic induction, a recently discovered effect whereby a magnetic field can create an electric current. The sender of a message slid a coil of wire up or down a magnet, inducing a current in the wire. The receiving device consisted of a long magnet suspended inside a tightly wound coil at the other end of the wire. But the deviations of this magnet were so minute that a third component was needed – a telescope that, when pointed at a mirror attached to the rotating magnet, could read the position of the magnet on a finely ruled scale. Each letter was encoded as a sequence of left/right motions on the scale.14

guass telegraph.png
The Gauss-Weber telegraph. The inductor for creating a current is at top, the receiver at left, and the observing telescope on the right.

Gauss and Weber used their telegraph regularly until December 1837, when the death of William IV brought an end to the personal union of the crowns of England and Hanover. The new ruler of Hanover, Ernst August, revoked its then-liberal constitution, and demanded a personal loyalty oath from its civil servants (to include university professors). Weber was one of several faculty at the University of Göttingen who signed a letter of protest, whereupon the government summarily dismissed them all from their positions. Weber eventually moved to Leipzig. Gauss thought the gesture futile, and did not sign, though the signature of his son-in-law meant a painful separation from his daughter. He remained in Göttingen until his death in 1855.15

It seems that Gauss and Weber, focused on their philosophical investigations, did not have the time nor the inclination to pursue the wider use of their telegraph. But around 1835, Carl Steinheil, a professor or math and physics in Munich, came to visit. He knew Gauss from his days as his student at Göttingen, and when he saw the Göttingen telegraph, its potential thrilled him: in particular, he saw its value as a signaling device for the burgeoning railways of Europe.

Within a year, he had a working telegraph of his own. He kept the magneto for inducing current in the wire, but replaced the heavy, slow-moving magnet and accompanying telescope with two signaling needles. Unlike in Clarke and Wheatstone’s two-needle system, both were controlled by a single circuit, arranged so that the needles turned in opposite directions, alternating with the direction of the current. Each needle was also connected to a well of ink. When a needle turned to the right, it would touch a strip of paper moved by clockwork. Thus by sending electric pulses in one direction or the other through the circuit, one could record a series of coded dots, in two rows, one above the other. Different sequences of high and low dots represented letters and the numbers 0-9. In order to make the code easier to learn, Steinheil made many of the patterns resemble the corresponding letter.

steinheils-receiver
Steinheil’s receiving device
steinheil-code
Steinheil’s code

Everywhere telegraph designers were converging on such bi-signal codes (they were not strictly speaking binary, because pauses had meaning). Prior to the 1830s, designers had tried to represent letters directly: either by using one wire per letter, or, trading space for time, by using synchronized letter dials. The former solution was prohibitively expensive at scale, and the latter painfully slow – if the dial is rotating once every 30 seconds, you would have to wait an average of 15 seconds between letters. A coding scheme avoided both of these problems, a bi-signal code was the simplest imaginable code, and electric circuits had an obvious way to express two signals: reverse the current.

To prove the practicality of his system, Steinheil erected a six-mile line between the Royal Academy in central Munich and the Royal Observatory in the suburb of Bogenhausen, with several smaller branch lines. In 1838, the Bavarian government funded a 5-mile test line on the railroad from Nuremberg to Fürth, but found the enterprise too expensive to continue further.16

Morse and Vail

At last we come to the one name that will spring to mind at the mention of the word telegraph, at least for those educated in the United States: Samuel F. B. Morse.

In 1832, Morse, a painter known up to then mostly for his portraiture, was on his way back from France with his latest creation, a fantasy of a great gallery containing in one panorama all of the most famous paintings in the Louvre, thus making all those masterpieces accessible to an American audience within a single frame. Aboard ship, he happened to sit down to dinner with Charles Jackson, a learned doctor from Boston, and the two got to talking about the latest discoveries in electricity and electromagnetism. Jackson remarked that Benjamin Franklin had long ago shown that electricity could pass through any length of wire. Morse, as he later recalled it, was struck with the force of revelation: “…if the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit I see no reason why intelligence might not be transmitted by electricity.”17

On reaching the United States, Morse set straight away to his project, in entire ignorance that others before had already built or were in the process of building electric telegraphs. He worked off and on his designs for the next five years, while continuing to pursue his painting career and also taking on a professorship in the fine arts at the newly formed New York University. Then in 1837, three events caused him to shift his energies fully to the telegraph.

First came his failure as a nativist politician. Morse was a firm believer in the destiny of American empire – but he believed the that influx of Germans, Irish and other degraded peoples then flooding the country would undermine that destiny. These “hermaphrodite” people, he believed, felt more loyalty to the Pope or their homelands than to America, and would undermine its virtue.18 In 1836, inflamed by his political convictions, Morse accepted the nomination of the Native American Democratic Association for the mayorship of New York City. He came in last out of four candidates, receiving 1500 votes against the 16,000 cast for the winner, the Democrat C.W. Lawrence.19

Morse’s next failure struck much deeper into his heart, for he had nursed for some time the dream of being a famed historical painter. He wanted to immortalize American greatness in the same way that Reubens had immortalized Ancient Greece, in his School of Athens. The main vehicle for those hopes was the four paintings planned for the rotunda of the new U.S. Capitol building. Even before leaving for Europe Morse had hoped for this commission, but in the spring of 1837 the final decision was made, and Morse was not among the four artists chosen.20

Morse was just beginning to recover from this disappointment when he received a new shock. On April 15, 1837, his brothers’ newspaper reprinted an item about two Frenchmen, Gonon and Serval, who had come to the U.S. to demonstrate their telegraph. They claimed it would revolutionize communications, bringing messages from New York to New Orleans in 30 minutes. In fact the Frenchmen were proposing an optical telegraph, of the sort already well-established in France by the brothers Chappe. But Morse thought his great idea had been discovered, and rushed both to gather evidence of his priority and to bring his electromagnetic telegraph to full fruition.

Having briefly been shaken, Morse now recovered his belief in himself. He would not contribute to American empire by being its great Painter, nor its great Politician, but its great Inventor. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the telegraph project.21 It should be clear by now that to dub Morse the inventor of the telegraph, full stop, would be an absurdity. There was no such person. In fact, rather than the invention of any device, Morse’s primary contributions to the electrical telegraph would be 1) his tenacity through years of rejection and disappointment; and 2) a knack for choosing good partners.22

The telegraph design that Morse had in hand in 1837 is the only telegraphic invention which can unequivocally be attributed to him. It never saw practical use, for reasons that may soon be obvious:

morse-port-rule-and-stretcher
Morse’s 1837 telegraph design

At the bottom of the illustration is Morse’s sending device, the “port rule.”  A sender creates his message by setting a series of metal teeth in a wooden rule, then runs the rule under a sending needle. As the needle moves up and down over the teeth, it opens and closes the telegraphic circuit.  Having to typeset every “how do you do” before sending it would have been tedious, to say the least.

At top is the receiver, made from a canvas stretcher. A pen dangles from a string, to which is also attached a bit of metal. When the circuit is closed, an electromagnet pulls the pen, dragging it across a piece of paper below. A weight-driven clockwork continuously pulls the roll of paper under the pen, so that each movement of the pen leaves a v-shaped stroke. A sequence of such strokes represented a number, which in turn referred to a word or passage in a code dictionary.23

Morse knew that his device was clunky, so much so that he was reluctant to show it to others. He also had another, more serious problem – the ‘Barlow problem’. His telegraph only worked over about 40 feet of wire. He soon found partners, though, who could help him with these two aspects of the telegraph: mechanical and electrical.

For the more crucial problem of distance, Morse turned to a colleague at New York University, chemistry professor Leonard Gale. Gale immediately knew what was wrong with Morse’s equipment, having read Joseph Henry’s 1831 paper on ‘intensity’ batteries and electromagnets, and their application to the telegraph.24 He replaced Morse’s single cell battery with one with 40 cells, and created a tightly wound magnet like that described by Henry. Morse soon was able to demonstrate his telegraph at the University over a circuit one-third of a mile long.25

After his demonstration, Morse was approached by a former student and skilled mechanic, Alfred Vail. In return for a quarter interest in the invention, Vail agreed to construct a new model telegraph (using money from his family, which owned the Speedwell Iron Works in New Jersey), suitable for real use. Vail replaced the port rule with a simple switch, operated by a push button lever, known as the ‘key’. He greatly simplified the mechanisms of the receiver, and replace the dangling pen with a spring-loaded bar with a nub that would register marks on the paper.26

vail-key
Vail’s key
vail-receiver
Vail’s receiver

Now Morse was ready to pursue the primary customer that he had in mind: the U.S. government. Earlier in 1837, the House of Representatives had inquired into the possibility of establishing a telegraph from New York to New Orleans – they had an optical system in mind. On their behalf, the Secretary of the Treasury sent out a request for information and proposals on telegraphs. Morse now responded, with a proposal for an electric telegraph, which, he argued, would be cheaper, more secret, and work at all times of day and in all weather.27

The U.S. was at this time in the midst of a decades-long debate over internal improvements: whether it was meet and proper for the government to involve itself in what we would now call infrastructure spending. The Whigs, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, largely favored such investments as a means to stimulate commerce and stitch together the vast American continent, while the Jacksonian Democrats for the most part opposed them as seedbeds of corruption and favoritism.

Caught up in this dispute, Morse would fight for almost six years for Congressional approval. In the meantime, he made a trip to Europe to seek patents and potential partners, and learn more about his rivals. He had no success securing European rights for his telegraph. The British Attorney General refused outright to consider his request. He was able to lodge a caveat in France, but that had no meaning without an order from the government, which controlled all telegraphs in France by law, to actually build something. Likewise, though Morse drew interest from many parties, from Lord Elgin (of the famed marbles) to an agent of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia (who, you will recall, had planned to build Schilling’s telegraph), none signed a deal to build a Morse telegraph in Europe.

Nonetheless, the visit did nothing to diminish Morse’s confidence in his project. He visited Wheatstone and heard reports about Steinheil’s telegraph, and came away convinced him that he had the only telegraph that had both a single circuit (Cooke and Wheatstone were not yet using a single-needle design) and a recording device (Morse believed that without a paper record, messages would be lost due to distracted operators). He was wrong about this – Steinheil’s telegraph had both these features. Reports of Steinheil’s receiver may have been confused because it used two needles, so it was assumed to be like Cooke and Wheatstone’s two-needle device, which did use two circuits.28

Sometime before his trip to Europe, Morse  had conceived of his famous code: a bi-signal coded alphabet, like those of other telegraph entrepreneurs. But it had a substantial advantage, because it used the duration of the electric pulse, rather than its direction, to discriminate between the two signals. Morse’s near total ignorance of electrical science may have worked to his advantage, causing him to overlook the more obvious choice. This simplified both the equipment (no need for a commutator to reverse the current) and its operation (no need to remember which directional ‘mode’ you are in).29

In 1843, Morse finally won a $30,000 appropriation from Congress to build a test line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. The line was ready in May, 1844, just in time for the Democratic convention being held in Baltimore that year. The initial demonstration with the now famous message, “What hath God wrought” made little impression at the time. But the convention news caused a sensation among the Washington political class. Suddenly, political junkies could get breaking news on votes and other events at the convention almost instantly, from miles away.30

The success of that convention’s candidate in the subsequent Presidential election, however, signaled a change in the political winds. Neither the newly elected Polk nor the Democratic Congress that accompanied him into office were interested in schemes for internal improvements. They were focused instead on the annexation of Texas, and beyond. It became clear that the Baltimore-Washington experiment would have no sequel, and that Morse would be forced to seek private investors.

But Morse, who had always wanted to simply sell his patent rights to the government wholesale, had little interest in involving himself in the world of business and finance. So he delegated this work to a new partner, Amos Kendall, the well-connected former Postmaster General. Kendall formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company and did the messy work of money-raising, politicking, deal-making necessary to expand Morse’s telegraph. It was under his auspices that wooden poles and copper wires began to thread their way across the U.S. in earnest – first up the seaboard to Philadelphia, New York, Boston; then westward into the interior.31

Because it was much cheaper to string up wires than to lay rail, the telegraph network would outrace its predecessor, connecting New Orleans and San Francisco to the eastern seaboard before the railroads did. Over 10,000 miles of wire were already in place in the U.S. by the 1850. As with the French optical telegraph, the development of this network was spurred by war: the population centers of the East wanted the latest news about the conflict with Mexico that the expansionist Polk administration had provoked in 1846. The primary use of the wires, however, was for commerce, especially finance – the communication of commodity and stock prices. The nation now possessed a vast new commercial nervous system to operate hand-in-hand with the circulatory system of the rails.32

The Morse/Vail system became the most widely used in the world, eclipsing Cooke and Wheatstone’s, Steinheil’s, and many others. There were probably two main reasons for this: the scope for rapid expansion offered by the vast American continent, and the simplicity of Vail’s equipment and Morse’s code. There was one important post-hoc modification, though: telegraph operators found that they could transcribe a message much faster by simply listening to the tapping sounds of the metal bar, rather than moving their eyes constantly between the code written on the tape and their own transcription. The recording device, which Morse had considered essential, was abandoned.

telegraph_sounder
Telegraph ‘sounder’, non-recording receiver

A Fond Farewell

It is impossible to pin down the moment and the man in all of these criss-crossing narratives where the telegraph was invented by its inventor. And this is the simplified version, leaving out men such as Davy, Bain, Alexander, Dyar; and many more cross-pollinations, such as Gauss’ visit to Sömmering, Schilling’s visit to Gauss, and Morse’s conversations with Henry. In the final analysis, Morse was the primary motive force behind the 1844 Washington to Baltimore line. Because that was the basis for the ensuing American telegraph empire and its many client states, Morse would garner the lion’s share of the credit for the telegraph.

Whatever its provenance, the creation the electric telegraph was received by contemporaries as a transformative event in human history, on a par with the railroad and the steamship, all contributing together to the annihilation of space and time. Looking back decades later, Henry Adams wrote that “[h]e and his eighteenth-century, troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart… his new world was ready for use, and only fragments of the old met his eyes.”33

Henry Thoreau had a rather more skeptical view, writing in Walden that the telegraph and its ilk were no more than an “improved means to an unimproved end.” Both views are right, I think. Contrary to the best hopes of some, Morse included, the telegraph brought about no moral transformation. Improved communication did not bring about the closer union of mankind and world peace – quite to the contrary. But the telegraph did transform politics, commerce, war, and more.

A history of the telegraph might pursue any number of the threads leading away from this decisive moment. It might follow the history of enterprise – conflicts between the Magnetic Telegraph Company and its competitors, the formation of Western Union, the failure to gain control of the telephone, and so forth. Or, instead, it could focus on the technical advancements that furthered the growing scale and scope of the telegraph system – the duplex for two-way communication on a single wire, Thomas Edison’s quadruplex, the stock ticker, the submarine cable. Perhaps most interesting would be to consider the social and political uses of the telegraph, in journalism, finance, the management of empire, and beyond. 

But, contrary to all appearances thus far, this is not a history of the telegraph. And so we must bid adieu to all those stories, and wish the telegraph the best of luck on its many journeys. We must turn back the clock once more to the 1830s, to finally find what we came for in the first place – the switch.

Further Reading

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007)

W. James King, “The Development of Electrical Technology in the 19th Century: [The Telegraph]”, in George Shiers, ed., The Electric Telegraph: An Historical Anthology (1977).

E.A. Marland, Early Electrical Communication (1964)

Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (2003)


  1. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), 564-565. 
  2. Andrew Odlyzko, “Collective hallucinations and inefficient markets: The British Railway Mania of the 1840s” (2010), 77-81. 
  3. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977), 89. 
  4.  Dr. Hamel, “Historical Account of the Introduction of the Galvanic and Electromagnetic Telegraph” in Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 7, London (1859), 597-599 and 605-607. 
  5. W.F. Cooke, The Electric Telegraph, was it invented by Professor Wheatstone? (1854), 20. 
  6. Brian Bowers, Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS, 1802-1875 (2001), 122-124. 
  7.  Bowers, Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS, 119-125. 
  8. Quoted in J.J. Fahie, A History of the Electric Telegraph to the Year 1837 (1974 [1884]), 513. 
  9. Nathan Reingold, ed., The Papers of Joseph Henry, vol. 3 (1979), 216-223. 
  10. For this argument, see William B. Taylor, “An Historical Sketch of Henry’s Contribution to the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph” (1879) in George Shiers, ed., The Electric Telegraph: An Historical Anthology (1977), 77-84. 
  11. The details are a bit more complex, since at the time each of the kingdoms in the United Kingdom required a separate patent application. But the upshot is the same. Bowers, Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS, 126-127. The rather tragic story of Davy’s telegraph is told in detail in Fahie, A History of the Electric Telegraph to the Year 1837
  12.  Bowers, Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS, 151-156. 
  13.  Joseph F. Keithley, The Story of Electrical and Magnetic Measurements: From 500 BC to the 1940s (1999), 112-113. 
  14. J.J. Fahie, A History of Electric Telegraphy to the Year 1837 (1974 [1884]), 319-325. Due to the impossibility of putting relays under the ocean to re-strengthen the signal, a similar high-precision galvanometric device was used in the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Alvin F. Harlow, Old Wires and New Waves (1936), 227. 
  15. G. Waldo Dunnington, Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science (2004), 197-199. 
  16. Anton A. Huurdeman, The Worldwide History of Telecommunications (2003), 52-53; Fahie, A History of Electric Telegraphy to the Year 1837, 326-348. The sources I have found on Steinheil’s telegraph are vague and sometimes contradictory, so take this account with a grain of salt. 
  17.  Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (2003), 152-154. 
  18.  No doubt the first Americans came to feel the same, and with greater cause, about the pox-ridden Britons who washed up on their shores; and likewise the great ground sloth cast a skeptical eye on those first men who tramped across his virgin continent, terrible spears in their hands and dark intent in their hearts. But I digress. 
  19. Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (2003), 139-142. 
  20. Silverman, Lightning Man, 92, 122, 144-145. 
  21. Silverman, Lightning Man, 147-150, 158-160. 
  22. Morse had previously worked on other inventions: a double-pump for fire engines and the like, and a marble-carving machine for the automatic reproduction of statues. Neither was a success. Carleton Mabee, The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (1969), 62 and 82. 
  23. Silverman, Lightning Man, 148-150. 
  24. Henry had no problem with Morse and his partners reaping all the profits of the telegraph patent, but became infuriated when Vail wrote a book on the invention of the telegraph that failed to mention Henry. Henry lived in the scientific world, where the most important currency was not monopoly rights and the dollars that flow from them, but credit for discovery.  The other major dispute of his life had the same basis – his effort to get some part of the credit for the discovery of electromagnetic induction. There, too, he was unsuccessful, with all the glory falling to Michael Faraday. 
  25. Silverman, Lightning Man, 159-160. 
  26. Silverman, Lightning Man, 161-164. 
  27.  Carleton Mabee, The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (1969), 196. 
  28. Silverman, Lightning Man, 174-191. 
  29. Silverman, Lightning Man, 167. 
  30. Silverman, Lightning Man, 220-238; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), 694. 
  31. Silverman, Lightning Man, 261-262. 
  32.  Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), 695-696. 
  33. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918), 5. 
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s