The term “telegraph” was used from the late eighteenth century to describe line-of-sight distance communication systems, most notably Claude Chappé’s semaphore network. By 1810, this network linked 29 of France’s largest cities to Paris. Experimental telegraphs utilizing electricity passing over wire for signaling purposes were developed in the early 1800s, though it was the inventions of Cooke and Wheatstone in the UK in the late 1830s which led to their practical application, initially on railways, where, in warning of accidents and stoppages, this form of signaling had the obvious advantage of traveling much faster than any train itself. Around the same time Samuel Morse, in the US, developed his system of using a series of short and long pulses of electric current, generated by turning the current on and off with a Morse key, to represent letters of the alphabet (Morse code). This system came to dominate telegraph communication for the next 100 years.
From the 1850s telegraph networks spread throughout the world with extraordinary speed. While in continental Europe state-owned systems were developed, in the UK and the US private enterprise drove their expansion, though in the UK the domestic telegraph system was nationalized and became part of British Post Office operations following the Telegraph Act of 1868. In the US, while there were initially dozens of telegraph companies, a single company, Western Union (which completed the line between the east and west of America in 1861), came to dominate, eventually becoming America’s first major industrial monopoly.
The demand for telegrams initially came from governments, the military, merchants, and newspaper companies. It is noteworthy that Germany’s extensive network of underground cables constructed in the 1870s was prompted by the political needs of a newly unified Germany. As prices reduced and technology improved, telegrams came to be also used extensively by the general public. The pattern of growth is indicated by the fact that within the UK the number of words transmitted by telegraph increased from 4.2 million in 1874 to 15.7 million in 1899. Outside Europe and the US, the largest telegraphic network in the second half of the nineteenth century was in India, which by 1860 had 18,000 km of telegraph lines spread across the entire subcontinent.
The development of intercontinental telegraph links was delayed because of the difficulty of manufacturing insulated submarine cables. The first successful link across the English Channel was established in 1851, while a link across the Mediterranean between France and Algeria was completed in 1854. The first working submarine cable uniting the vast systems of North America and Europe was completed in 1866, while Australia was connected to the UK via India in 1872. South America was linked to the growing international network in 1873, while eastern and southern Africa were connected in 1880. The encircling of the globe by telegraph cable was completed in the early 1900s.
In the late 1890s Marconi demonstrated the viability of wireless telegraphy and in 1901 sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic. As well as providing a service to shipping, wireless telegraphy’s main application was in long-distance communication augmenting existing cable links. It was boosted by the development of shortwave beam systems in the 1920s.
The telegraph was a watershed in communication history and a model for future developments. From its earliest days, it was recognized as an extremely powerful tool which, it was said, “annihilated time and space.” It marked a decisive separation of communication from transportation and also allowed communication to control physical processes, such as switching, from a distance. Its introduction, and the advantage it conferred in matters of commerce on those who could access the information it afforded, initiated debate about whether telegraphy should be conducted by governments as a public service or whether it was best left to the private sector. In the upshot, most domestic telegraph systems (that of the US excepted) developed on a public service model, while most international links were established by private enterprise.
The telegraph had a major impact in many realms of activity. It became integral to military operations, allowing, through field telegraphs, command at a distance and rapid mobilization of troops. It was credited with preventing a Confederate takeover of Washington during the American Civil War because it enabled a rapid mobilization of Unionist troops in response to this threat. It made world markets a possibility since prices of commodities at geographically separated trade centers could be readily compared. It contributed to the rise of global business, aided imperial expansion, and changed international diplomacy. It also transformed news reporting and distribution, both nationally and internationally, and led to the development of news agencies. Carey (1989) has noted how, in freeing communication from the constraints of geography, the telegraph enlarged the spatial and temporal boundaries of human interaction. Its networks enabled the development of communities of knowledge and action across local and national borders.
As the price of telegrams dropped, the telegraph came to be widely used by the general public. In the UK growth was encouraged by a uniform rate to all parts of the country, which was set at six pence from 1885. However, before too long the telephone (patented in the US in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell) began to encroach on telegraphic use. In 1914 about 69 million inland telegrams were transmitted in the UK, but by 1970 this had declined to 7.6 million.
- Beauchamp, K. G. (2001). A history of telegraphy. London: Institution of Electrical Engineers.
- Carey, J. W. (1989). Communication as culture. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.
- Kieve, J. L. (1973). The electric telegraph: A social and economic history. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.
- Nickles, D. P. (2003). Under the wire: How the telegraph changed diplomacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Thompson, R. L. (1947). Wiring a continent: The history of the telegraph industry in the United States 1832–1866. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.