"What Hath God Wrought," four words that changed the world. These words, which you are hearing being sent in American Morse code as you read this, were the first message sent by the new electric magnetic telegraph on May 24, 1844. Before the internet and e-mail, before radio and before the telephone, American Morse Telegraph became the first commonly available means of communications that was faster than a person could walk, ride horseback or sail a boat. The famed Pony Express was put out of business in 1861, after only 19 months, when telegraph wires reached Salt Lake City, completing the span of the continent, and it became possible to send transcontinental messages in minutes instead of weeks.
For a more complete analysis of the impact of the electric magnetic telegraph, the viewer is invited to see the 2008 Pulitzer Prize history, What Hath God Wrought, The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, written by Daniel Walker Howe.
Samuel F. B. Morse, assisted by Alfred Vail, perfected the early, crude, telegraph instruments in 1840 and Morse developed the simple letter code which enabled messages to be sent. In June 1847 construction of a telegraph line between Boston and New York was completed, as well as lines from New York to Buffalo, Buffalo to Toronto, Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and the original Washington-Baltimore line had been extended to New York. By the 1850s, the use of the telegraph was widespread in North America and in Europe. It was used by news organizations, stock brokers and other businesses, as well as to send personal messages, usually involving birth, death or marriage. In 1864, an underwater cable was laid in the Persian Gulf, enabling England to have direct communication with its Indian colony. In 1865, the first successful transAtlantic cable was laid, creating almost instantaneous communication between the Old World and the New.
Early telegraph lines on land were strung along railroad rights of way, because those rights of way already existed and provided easy access. It was only natural that railroad station agents became telegraph operators for one of the many small telegraph companies which eventually became Western Union and Postal Telegraph. The railroads took advantage of this arrangement and began to use the telegraph to direct and control the movement of trains, thus beginning the long, close association of telegraphy and railroading.
The U. S. Civil War marked the first time that almost instant communications were available to military commanders. Telegraph operators were an important part of the military for both the North and the South, and were even sent aloft in hot-air balloons to report on enemy activities.
The American Morse Code was devised by Samuel Morse for the English language. When electromagnetic telegraphy reached the European continent, modifications were made to the code, primarily by eliminating the spaces found in American Morse, to better suit their situation. This modified code became known as Continental Code. In 1896, fifty years after the Morse telegraph began to be used, Marconi was issued the first of many patents pertaining to radio. The Continental Code was adopted for use in radio transmissions. Later, when international standards were put in effect for radio communications, including the use of SOS as an emergency signal, the Continental Code was renamed the International Code, the name by which it is known today.
Today, there are very few commercial uses of either landline or radio code. The Morse Telegraph Club is dedicated to preserving the history and knowledge of telegraphy.
Viewers may go to www.memory.loc.gov/ammem/atthtml/morse2.html to view a photograph in the Library of Congress of the actual paper tape from the first electric magnetic telegraph transmission, annotated by Samuel F. B. Morse in his own handwriting. Click on the image to enlarge it for better viewing.
EARLY LITERATURE ABOUT TELEGRAPHY
Morse Telegraph Club member Abram Burnett has located several early books on telegraphy which are available on-line. Some can be downloaded to be read on a computer or e-reader, while others must be read on-line
The following books are available at Project Gutenberg, <www.gutenberg.org> GoogleBooks <www.books.google.com> or Archive.org <http//archive.org>:
Samuel F B Morse - His Life and Letters, by his son Edward Lind Morse, 1914, Volumes 1 & 2
Telegraph in America, James D. Reid, 1888
Early History of the Telegraph, J. C. Vail (son of Alfred Vail,,) 1914
Life of Samuel F B Morse, by Samuel I Prime, 1875
American Inventors of the Telegraph, by Franklin L. Pope, 1888
Chapters of Telegraph History, published by American Telegraph Magazine, 1861
Life of James Francis Leonard, by John W. Townsend, 1908. (Townsend makes the case that Leonard was the first to learn to read by ear.)
Other books, documents and film may be found at the Morse Telegraph Club website. (click on the link on the Links page of this site). Once on the Morse Telegraph Club site, click on the "Switchboard" button and on the drop down menu select either "Telegraph Documents," "Telegraph Links," or "Telegraph Library."
Before 1844, Samuel Morse's greatest ambition was to be honored as one of America's great artists by being selected to paint one of the six large murals to be painted in the rotunda of the U.S.Capitol building. He was not so honored, but in a great irony, he became one of the subjects of one of the murals. The Apotheosis of Washington, was painted by Constantino Burmidi in 1865. The painting features the Goddess Minerva teaching Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton and Samuel F. B. Morse. Next to that scene, Neptune and Venus are depicted standing in a boat with Venus holding up the first trans-Atlantic cable, which was in the process of being laid at the time Burmidi was painting the scene. Morse was still alive at the time. There is a photo of the painting at http://atlantic-cable.com/Capitol/capitol.htm
Excerpt from Scientific American, July 1858 --- TELEGRAPH CLAIMS- "It is well known that the English claim the invention of the magnetic telegraph for their countryman, Prof. Wheatstone. The Transatlantic telegraph enterprise has caused the subject of priority of invention to be much talked of in Europe. The Paris Moniteur says: `No doubt the discovery of the principles upon which the electric telegraph system is founded does not belong to M. Morse, but he was the first to transfer that discovery from the region of speculative science into that of practical application."'
Interested viewers may check out the video links on the "LINKS" page of this site to see several videos concerning the early days of the electromagnetic telegraph.
150 YEARS AGO, A PRIMITIVE INTERNET UNITED THE USA
By JOHN ROGERS - Associated Press |
LOS ANGELES (AP) —
Long before there was an Internet or an iPad, before people were social networking and instant messaging, Americans had already gotten wired.
Monday, Oct. 24, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental telegraph. From sea to sea, it electronically knitted together a nation that was simultaneously tearing itself apart, North and South, in the Civil War.
Americans soon saw that a breakthrough in the spread of technology could enhance national identity and, just as today, that it could vastly change lives.
"It was huge," says Amy Fischer, archivist for Western Union, which strung the line across mountains, canyons and tribal lands to make the final connection. "... With the Civil War just a few months old, the idea that California, the growing cities of California, could talk to Washington and the East Coast in real time was huge. It's hard to overstate the impact of that."
On Oct. 24, 1861, with the push of a button, California's chief justice, Stephen J. Field, wired a message from San Francisco to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, congratulating him on the transcontinental telegraph's completion that day. He added the wish that it would be a "means of strengthening the attachment which binds both the East and the West to the Union."
A rudimentary version of the Internet — not much more advanced than two tin cans and a string — had been born. But it worked, and it grew.
Just a few years after the nation was wired, telegraph technology would be extended to the rest of North America, and soon cylindrical wires from Mexico to Canada would jangle with little bursts of electromagnetic juice, sending messages of every kind and redefining how communication can mean business.
As the United States rebuilt itself following the devastating Civil War, it did so in no small part with money wired from Washington. In 1869, when the final piece of track connecting the transcontinental railroad was laid in Promontory, Utah, a young news organization called The Associated Press sent a story about it out on the wire.
"I really see the telegraph as the original technology, the grandfather of all these other technologies that came out of it: the telephone, the teletype, the fax, the Internet," said telegraph historian Thomas Jepsen, author of "My Sisters Telegraphic: Women In Telegraph Office 1846-1950."
In its time, the telegraph was in some ways an even greater influence on the way people communicate than the Internet is today.
"The transcontinental telegraph put the Pony Express out of business in the literal click of a telegrapher's key. That's not an exaggeration," says Christopher Corbett, author of "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express."
Indeed, the Pony Express, which boasted it could deliver a letter from Sacramento to St. Joseph, Mo., in the unheard of time of 10 days when it began operations on April 3, 1860, shut down 19 months later — on the same day the transcontinental telegraph went live.
Though dramatic, that was a short-term effect. "But the longer-term effect was we connected the nation in real time. ...," says Fischer. "For the first time, businesses could do business nationally. The government could communicate nationally in almost real time."
Just as the iPad, the iPod and the personal computer had a visionary genius behind them in Steve Jobs, the telegraph had one in Samuel F.B. Morse.
A painter and part-time inventor who twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York, Morse was in his early 40s in 1831 when he came up with the idea for the telegraph. He said in his papers at the Library of Congress that it was inspired by a discussion about electromagnetics with a fellow passenger on an ocean liner.
By the mid-1830s he'd developed Morse Code, the series of dots and dashes that telegraph key operators would tap out on their little contraptions. The result would flash across the country, and later around the world, where it would be translated back into words on the other end.
Morse obtained a patent for his telegraph in 1840, and four years later he sent his famous first message — "What hath God wrought?" — over a line he'd strung from Washington to Baltimore with $30,000 in federal money.
The technology took off. In 1845, more than a century before the TV show "America's Most Wanted," a man named John Tawell was arrested in England for the murder of his mistress after police received a telegraphed tip, telling them where he was.
A year later, the AP was formed and began relaying news of the Mexican-American War through a combination of telegraph wires and horseback riders, which demonstrated a limitation in the new technology.
"The early days of the telegraph were a lot like the early days of the Internet," says Fischer. "There were a lot of little one-off companies that would connect one or maybe two cities, but no big networks."
Thus the need for the guys on horseback, to get the information to the next telegraph station.
By 1860, the telegraph was a lot like an early cell-phone system. Only instead of losing the connection when you stepped behind a big building, you lost it if you traveled west of Omaha, Neb. From the West coast, a message could be sent only as far east as Nevada.
The Pacific Telegraph Act would change that, becoming one of the first instances of the federal government setting telecommunications policy. Passed in 1860, it called for the government to hire a company that would extend the line across Nebraska, through Utah and Nevada, linking the West with the rest of the country.
With subsidiaries of Western Union building the system from both directions, they would meet in Salt Lake City.
To get there, the construction crews had to reassure wary Indian tribes whose land they were trespassing on. They did so by giving some gifts and by hiring others to build the thing.
They needed lumber, especially in the treeless desert terrain of Nevada, and it took more than 200 oxen more than a month to haul it across the Sierra Nevada, according to an account by James Gamble, who was in charge on the western end of the project.
Once they got the lumber in place, work crews hired guards, sometimes Indians, specifically to keep it from being stolen, just as at modern construction sites. There were homesteaders heading West, needing materials to build houses.
Along the eastern flank, there was a different problem, Jepsen noted. Crews initially fashioned some of the telegraph poles so small that buffalo, using them as scratching posts, knocked them over. Despite the obstacles, the line was completed in a matter of months.
"It's a very American story," said Corbett, adding that not only was the project brought in with amazing speed but that it "completely changed everything in a flash," from the introduction of groundbreaking technology to the country's own self-image.
"California was almost like a satellite, if you think about it," he said. "It was almost 2,000 miles between the Missouri River and the California slope. But something like the telegraph made it seem closer."
Completing the project so quickly also infused the country with a kind of can-do spirit that he and other historians say it may not have had in quite as much abundance when the project was initiated.
Telegraphers, hired by the thousands to relay every kind of information, created a new language, one of strange abbreviations that only they, and perhaps some wire service journalists, understood. Seventy-three, for example, meant goodbye; 30 was the number placed at the end of a news story to signify the end.
"It had a Twitter-like feel to it," said historian Bill Deverell, director of the USC-Huntington Institute on California and the West.
But unlike terms like LOL and BTW that cell-phone users created to save wear and tear on their thumbs, and later adapted to Twitter to stay under its 140-character count, telegraph abbreviations were done to keep from jamming up and slowing down the wire with needless words.
"Time was money," Deverell noted.
These days, telegrapher talk and even Morse Code, once used to keep track of ships at sea and prevent trains that shared main lines from running into each other, have been all but abandoned, made obsolete by the technological revolution the telegraph created.
The telephone was invented in 1876. In time, cell phones and personal computers came along, and in 2006, Western Union, the company that had made a name for itself by charging sweethearts to wire singing telegrams and chocolates to one another, stopped sending telegrams all together. (Wiring money remains a main business for the Denver-based company.)
Historian Jepsen sees value in reflecting on a milestone for Morse's invention.
"It really gives one a good understanding of how we got where we are and how the Internet evolved," he said. "The telegraph is really where it all started."
A VISIT TO THE PORTHCURNO CABLE STATION
While in England in July Florida Chapter member Don Andrus paid a long anticipated visit to the Porthcunro Cable Museum in Cornwall on the extreme southwestern tip of the mainland of England, the location where 14 Atlantic submarine cables came ashore. The first submarine cable of any length was laid between England and France in early 1860s. It worked for about an hour before being cut by the dragging anchor of a French fishing boat. Learning from this lesson, the location of the shore ends of future submarine cables were located in a section of deep water and poor fishing. Porthcurno was such a place; a deep water cove with notoriously bad fishing, but a good place for cables.
Beginning in 1870, Great Britain began laying submarine cables to link its vast empire together by telegraph. At that time it was important to establish a telegraphic service to British possessions in Asia without being forced to use the telegraph lines of other nations. Cables were laid to Gibraltar, then through the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt then across the Red Sea and eventually to India. From there cables were laid to Java, and on to Australia and, eventually, New Zealand. Lines also went from Gibraltar to South Africa. One line was laid from Porthcurno to Newfoundland, to provide backup to the cables from Ireland to Newfoundland.
The cables used a form of Morse Code to convey information. Due to the length of submarine cables and the effect of sea water, they had a high capacitive value. This resulted in a propagation delay. When a voltage was applied to one end of the cable, the other end would see a slowly increasing voltage, like a huge capacitor charging up very slowly. When the voltage was removed at the sending end, the receiving end would see a gradual decrease in the signal level. Because of the resistance of the cable, the signal at the receiving end was very weak and was originally displayed on an extremely sensitive device called a mirror galvanometer. This charge- up and slow decay of each dot and dash of the Morse code made it extremely difficult to tell the difference between a dot and a dash. This was overcome by sending the dots in a positive polarity and the dashes in the opposite polarity. Doing so enabled some increase in transmission speed, as a dot and a dash could both then take the same amount of time to transmit.
Mirror galvanometers projected a shifting white dot of light on a long scale on the opposite wall of a darkened room, the mirror reflecting the light from a fixed light source to the left, or right, depending on the polarity of the incoming signal. To read the individual characters of a Morse message, a person had to sit and look at this slowly moving dot on the wall and note whether it shifted a bit to the left or right in a certain order. Sending cable Morse required a dual key, one lever for dots and one for dashes. Watching that slow moving dot on the wall was not a particularly enjoyable task, and soon the mirror galvanometer was replaced with a machine that used a pen to mark the left and right shifts on a strip of moving paper. It appeared as a squiggly line, the dots to one side of center, the dashes to the other. The machine was known as a 'siphon recorder' because of the siphon action of the ink pen. Later it became known as an 'undulator'. (Note: The old Undulator was pressed back into service in WW2, vital to the interception and decoding of German teleprinter codes.)
In the late 1870s a transition was made, and most messages were then prepared by punching the Morse dots and dashes onto a paper tape, rather than by hand keying them. Mimicking the way the siphon recorder marked the tape, the dots were punched on one side of a center row of sprocket holes and dashes on the other side. Prepared in advance, the tape could be checked for errors, and the same message could be sent by tape reading machines on a number of different circuits as time and priority dictated on a particular cable. This became know as Machine Morse. On shorter cables the negative and positive voltages received were strong enough to energize a sensitive polar relay and then be punched directly into a moving paper tape by another machine. However, the distortion caused by the long cables still required the use of the sensitive undualtor marking the squiggly lines on a paper tape. That was read by experienced 'Morse readers' who then punched the received Morse into a new tape, producing a Machine Morse tape again, or it was sent on a land line with a hand key in the form of traditional Morse Code (Note: Continental Code was use on most submarine cables at that time).
The Porthcurno Cable Station was a busy place, with up to 14 circuits in operation, many handling traffic around the clock. Almost constant adjustment to the equipment was required on each cable circuit as atmospheric changes occurred throughout the day and night. Until high frequency radio began to link the world, these cables were the fastest way to provide intercontinental communications. The Porthcurno cables were part of the life blood of the British Empire in its golden era. From 1870 until 1980, 110 years, the Porthcurno station remained a Machine Morse station. Beginning in the early 1900s the quality of new submarine cables improved and the invention of the Baudot code and synchronized teleprinters were used on the newer ocean cables. Satellite links and fiber optic submarine cables brought the end to both Machine Morse and Baudot codes on submarine cables in the early 1980s. High speed digital transmissions offered the increased capacity needed by then for the global communications market.
Fortunately for historians and lovers of wonderful old technology, the Porthcurno Cable Station has been preserved and made into a word class museum for this once vital form of international communications. It offers a chance to go back in time to when skilled men and women and intricate, cleverly designed electro‑mechanical machinery combined to shrink our planet. What once took months, took a few hours then and now takes mere seconds.
THE SENDING MACHINE
Morse Telegraphy swept the country after the U. S. Civil War, into the years of reconstruction and national development, providing hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs for telegraphers in telegraph companies, news services, railroads, stock markets, manufacturing and government.
Many telegraphers, working long hours using the hand-key, began to lose the use of their sending arm to what was then known as "telegrapher's paralysis." This condition was brought about by the constant up and down wrist movement when sending. It was very painful and eventually much, or all, of the arm's use was lost. Today, we would diagnose that condition as "carpal Tunnel syndrome."
In the early twentieth century, Horace G. Martin, working as a telegrapher for Western Union Telegraph Company in New York City, became concerned for many friends and co-workers who suffered from "telegrapher's paralysis." He began to design and build a "sending machine" that would help eliminate the causes of the condition. Instead of an up and down wrist movement, he experimented with a side to side finger and arm movement.
He built and patented a "sending machine" in 1902, which he named the Autoplex. It was a complicated device, but its key operated from side to side, using arm and fingers more than wrist movement and eliminated about half of the wrist strain. Within a year he had improved his sending machine and other Western Union telegraphers, observing him using it at work, wanted him to build "sending machines" for them. He built them and charged $5.00 each.
Not completely satisfied with the Autoplex, Martin began building an improved sending machine, which he patented in 1904 and called a Vibroplex. This new concept operated with a vibrating arm and adjustable weights at the end. It completely eliminated wrist strain. He sold these new sending machines for $12.00 each.
In 1907, he moved from New York City to the small town of Norcross, Georgia, located between Atlanta and Gainesville on the Southern Railway. There he began mass production of the Vibroplex. He contracted with J. Eugene Albright, a former railroad telegrapher who owned and operated a typewriter shop for sales and service in New York City, to serve as a national distributor. Eugene's brother, W. W. Albright, also a railroad telegrapher, demonstrated how telegrams could be copied from the Morse wire by use of the typewriter, instead of writing them out longhand. With the "Sending Machine" and the typewriter, telegraph operators were able to dramatically improve their productivity, and, at the same time, avoid telegraphers paralysis.
The arrangement worked out well, with Martin producing a variety of Vibroplex models, which Albright marketed through advertisements in newspapers and telegraph publications. This continued until 1913, at which time Martin sold his Vibroplex business with all patents to J. E. Albright Company. At about the same time, Albright bought the Mecograph Company which produced a competing sending machine. He now controlled the rights to sales of all "Sending Machines," but he discontainued the Mecograph line, as the Vibroplex had made it obsolete. In 1920, Albright added a "Beetle" image to the logo of The Vibroplex, after which telegraphers began to call their sending machines "bugs."
After fifty-three years, the Albrights sold their business to one of their employees. Since that time, the company has been sold several times, but it remains un business today, manufacturing Vibroplex sending machines and parts, primarily for the ham radio market. The current owner has a web site at http"||vibroplex.com
In its way, the sending machine, invented and perfected by Horace Martin, revolutionized the telegraph industry. It led to much faster transmission speeds for telegraphic code, thus allowing a higher volume of traffic to be moved over the same wires in the same amount of time. In addition, it eliminated the cause of the debilitating telegrapher's paralysis. In today's vernacular, a "Win-Win" situtation.
Adapted from a talk given by Florida Chapter member L. A. Bailey to the Pasco County Historical Society, Dade City, Florida, September 21, 2007
WESTERN UNION ENDS TELEGRAM SERVICE
By P. SOLOMON BANDA Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press
DENVER Feb 2, 2006 For more than 150 years, messages of joy, sorrow and success came in signature yellow envelopes hand delivered by a courier. Now the Western Union telegram is officially a thing of the past.
The company formed in April 1856 to exploit the hot technology of the telegraph to send cross-country messages in less than a day. It is now focusing its attention on money transfers and other financial services, and delivered its final telegram on Friday.
"The decision was a hard decision because we're fully aware of our heritage," Victor Chayet, a spokesman for the Greenwood Village-based company, said Wednesday. "But it's the final transition from a communications company to a financial services company."
Several telegraph companies that eventually combined to become Western Union were founded in 1851. Western Union built its first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.
"At the time it was as incredible and astonishing as the computer when it first came out," said Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. "For people who could barely understand it, here you had the magic of the electric force traveling by wire across the country."
In 1994, Western Union Financial Services was acquired by First Financial Management Corp. which First Data Corp. bought for $7 billion the following year. Last week, First Data said it would spin Western Union off as a separate company.
Telegrams reached their peak popularity in the 1920s and 1930s when it was cheaper to send a telegram than to place a long distance telephone call. People would save money by using the word "stop" instead of periods to end sentences because punctuation was extra while the four character word was free.
Telegrams were used to announce the first flight in 1903 and the start of World War I. During World War II, the sight of a Western Union courier was feared because the War Department, the precursor to the Department of Defense, used the company to notify families of the death of their loved ones serving in the military, Chayet said.
With long distance rates dropping and different technologies for communicating evolving including the Internet Western Union phased out couriers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
By last year, only 20,000 telegrams were sent at about $10 a message, mostly from companies using the service for formal notifications, Chayet said.
Last week, the last 10 telegrams included birthday wishes, condolences on the death of a loved one, notification of an emergency, and several people trying to be the last to send a telegram.
"Recent generations didn't receive telegrams and didn't know you could send them," Chayet said.
Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, sent the first telegram from Washington to Baltimore on May 26, 1844, to his partner Alfred Vail to usher in the telegram era that displaced the Pony Express. It read "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?"
"If he only knew," Chayet said of the myriad of choices today, which includes text message on cell phones, the Internet and virtually free long-distance calling rates.
"It definitely was an anachronism," Noel said. "It's amazing it survived this long."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
(Webmaster Note: Western Union had not used Morse telegraph for many years. All telegrams were transmitted via telex or teletype.)
No more knocks on doors for telegrams
But 4 those w/a talnt 4 abbrevs, there's text messaging.
Tom Standage | Special to the Los Angeles Times
Posted February 15, 2006
It was a short, even telegraphic, message: "Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage."
With these words, Western Union announced the death of the telegram, the original form of electronic communication that dates back 150 years. Like many people, I was saddened to hear of its demise. I was also surprised to learn that the telegram had survived as long as it had, given the availability of so many faster, cheaper and more convenient forms of electronic messaging.
The technology certainly had a good run. Officially, the first telegram sent in the United States was "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT". It was transmitted May 24, 1844, by Samuel Morse, inventor of the code that bears his name, along the experimental telegraph line he constructed between Washington and Baltimore. At the time, Morse was thought by many to be deranged, and his scheme to send messages along wires was widely assumed to be some kind of scam. When the line between the two cities opened for business in 1845, it took in 1 cent in revenue in its first four days of operation.
But the technology soon took off, and by 1848 one writer was complaining that "no schedule of telegraphic lines can now be relied upon for a month in succession, as hundreds of miles may be added in that time . . . the whole of the populous parts of the United States will, within two or three years, be covered with net-work like a spider's web."
By 1852, the United States had the most extensive telegraph network in the world. The lines hummed with telegrams whizzing to and fro, with the most fervent users -- New York bankers -- sending a dozen messages a day. Dozens of competing companies sprang up to build and operate networks, and in 1856 several of them merged to form Western Union. The company went on to establish a near-monopoly of the industry.
Such was the company's domination that in 1870 its president, William Orton, told a congressional committee that the volume of telegrams being sent over his network was as good a means as any of measuring economic activity. "The fact is, the telegraph lives upon commerce," he said. "It is the nervous system of the commercial system. If you will sit down with me at my office for 20 minutes, I will show you what the condition of business is at any given time in any locality in the United States."
It was not just business that was transformed by the new technology. By the end of the 1870s, telegraph cables circled the globe, and messages that had previously taken months to deliver could instead be transmitted in seconds. This had a dramatic effect on news gathering, politics and international relations. As the telegrams flowed back and forth, it seemed to many that world peace would inevitably follow. "It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all the nations of the Earth," gushed one enthusiast.
Alas, the utopian visions inspired by the telegraph failed to materialize. At the height of the telegraph mania, the seeds of its eventual destruction had already been sown with the invention of the telephone in 1876. At first, the "speaking telegraph" (as it was known) was merely expected to speed up the transmission of telegrams by enabling telegraph operators to dictate messages to each other, rather than tapping them out in Morse code. But the telephone's effect was far wider, because, unlike telegraph equipment, anyone could use it -- so it made sense to install direct telephone lines into homes and offices.
That said, early telephones could be used only over short distances, and even when long-distance calling became technically possible, it was horribly expensive. As a result, telegrams reached the height of their popularity in the 1920s and 1930s before slowly falling into a long, slow decline that ended with the final telegram last month.
Yet although the old-fashioned telegram has now passed into history, it has in a sense been reborn -- in the form of the short text messages that are commonly sent between cellphones: more than 7.3 billion of them every month in the United States alone, according to industry figures.
Like telegrams, text messages force people to be brief and to the point, and they have spawned a curious vocabulary of space-saving abbreviations, such as "c u l8r." That is not the only echo from the age of the telegram.
If you have a Nokia handset, it will announce incoming text messages with three short beeps, two long ones, and three short ones -- Morse code for "SMS," or "short message service." A defunct 19th-century technology has, in effect, been reincarnated in the 21st century. The telegram is dead -- long live the telegram.Tom Standage is technology editor at the Economist and author of "The Victorian Internet." He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
THE TELEGRAPH, UK
End of an era. Stop. India scraps the telegram. Stop.
In years gone by, the arrival of a telegram could make the heart skip a beat or the stomach tighten. Was there terrible news of a son at war on foreign shores or a declaration of love from a suitor?
By Barney Henderson, Dean Nelson in New Delhi
6:23PM BST 13 Jun 2013
In India, it was the technological breakthrough that revolutionised communications across what was then the vast British Raj – expediting the East India Company's total commercial dominance of the country, helping to suppress the 1857 uprising and providing newspaper readers in Britain with regular updates from the Empire.
However, after 163 years, the days of the telegram – or taar in Hindi – are coming to an end with the dawn of the age of text messages and emails reaching India's rural poor for the first time.
More than 900,000 Indians now own mobile phones and 120 million people use the internet – figures that are expected to rocket in the coming years.
India is the last country in the world to use the telegram on such a large scale, but officials said the service, operated by the government-owned telecom giant BSNL, had run up losses of more than £2 billion and the government stated it was no longer willing to bear the cost for what had become "nostalgia".
"Currently, we send only about 5,000 telegrams per day," said a BSNL official. "That's down from several hundred thousand a day before the advent of the fax machine."
Over the past decade, several countries have phased out telegram services. In Britain, telegrams are operated by a private company, but are marketed as retro greeting cards or invitations. Centenarians still receive a telegram from the Queen on their birthday. In the US, the main service provided by Western Union was shut down in 2006. Services of varying scales are still provided in Russia, Germany and Canada among other countries.
The last telegram to be sent in India on July 15 will use similar technology as the first, which was successfully transmitted over the 13 and a half miles between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour – on the banks of the Hooghly river – in 1850.
Its use in India was pioneered by William O'Shaughnessy, a surgeon and inventor. While the world's first ever telegram was sent by Samuel F.B. Morse in Washington DC in 1844, O'Shaughnessy was apparently unaware of Morse's work and used a different code to send a message by transmitting electric signals over long distances.
Lord Dalhousie, the Governor of India, recognised the potential of telegrams and authorised O'Shaughnessy to build a 27-mile line near Calcutta.
By 1856, the network stretched 4000 miles across the British Raj, connecting the strategically vital cities of Calcutta, Agra, Bombay, Peshawar, and Madras.
The next year, the telegram helped the British violently subdue the Indian Rebellion 1857, with one captured Indian soldier, on his way to the gallows, reportedly pointing at the telegram device and stating: "There is the accursed string that strangles us."
"The telegraph allowed the British to relay info across large parts of India in almost real time. This leap in communications proved decisive," said BK Syngal, former chairman of VSNL, which had the mandate to send telegrams overseas till 2002.
In October 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru sent a telegram to the then British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, surmising India's views on Kashmir – in 163 words.
John Lienhard, from the University of Houston, writes: "Question nineteenth-century British colonialism if you will. There is much to question. But you can only admire O'Shaughnessy. He showed what one person can do by trusting the creative ability that's there to claim. He stands as a reminder that one person can make a difference."
India bids goodbye to the telegram
DW July 17, 2013
Millions of people relied on it for decades. But now India's state-run telegram service has come to an end. Authorities felt telegrams were no longer commercially viable in a fast-growing age of digital communications.
It served as the harbinger of good and bad news for generations of Indians. The telegram conveyed the birth of a child, a death, and greetings on birthdays and festivals. But the curtains finally came down on the iconic 163-year-old Indian telegram service, on July 15th.
The service closed because of mounting financial losses and becoming redundant in an era of mobile phones and the Internet. "The losses were getting bigger. It was not practical to have kept it going much longer. We lost $250 million US dollars in the last seven years and it was time to put an end to the service," said Shameem Akhtar, general manager at the Bharat Sanchar Nigam, which runs India's telegram service.
One last telegram
To commemorate the last day, thousands crammed into telegraph offices across the country to send souvenir messages to family and friends before the service passed into the annals of history. The last recorded telegram was sent to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
Employees feed in telegram messages onto computers to be sent via telegraph at a telecommunications office in Bangalore on June 13, 2013. (Photo: AFP) The state-run telegram service was closed due to increasing financial losses.
"It is indeed a sad day for me. I have sent thousands of telegrams in my 35 years working in this small, dingy office. I even started typing up messages on computers to be sent via telegraph, instead of using Morse code," Madan Gopal, a telegraph operator in Delhi told DW.
Known popularly as "Taar" or wire, the telegram service, which provided millions with a fast and reliable mode of communication, began in 1850, when the first trial telegraph line was established between Kolkata and Diamond Harbour, a southern suburb nearly 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the city center. The British East India Company then started using the telegraph a year later, and by 1854, lines had been laid across the country.
By 1856, the network stretched 4000 miles across the British Raj, connecting the strategically vital cities of Kolkata, Agra, Bombay, Peshawar, and Madras. "It certainly played an important role in the independence struggle and research shows that back in those days freedom fighters in the forefront of the movement used to cut the telegram lines to stop the British from communicating," sociologist Dipankar Gupta told DW.
From telegrams to smartphones
At its peak in 1985, the service sent 600,000 telegrams a day across India and had a network of 45,000 telegraph offices. Countless remote towns and villages across the country depended on the telegram for getting news where telephones were rare. Most telegraph workers criss-crossed inhospitable terrain to deliver the messages.
But with the arrival of the e-mail and reliable landline phones, the days of the telegram were counted. According to estimates, there are now over 850 million mobile phone subscribers and over 160 million Internet users in India. A recent study by Cisco has claimed that India has the fastest Internet traffic growth in the world, and that the number is expected to grow to 348 million users by 2017.
India is only the latest country to bid goodbye to the telegram. In the US, the main service provided by Western Union was shut down in 2006. Over the past decade, several countries have also phased out telegram services. The closing of the world's last major commercial telegram service marks an end of an era.