The Invention of the Telegraph Changed Communication Forever

A communication revolution wired the world in the 19th century

Close-Up Of Telegraph Machine
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When British officials wished to communicate between London and the naval base at Portsmouth in the early 1800s, they utilized a system called a semaphore chain. A series of towers built on high points of land held contraptions with shutters, and men working the shutters could flash signals from tower to tower.

A semaphore message could be relayed the 85 miles between Portsmouth and London in about 15 minutes. Clever as the system was, it was really just an improvement on signal fires, which had been used since ancient times.

There was a need for much faster communication. And by the middle of the century, Britain’s semaphore chain was obsolete.

The Invention of the Telegraph

An American professor, Samuel F.B. Morse, began experimenting with sending communications via electromagnetic signal in the early 1830s. In 1838 he was able to demonstrate the device by sending a message across two miles of wire in Morristown, New Jersey.

Morse eventually received funds from Congress to install a line for demonstration between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. After an abortive effort to bury wires, it was decided to hang them from poles, and wire was strung between the two cities.

On May 24, 1844, Morse, stationed in the Supreme Court chambers, which were then in the US Capitol, sent a message to his assistant Alfred Vail in Baltimore. The famous first message: “What hath God wrought.”

News Traveled Quickly After the Invention of the Telegraph

The practical importance of the telegraph was obvious, and in 1846 a new business, the Associated Press, began using the rapidly spreading telegraph lines to send dispatches to newspaper offices. Election results were gathered via telegraph by the AP for the first time for the 1848 presidential election, won by Zachary Taylor.

In the following year AP workers stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, begin intercepting news arriving on boats from Europe and telegraphing it to New York, where it could appear in print days before the boats reached New York harbor.

Abraham Lincoln Was a Technological President

By the time Abraham Lincoln became president the telegraph had become an accepted part of American life. Lincoln's first State of the Union message was transmitted over the telegraph wires, as the New York Times reported on December 4, 1861:​

The message of President Lincoln was telegraphed yesterday to all parts of the loyal states. The message contained 7, 578 words, and was all received in this city in one hour and 32 minutes, a feat of telegraphing unparalleled in the Old or New World.

Lincoln's own fascination with the technology led him to spend many hours during the Civil War in the telegraph room of the War Department building near the White House. The young men who manned the telegraph equipment later recalled him sometimes staying overnight, awaiting messages from his military commanders.

The president would generally write his messages in longhand, and telegraph operators would relay them, in military cipher, to the front. Some of Lincoln's messages are examples of emphatic brevity, such as when he advised General Ulysses S. Grant, at City Point, Virginia in August 1864: “Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible. A. Lincoln.”

A Telegraph Cable Reached Under the Atlantic Ocean

During the Civil War construction of telegraph lines to the west proceeded, and news from the distant territories could be sent to the eastern cities almost instantly. But the biggest challenge, which seemed utterly impossible, would be to lay a telegraph cable under the ocean from North America to Europe.

In 1851 a functional telegraph cable had been laid across the English Channel. Not only could news travel between Paris and London, but the technological feat seemed to symbolize the peace between Britain and France just a few decades after the Napoleonic Wars. Soon telegraph companies began surveying the coast of Nova Scotia to prepare for laying cable.

An American businessman, Cyrus Field, became involved in the plan to put a cable across the Atlantic in 1854. Field raised money from his wealthy neighbors in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, and a new company was formed, the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company.

In 1857, two ships chartered by Field's company began laying the 2,500 miles of cable, setting off from Ireland's Dingle Peninsula. The initial effort soon failed, and another attempt was put off until the following year.

Telegraph Messages Crossed the Ocean By Undersea Cable

The effort to lay the cable in 1858 met with problems, but they were overcome and on August 5, 1858, Cyrus Field was able to send a message from Newfoundland to Ireland via the cable. On August 16 Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory message to President James Buchanan.

Cyrus Field was treated as a hero upon arrival in New York City, but soon the cable went dead. Field resolved to perfect the cable, and by the end of the Civil War he was able to arrange more financing. An attempt to lay cable in 1865 failed when the cable snapped just 600 miles from Newfoundland.

An improved cable was finally put in place in 1866. Messages were soon flowing between the United States and Europe. And the cable which snapped the previous year was located and repaired, so two functional cables were operating.

The Telegraph Was Depicted In the Capitol Dome

Constantino Brumidi, the Italian-born artist who was painting inside the newly expanded US Capitol, incorporated the transatlantic cable into two beautiful paintings. The artist was an optimist, as his lofty depictions were completed a few years before the cable was finally proven successful.

In the oil painting Telegraph, Europe is portrayed as clasping hands with America while a cherub offers a telegraph wire. The spectacular fresco inside the top of the Capitol's dome, Apotheosis of Washington has a panel titled Marine showing Venus helping to lay the transatlantic cable.

In the Late 1800s Telegraph Wires Covered the World

In the years following Field's success, underwater cables connected the Middle East with India, and Singapore with Australia. By the end of the 19th century, much of the globe was wired for communication.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Invention of the Telegraph Changed Communication Forever." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, January 26). The Invention of the Telegraph Changed Communication Forever. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Invention of the Telegraph Changed Communication Forever." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).