The first attempt to lay an Atlantic telegraph cable occurred over 160 years ago. On July 1857, the job of laying 2500 tons of cable across the ocean began. Though the attempt failed (and it would take another nine years for a properly working telegraphy link between Britain and America to function), it marked an important milestone in the coming of, what Marshall McLuhan called a hundred years later, “the global village”.
The story of the transatlantic cable and telegraphy is covered in English author Tom Standage’s 1998 book “The Victorian Internet”. Standage says the way the telegraph revolutionised the 19th century world is remarkably similar to how the Internet is doing the same thing a century and a half later. Both communication mechanisms initially proved immune to regulation while both also annihilated distance, revolutionised business, and gave rise to new forms of vocabulary, crime and romance.
Standage traces telegraphy back to a bizarre experiment zapping Parisian monks in 1746. French scientist Abbe Jean-Antoine Nollet dished out electric shocks to a line of 200 unsuspecting Carthusian monks each carrying 7.5 metres of iron wire. Nollet’s electrotherapy proved electricity could travel quickly over great distance and held out the promise of high speed signalling between remote places.
The first practical signalling device didn’t involve electric wires. Fifty years after Nollet, his compatriot Claude Chappe evolved a messaging system from coded black-and-white panels, synchronised clocks and a telescope. In 1791 he sent a message to his brother 16kms away, “if you succeed, you will be covered in glory”. Chappe called his new invention “le télégraphe” from the Greek words for far writer. Chappe eventually did away with clocks and used a regulating rotating arm with 94 code symbols. The French government saw the potential of the new invention and built a network of towers to ferry news between towns.
Napoleon was a firm believer in the telegraph and in 1804 ordered the construction of a line from Paris to Milan. Britain followed suit and by the 1830s telegraph towers were over Europe. But the optical telegraph was fundamentally flawed. Towers were expensive to build, anyone could see the signal and the process needed clear daylight to work. The race was on to build the prototype for an electric telegraph.
In 1820, Danish physicist Hans Oersted discovered an electric current produces a magnetic field to deflect a compass needle. The same year German Johann Schweigger (who also named the element chlorine) invented the galvanometer. With the electromagnet and the voltaic battery, the galvanometer was the foundation of a working electric telegraph. Two amateur scientists separated by the Atlantic Ocean and unknown to each other made it work: Samuel Morse in New Haven and William Fothergill Cooke in London. Both men patented their work in 1837.
Cooke’s English telegraph was greatly helped by Professor Charles Wheatstone who knew how to get signals to travel long distances. Wheatstone was an experimental scientist while Cooke was a go-getting entrepreneur. Together they successfully designed and patented a five-needle telegraph to allow for 20 letters (C, J, Q, U, X and Z missed out).
While Cooke and Wheatstone took a few months to perfect the telegraph, Morse spent five years getting his invention ready. His design was overly complex and he ran into similar issues in getting signals to travel long distances. He was greatly assisted by his partner Alfred Vail. They developed the code that bears Morse’s name based on long and short bursts of current. They also simplified the design to make a working telegraph. All they had to do now was sell it.
He had difficulty convincing sceptics of its use. Morse failed to win over US congress and was equally unsuccessful on a sales trip to Europe. Cooke managed to get the Great Western Railway to run a 21km telegraph link between Paddington and West Drayton stations. But the railway lost interest and Cooke paid his own money to extend the line to Slough. By 1841 Cooke thought his new invention was foundering.
Morse eventually won government funding to build an experimental line. He ran a line alongside the 64km railway track between Washington and Baltimore. Before it was finished, Morse used the line to transmit the Whig Party presidential nomination in Baltimore 64 minutes before the news arrived in Washington by train. Three weeks later, on 24 May 1844, Morse inaugurated the line from Washington sending a quote to Vail in Baltimore from the Book of Numbers 23:23 “What hath God wrought.”
In Britain, the telegraph took off a year later transmitting news from Windsor Castle to London. Queen Victoria gave birth to her second son Alfred Ernest on 6 August 1844 and within 40 minutes, “The Times” announced the news on the streets of London “indebted to the extraordinary power of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph”. It was soon impressing the police too when used to apprehend a killer. John Tawell murdered his mistress and absconded by train from the scene of the crime in Slough. Police sent his description on by telegraph ‘dressed like a Kwaker’ (in the absence of Q’s) and he was apprehended at the other end. The wires were lauded as “the cords that hung John Tawell”.
US congress remained apathetic to Morse’s version despite his Washington experiments. He teamed up with Amos Kendall who proposed a private operation. They set up the Magnetic Telegraph Company and built lines to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and New York. Kendall advertised in the New York newspapers saying the fee for sending a telegraph was 25 cents for 10 words. The business quickly made profits.
Telegraph growth was explosive. By 1850, there was almost 20,000kms of wire in the US. It was used by bankers, merchants, government, police, business, shipping, courts and what one British writer called “messages of every character usually sent by the mail”. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London had 13 designs for improvements on the telegraph. By 1852, Prussia laid 2400 kms radiating out from Berlin. Austria and Canada nearly had as much and lines were laid in Italy, Spain, Russia, Holland, Australia, Chile and Cuba. Only France was obstinate, reluctant to abandon the optical telegraphy they gave the world 50 years earlier.
Messages were quickly dubbed ‘telegrams’ sent by central telegraph offices to destinations and transcribed onto paper. Telegraph messenger boys, including Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie took the messages to the recipient.
Prussia and Austria signed the first interconnection treaty in 1849 but until someone could solve the problem of underwater cables failing due to the deterioration of rubber in water, Britain remained isolated. The solution was south-east Asian gutta-percha, rubbery gum hard at room temperature but malleable and soft in hot water. The first direct message was sent from London to Paris in 1852. Ireland was linked a year later. Deepwater cable-laying across the Atlantic was the next challenge
The first cable was laid in 1857 but snapped as did a replacement cable. A third cable successfully crossed the Atlantic a year later but was very slow and lasted just three weeks before dying. Aided by Scottish scientist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) an inquiry into the failed cable demonstrated the conducting core was too small and the use of high voltage induction coils destroyed the cables insulation. In July 1866 the two continents were linked by a newer sturdy cable which was quickly duplicated and inventor Cyrus Field was hailed as “the Columbus of our time”.
By the 1850s congestion was a major problem for telegraph offices. Bottlenecks arose as messages were held up due to the enormous traffic. London solved the problem by using steam-powered pneumatic tubes to carry messages short distances. The idea was copied in other English cities and spread worldwide. In Paris the system was extensive enough to often avoid sending telegraphs at all. In New York the tubes were large enough to carry large parcels and on one occasion a cat was sent from one post office to another by pneumatic tube.
By the 1870s, the Victorian Internet was in place. Cables reached India, China and Japan in 1870, Australia a year later and South America in 1874. The world had over a million kms of wire and 48,000 kms of submarine cable linking 20,000 towns and villages. Messages went from London to Bombay and back in under four minutes. The newspaper named after the invention, the Daily Telegraph, proclaimed “time itself was telegraphed out of existence”.
Newspapers also worried it might put them out of business. But while telegraphs could quickly transport news, it could not easily distribute news to readers. So the newspapers formed networks of reporters who dispatched news from distant places. These networks became known as news agencies. The New York Associated Press began in 1848 and soon dominated the selling of news to newspapers. In Europe Paul Julius Reuter established his own agency, initially by carrier pigeon and eventually by telegraph.
The Times reporter William Howard Russell was the world’s first war correspondent sending dispatches to London from the front line of the Crimean war. Russell was not allowed to use the Black Sea cable the British built for the war but his speedy missives highlighted military inefficiencies and made Florence Nightingale a national hero.
By the 1870s the dominant era of the telegraph was about to end. Most offices had automatic telegraphs capable of 400 words a minute – ten times faster than the quickest human operators. Duplex and then quadruplex systems carried four streams of traffic simultaneously. The technology changed telegraphy into a low-skill occupation. But the ‘harmonic telegraph’ had the greatest effect.
Harmonic telegraphs distinguish notes of different pitch by using reeds vibrating at different frequencies. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell both worked on variations of harmonic machines capable of making more than telegraphy. In 1876 Bell filed a patent for a machine to transmit the human voice when he found out that Gray was working on the same goal. By the end of the year, the ‘telephone’ was ready. Initially seen as a speaking telegraph, it was an instant success going from 230 handsets in 1877 to 30,000 three years later.
Samuel Morse died in 1872, aged 81. The invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879 was the final straw for the telegraph. Thanks to Edison, Tesla and others, it became the electric age and the telegraphic journals began to rename themselves. The Telegraphers’ Advocate became the Electric Age, the Operator became Electrical World, and The Telegraphic Journal became the Electrical Review. By the end of the century, the telephone reigned supreme. The era of the telegraph was over.