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"Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century the telegraph became one of the most important factors in the development of social and commercial life of America." - Smithsonian (reflecting the importance of common carriers).

1837: Telegraph invented
1838: Morse files patent application
1848: Morse receives patent for telegraph

The term "Telegraph" is derived from the greek "tele" which means far and "graphein" which means to write. [Telegraph and Beyond]

1794: Claude Chappe builds semaphore optical 'telegraph' system throughout France. Stations are located ~10 miles apart; signaling arms are used to to send signals visually to the next station. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]

1826 - 31: Optical telegraph lines operated in Europe, and in a few locations in the United States: New England, Philadelphia, and San Francisco [Starr p 157][Wired Prof]

1832: Samuel FB Morse conceives of idea of electromagnetic telegraph. [Smithsonian][Starr p 158]

"Samuel F. B. Morse , [Portrait to Morse] while a professor of arts and design at New York University in 1835, proved that signals could be transmitted by wire. He used pulses of current to deflect an electromagnet, which moved a marker to produce written codes on a strip of paper -the invention of Morse Code. The following year, the device was modified to emboss the paper with dots and dashes.


1838: Morse forms a company around his telegraph invention with Alfred Vail and Leonard Gale. [Smithsonian][Starr p 160]

Disruptive Technology: "Telegraphy became big business as it replaced messengers, the Pony Express, clipper ships and every other slow paced means of communicating. The fact that service was limited to Western Union offices or large firms seemed hardly a problem. After all, communicating over long distances instantly was otherwise impossible. Yet as the telegraph was perfected, man's thoughts turned to speech over a wire." [Farley]

"He gave a public demonstration in 1838, but it was not until five years later that Congress -- reflecting public apathy -- funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles." Morse origianlly attempted to construct the lines underground using Ezra Cornell's trench digger invention. This proved unsuccessful, therefore Morse switched to installing telegraph poles. [Smithsonian] [Starr p 157]

William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone initiate commercial electric telegraph service in England. [White]

1842: "Members of Congress witnessed the sending and receiving of messages over part of the telegraph line between two committee rooms. Congress appropriates $30,000 for Morse to build a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]

1844: Before the line had reached Baltimore, the Whig party held its national convention there, and on May 1, 1844, nominated Henry Clay. This news was hand-carried to Annapolis Junction (between Washington and Baltimore) where Morse's partner, Alfred Vail, wired it to the Capitol. This was the first news dispatched by electric telegraph. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]

Source: Library of Congress (large resolution)

"The message, "What hath God wrought?" sent later by "Morse Code" from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol to his partner in Baltimore, officially opened the completed line of May 24, 1844.[SI] [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] Morse's second transmission that day was "Have you any news?" [Hochfelder 310]

"Three days later the Democratic National Convention was held in Baltimore. Van Buren seemed the likely choice, but his opponent, James K. Polk, won the nomination. This news was telegraphed to Washington, but skeptics refused to believe it. Only after persons arrived by train from Baltimore to confirm the reports were many convinced of the telegraph's value.

1851 - 51 telegraph companies [Alven]

"Samuel Morse and his associates obtained private funds to extend their line to Philadelphia and New York. Small telegraph companies, meanwhile began functioning in the East, South, and Midwest.

1845: Morse and his partners form the Magnetic Telegraph Company. [Smithsonian]

1846: The Magnetic Telegraph Company constructs the first commercial telegraph line between Washington D.C. and New York City. [Smithsonian]

Much of the telegraph lines are constructed along railway ROW. There is a strong symbiotic relationship. The telegraph operators gain access of long rights of way, that connect major population centers. The railroads gain use of the communications network, helping them coordinate train traffic and take advantage of single track lines - instead of two tracks, one for each direction - saving in capital costs. As a result, telegraph companies indirectly benefited from the land grants that the federal government gave to the railroads.

Royal E House patented his printing telegraph, creating one of several rival telegraph technologies. [Image of House Telegraph]. The House Telegraph rights were held by Judge Samuel Selden. [Smithsonian]

At some point Morse attempted to sell his patent to the USG for $100,000 (AT&T will try to do the same, offering to sell their patents to Western Union, because AT&T lacked capital to advance its inventions). Government Ownership of Electrical Means of Communication, S. DOC. NO. 399, 63d Cong., 2d Sess. 19 (1914).

1849: Selden and Hiram Sibley established the New York State Printing Telegraph Company. [Smithsonian]

1850 "Period of Wasteful Competition" [Hochfelder 310]

1851 Judge Samuel Selden and Hiram Sibley formed the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company (NY&MI) (aka Western Union) with the goal of acquiring and uniting otherwise non-interconnected rival telegraph companies. (See AT&T Vail and Universal Service). Sibley proceeded to acquire companies westard. [Smithsonian] Western Union would become the first nationwide monopoly.

1851: Over 50 telegraph companies in business. [Smithsnian] Dispatching trains by telegraph started

O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 62 (1852); see also Smith v. Downing, 22 F. Cas. 511, 513 (C.C.D. Mass. 1850) (No. 13,036).


1856: NY&MI becomes Western Union. [Smithsonian] [Brooks p 62]

1860: The Pacific Telegraph Act is enacted authorizing the construction of a transcontinental telegraph. Western Union wins the contract. [Smithsonian] "Western Union built its first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, mainly along railroad rights-of-way." Western Union becomes the United States first truly nationwide company. [Porticus]



Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Treasury, under the direction of the President of the United States, is hereby authorized and directed to advertise for sealed proposals, to be received for sixty days after the passage of this act, (and the fulfillment of which shall be guaranteed by responsible parties, as in the case of bids for mail contracts,) for the use by the government of a line or lines of magnetic telegraph, to be constructed within two years from the thirty-first day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty, from some point or points on the west line of the State of Missouri, by any route or routes which the said contractors may select, (connecting at such point or points by telegraph with the cities of Washington, New Orleans, New York, Charleston, Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities in the Atlantic, Southern, and Western States, to the city of San Francisco, in the State of California, for a period of ten years, and shall award the contract to the lowest responsible bidder or bidders, provided such proffer does not require a larger amount per year from the United States than forty thousand dollars ; and permission is hereby granted to the said parties to whom said contract may be awarded, or a majority of them, and their assigns, to use until the end of said term, such unoccupied public lands of the United States as may be necessary for the right of way and for the purpose of establishing stations for  repairs along said line, not exceeding at any station one-quarter section of land, such stations not to exceed one in fifteen miles on an average of the whole distance, unless said lands shall be required by the government of the United States for railroad or other purposes, and provided that no right to preempt any of said lands under the laws of the United States shall inure to said company, their agents or servants, or to any other person or persons whatsoever : Provided , That no such contract shall be made until the said line shall be in actual operation, and payments thereunder shall cease whenever the contractors fail to comply with their contract ; that the government shall at all times be entitled to priority in the use of the line or lines, and shall have the privilege, when authorized by law, of connecting said line or lines by telegraph with any military posts of the United States, and to use the same for government purposes : And provided , also, That said line or lines, except such as may be constructed by the government to connect said line or lines with the military posts of the United States, shall be open to the use of all citizens of the United States during the term of said contract, on payment of the regular charges for transmission of dispatches : And provided , also, That such charges shall not exceed three dollars for a single dispatch of ten words, with the usual proportionate reductions upon dispatches of greater length, provided that nothing herein contained shall confer upon the said parties any exclusive right to construct a telegraph to the Pacific., or debar the government of the United States from granting from time to time, similar franchises and privileges to other parties.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the said contractors, or their assigns, shall have the right to construct and maintain, through any of the territories of the United States, a branch line, so as to connect their said line or lines with Oregon ; and that they shall have the permanent right of way for said line or lines, under, or over, any unappropriated public lands and waters in the said territories, by any route or routes which the said contractors may select, with the free use during the said term of such lands as may be necessary for the purpose of establishing stations for repairs along said line or lines, not exceeding, at any station, one quarter-section of land, such stations not to exceed one in fifteen miles or an average of the whole distance ; but should any of said quarter-sections be deemed essential by the government, or any company acting under its authority, for railroad purposes, the said contractors shall relinquish the occupancy of so much as may be necessary for the railroad, receiving an equal amount of land for like use in its stead.

Sec. 3. And be it further enacted , That if, in any year during the continuance of the said contract, the business done for the government, as hereinbefore mentioned, by such contractors or their assigns, shall, at the ordinary rate of charges for private messages, exceed the price contracted to be paid as aforesaid, the Secretary of the Treasury shall, upon said accounts being duly authenticated, certify the amount of such excess to Congress : Provided , That the use of the line be given, at any time, free of cost, to the Coast Survey, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Observatory, for scientific purposes : And Provided further , That messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of the government shall have priority : And provided further , That Congress shall at any time have the right to alter or amend this act.

Approved, June 16, 1860.

36 Cong., 1 Sess., Chapter 137.

Source: NPS

Civil War

1861: US Civil War starts




"During the Civil War, Western Union's lines were primarily in the North. Carriers with lines in the South experienced substantial damage as a result of the war. Carriers with lines in both the North and the South saw their assets and their business split into two. During the war, the military constructed 15,000 miles of telegraph line - that was later ceded to Western Union as compensation for damages; Western Union experienced substantial profits as a result of wartime business. When the war stopped and demand for telegraph decreased sharply, smaller carriers went out of business.

"After the Civil War, the three major telegraph companies were Western Union, American Telegraph and United States Telegraph. Through a series of stock swaps, Western Union acquired both of the other companies and established itself as a monopoly.

See The Civil War Military Telegraph Service

US Senate: Art & History Home: History Minutes > 1851-1877 > Telegraph

1866 "Telegraph"

The Vatican fresco artist Constantino Brumidi came to the United States from Italy in 1852 looking for work. Brumidi had the good fortune of arriving in Washington just as the superintendent of the project to construct new wings for the Capitol was looking for skilled artists. From the mid 1850s until his death twenty-five years later, he earned the title "Michelangelo of the Capitol." His great contribution was to integrate American themes into the classical style of the Italian Renaissance. Some of Brumidi's best work exists in the second-floor room now named in honor of former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson

Brumidi took particular interest in that prime space, intended to serve as the Senate Library. To emphasize the theme of learning, he designed four semi-circular lunettes in the ceiling to represent major fields of knowledge-History, Geography, Philosophy, and-recognizing that era's technological expansion in the production of newspapers and journals-the field he called Print. He completed the first painting, Geography, in 1858.

A year later, as the Senate moved into its newly completed chamber, members decided that they needed a conveniently located post office more than a library. As workmen installed individual mail boxes for each of the Senate's sixty-six members, Brumidi shifted his attention to other assignments.

In 1866, with the war over, the artist returned to complete the room's decoration, including the remaining three ceiling lunettes. Originally, he had planned to decorate one of those spaces to honor the medium of Print. But the shift in the room's function from a library to a post office, along with the excitement surrounding the successful laying of a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable that year, changed the theme to Telegraph. (In this same spirit of scientific innovation, he also changed the Philosophy panel to Physics.)

Intensely proud of his new country, the artist took a bit of patriotic license. Although the telegraph cable was laid from Europe to America -from Ireland to Newfoundland -he reversed the direction. At the center of the fresco appears a nymph, who is handing the telegraph wire to the allegorical figure for Europe on the left. With a grateful countenance, Europa looks up to a strong America surrounded by images that suggest the nation's natural abundance and its military might.

In the year 1866, however, that image of America 's strength as a world power lay mostly within the colorful imagination of Constantino Brumidi
1870s - telegraph faces new competition - telephone. Until the turn of the century, however, telephone service struggled to provide long distance service.

1990s Western Union carried more than 90% domestic telegraph traffic. [Brands p 2]

Associated Press

Western Union was establishing its monopoly for telegraph; Associated Press was establishing its monopoly for news. In 1867 the two came to an agreement which strengthened their respective holds on their markets.

Reformers would try to break the monopolistic hold of both companies for decades. A repeated argument was that the telegraph service should rightfully be made a part of the US Postal Service. [Ars Technica] [Hochfelder 310] According to Hochfelder,

"Although reformers failed to reach their ultimate goal, the end of Western Union's monopoly over telegraphic communications, they achieved some lasting success. By calling for increased government involvement in economic affairs and in securing citizen's access to communications networks, they constructed an important part of Progressive economic thought. By the 1890s, their efforts helped to establish regulation as an acceptable middle ground between state ownership of a networked technology and its operation by untrammeled private capitalists. [Hochfelder 312]

1869: Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company enters into agreement with the Union and Central Pacific Railroad Companies to lease the railroad's telegraph poles to the telegraph company in exchange for stock in the telegraph company. [NYT April 5, 1880]

The Telegraph Wars (Jay Gould)


1871: JB Stearns invents duplex telegraph, receives $250,000 from Western Union. [Coon 20]

1872: Western Union invests in Elisha Gray's manufacturing company, which is reorganized as Western Electric.





1878: Western Union attempts to set up, with Elisha Gray, a rival telephone service to Bell Telephone. In 1879 the two companies settled their patent litigation out of court, with Western Union agreeing to stay out of the telephone business, and Bell Telephone agreeing to stay out of the telegraph business. See AT&T v Western Union.

1879: WU settles with Bell in order to focus on the attack from Gould.



1894: Western Union acquires The American Rapid Telegraph Company. [Smithsonian]

Western Union Tel. Co. v. Call Publishing Co., 181 U.S. 92, 99-104 (1901) ("the Supreme Court ruled that telegraph companies had a duty – arising out of the common law – to serve all customers in a nondiscriminatory manner as a common carrier")



"The original Morse telegraph printed code on tape. However, in the United States the operation developed into sending by key and receiving by ear. A trained Morse operator could transmit 40 to 50 words per minute. Automatic transmission, introduced in 1914, handled more than twice that number.

"In 1913 Western Union developed multiplexing, which it made possible to transmit eight messages simultaneously over a single wire (four in each direction).

"In a 1918 Joint Resolution, Congress authorized the President to assume control of any telegraph system in the United States and operate it as needed for the duration of World War I." [2009 Review]

Western Union Teleprinter machines came into use about 1925.

Varioplex, introduced in 1936, enabled a single wire to carry 72 transmissions at the same time (36 in each direction). Two years later Western Union introduced the first of its automatic facsimile devices.

1945: Western Union merges with Postal Telegraph Company. [Smithsonian]

1959: Western Union inaugurated TELEX, which enables subscribers to the teleprinter service to dial each other directly.

1966: Western Union and Computer Inquiries

In 1966, Western Union was offering a data processing service [U.Penn.L.R. 343 1969 (citing Western Union Telegraph Co. Prospectus, December 5, 1966, at 5, 6, 8-9)] [Irwin 1301 1967 ("Western Union already provides customized business information systems; it has established data processing service centers and computerized its switch- ing net. In the near future, besides its present job-finding services, the company will offer computerized credit and securities ratings, library bibliographies, and medical data.")]

2006: Last Telegram sent.


1851: Telegraph cable laid across the English Channel [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 1]

1853: "USS Dolphin conducts soundings along the 1600-mile route between New Foundland and Ireland, discovering that a smooth plateau (soon dubbed the 'telegraph plateau') stretches across almost all of the distance." [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 2]

1854: Cyrus Field, persuaded by the potential of a transatlantic cable, begins to pursue the project. The New York, New Foundland, and London Telegraph Company is formed. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 1]

1855: August 7 attempt to lay transatlantic cable fails. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]

1856: Cable is laid between New York and New Foundland. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]


March 3 Pres. Franklin Pierce signs Atlantic Cable Act, supporting transatlantic cable.

August 5: The USS Niagara and the HMS Agamemnon begin attempt to install of the first transatlantic cable. "With capital obtained from private subscriptions in New York and London and, in part, appropriated by the British and United States governments, an attempt was made in 1857 to lay a cable under the Atlantic Ocean. The cable broke after 355 miles has been laid by a ship operating from Ireland." The cable could not be recovered and the effort was abandoned. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 5]

The cable consisted of seven copper wires, insulated with gutta-percha latex, wound with hemp, and then protected with a sheath of iron wire. The cable, too heavy to be carried by one ship, had to be cut in two, placed on two boats, and then spliced together at sea. As a massive spool of wound copper wire, the cable also disturbed the magnetic field around the ships, messing up their navigation; this problem was solved by having guide ships lead the cable ships. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Duncan Geere, How the First Cable was Laid Across the Atlantic, Wired 2011] [Alexander at 3]


June 10th: The ships again attempt to lay the cable, this time meeting in the middle of the Atlantic. The attempt failed three times, before, on June 29th, the attempt was abandoned and the ships returned to Queenstown. [Alexander at 5]

July 29: USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon begin again their attempt to lay the transatalantic cable. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 5]

Aug. 4: USS Niagara reaches Newfoundland; next day HMS Agamemnon reaches Valentia Bay. The first transatlantic cable has been laid. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 5]

Aug. 16: First telegraph message sent across the Atlantic:

"Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men"

by the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company. Queen Victoria responded with typical utopian sentiments that are met with any new communications era: stating that he hoped the cable would establish "an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded on their common interest and reciprocal esteem." President Buchanan stated, "it is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle. May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world".

This cable failed Sept. 3 due to the operator increasing the voltage, compromising the insulation. 271 messages had been transmitted over its short duration. [Duncan Geere, How the First Cable was Laid Across the Atlantic, Wired 2011] [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 4]

The Civil War intervenes, but in a Cuban Missile Crisis moment, a US ship boards a British mail steamer in international waters and seizes two confederate diplomats, leading the US and Britian to the brink of war. Just as the Cuban Missile Crisis led to the installation of the "red phone" for improved communications between the White House and the Kremlin, this crisis was used for a renewed call for the transatlantic cable, in order to enable diplomatic resolution of incidents. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]

1865: Cyprus Field purchases the largest ship available, the SS Great Eastern, and attempts to lay a heavier gauge cable. The SS Great Eastern embarked on its attempt to lay the cable on July 23rd but abandons the attempt on August 2nd. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 6]

1866: "On July 27, 1866, the steamship "Great Eastern" completed laying a new cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Returning to mid-Atlantic, the ship located and raised the cable used in a previous attempt, spliced it, and extended it to Newfoundland, where it was landed on September 8, 1866. Thus, America and Europe were linked by two cables and other ocean cables followed. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Alexander at 6]

1869: The Great Eastern lays a competing cable between France and St. Pierre. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable]

"Ocean cables were operated by repeating the messages along the route. In 1921, "regenerators" were developed for direct transmission between terminals. Less than 300 single letters a minute could be sent over the original transatlantic cable. Later new "permalloy" cables raised that capacity to about 2,400 letters a minute.

"Until 1877, all rapid long-distance communication depended upon the telegraph. That year, a rival technology developed that would again change the face of communication -- the telephone. By 1879, patent litigation between Western Union and the infant telephone system was ended in an agreement that largely separated the two services.

. . . . .


"Few radio broadcasts travel through the air exclusively, while many are sent over telephone wires. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish physicist, predicted the existence of radio waves, and in 1886 Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, a German physicist, demonstrated that rapid variations of electric current could be projected into space in the form of radio waves similar to those of light and heat.

"But it remained for Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor, to prove the feasibility of radio communication. He sent and received his first radio signal in Italy in 1895. By 1899 he flashed the first wireless signal across the English Channel and two years later received the letter "S", telegraphed from England to Newfoundland. This was the first successful transatlantic radiotelegraph message in 1902.

"Wireless signals proved effective in communication for rescue work when a sea disaster occurred. Effective communication was able to exist between ships and ship to shore points. A number of ocean liners installed wireless equipment. In 1899 the United States Army established wireless communications with a lightship off Fire Island, New York. Two years later the Navy adopted a wireless system. Up to then, the Navy had been using visual signaling and homing pigeons for communication.

"In 1901, radiotelegraph service was instituted between five Hawaiian Islands. By 1903, a Marconi station located in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, carried an exchange or greetings between President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII. In 1905 the naval battle of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war was reported by wireless, and in 1906 the U.S. Weather Bureau experimented with radiotelegraphy to speed notice of weather conditions.

"In 1909, Robert E. Peary, arctic explorer, radiotelegraphed: "I found the Pole". In 1910 Marconi opened regular American-European radiotelegraph service, which several months later, enabled an escaped British murderer to be apprehended on the high seas. In 1912, the first transpacific radiotelegraph service linked San Francisco with Hawaii.

"Overseas radiotelegraph service developed slowly, primarily because the initial radiotelegraph set discharged electricity within the circuit and between the electrodes was unstable causing a high amount of interference. The Alexanderson high-frequency alternator and the De Forest tube resolved many of these early technical problems. The Navy made major use of radio transmitters -- especially Alexanderson alternators, the only reliable long-distance wireless transmitters - for the duration.

"During World War I, governments began using radiotelegraph to be alert of events and to instruct the movement of troops and supplies. World War II demonstrated the value of radio and spurred its development and later utilization for peacetime purposes. Radiotelegraph circuits to other countries enabled persons almost anywhere in the United States to communicate with practically any place on earth.

"Since 1923, pictures have been transmitted by wire, when a photograph was sent from Washington to Baltimore in a test. The first transatlantic radiophoto relay came in 1924 when the Radio Corporation of America beamed a picture of Charles Evans Hughes from London to New York. RCA inaugurated regular radiophoto service in 1926.

"Two radio communication companies once had domestic networks connecting certain large cities, but these were closed in World War II. However, microwave and other developments have made it possible for domestic telegraph communication to be carried largely in part over radio circuits. In 1945 Western Union established the first microwave beam system, connecting New York and Philadelphia. This has since been extended and is being developed into a coast-to-coast system. By 1988 Western Union could transmit about 2,000 telegrams simultaneously in each direction.

[Feb 2006 Western Union Sends Its Last Telegram NPR




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