Invention of the Telegraph: History & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the invention of the telegraph. One of the most important communication systems of the nineteenth century, the telegraph revolutionized communications, sending messages that previously had taken days in only minutes.

First vs. Famous

Just because you are the first to do something does not always mean you will get the fame and glory that comes with that title. For example, even non-basketball fans know who Michael Jordan is, while less people know the inventor of the game, James Naismith.

The same can be said for many inventions throughout time. In the case of the telegraph, just about everyone knows who Samuel F.B. Morse is. He invented the Morse Code, and many regard him as the inventor of the telegraph. While he is certainly an important part of the story, the development and invention of the telegraph predates the nineteenth-century inventor.

Precursors to the Telegraph

As early as the late eighteenth century, Europeans were using flags and semaphores as an early, telegraphic signaling system. In 1809, Samuel Soemmering in Bavaria first sent an electrical signal over 2,000 feet using wires and gold electrodes. However, the breakthrough which was integral to the creation of the telegraph was William Sturgeon's 1825 creation of the first electromagnet. Electromagnets made it possible to strengthen an electric signal so that it could be transmitted long distances over high quality wires.

Spurred by this new ability, several scientists around the world began devising methods and practices with which to use the strengthened electrical signals to send messages great distances. In Russia, the Baron Schilling von Canstatt devised a sophisticated telegraph system in 1832 using multiple wires and a rudimentary keyboard. Initial tests over a distance of five kilometers failed, and the project was cancelled after the Baron's death.

Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber devised their own system of telegraph over wires that they placed upon the rooftops of homes in Gottingen in 1833. The two communicated with each other by devising a rudimentary binary alphabet and sending alternating positive and negative pulses to each other. Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Thomas Wheatstone set up a telegraph system in London in 1837, but the system was poor and unsupportive of punctuation, case, or several letters such as 'J' and 'Q.'

Morse and the Telegraph Explosion

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Samuel F.B. Morse, an American painter and inventor, was separately developing an electric telegraph. In contrast to the European examples above, Morse's 1836 invention could be transmitted over low quality wire but still travel great distances with the help of powerful electromagnets designed by Morse's partner, Alfred Vail. Morse also developed the binary alphabetic system of dashes and dots to be used to transmit messages, which he called Morse Code.

In 1843, the U.S. Congress granted Morse $30,000 to fund a telegraph wire from Baltimore to Washington D.C. After the line was laid, on 24 May 1844, Morse sent the first message over his telegraph, 'What hath God wrought…,' a verse from the Book of Numbers of the Bible that a friend's daughter had chosen.

With the success, Morse immediately began plans to spread lines to Philadelphia and New York City. Other small companies also began laying telegraph wire throughout the country. The wires allowed messages that used to take days to travel by mail to be transmitted in a matter of minutes. The system exploded in popularity, and by 1861 the first transcontinental telegraph wire had been laid, connecting networks in California with those on the east coast. Only a short five years later, the first successful transatlantic cable was laid, connecting Ireland to Newfoundland in 1866.

The telegraph remained the most important form of communication through the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The phone slowly replaced the telegraph as the prime mode of communication as the home telephone gained popularity in the mid-twentieth century.

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