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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.

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles . Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat ." - Albert Einstein, explaining radio

"Many things which at first seemed preposterous, have proved to be not impracticable, but eminently important and valuable." - Pittsburgh Gazette 1850s [Branch p. 29]

The term "Telegraph" is derived from the greek "tele" which means far and "graphein" which means to write. [Telegraph and Beyond] [Standage 9]

Optical Telegraph

Source: Wikipedia

1791: Mar. 2: Claude Chappe demonstrates optical telegraph in Brulon France over a distance of 10 miles with message "If you succeed, you will bask in glory." [Standage 9] [Decker] [Nonnenmacher]

1793: July 12: Optical Telegraph network, sending a message between three towers, demonstrated

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. Network operated by government. [PBS The Great Transatlantic Cable] [Decker] [Standage13]

1795: Britian initiates construction of optical telegraph service.

1799: Napoleon orders expansion of teleg raph network to support his military endeavors

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] [Standage16]

"In less than 50 years time the French built a national infrastructure with more than 530 towers and a total length of almost 5,000 kilometres. " [Decker]

Electronic Telegraph

Era of Invention and Disruption

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

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 January 11, 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 157] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

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


"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] [Standage 46]

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] [Nonnenmacher] [Smithsonian Guide 1986] 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.

"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.

USG would lease the line back to the Magnetic Telegraph Company.

1845: Morse and his partners form the Magnetic Telegraph Company. [Smithsonian][Standage 53] [Beauchamp p. 58] [Smithsonian Guide 1986] Morse sold licenses to other telegraph companies. [Smithsonian Guide 1986] New York & Boston Magnetic Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]

Bored Network Operators would play checkers over telegraph lines, establishing the first electronic games over networks. [Standage 132]

1846: The Magnetic Telegraph Company constructs the first commercial telegraph line between Washington D.C. and New York City. [Smithsonian] [Branch p. 22] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

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.

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).

"The telegraph companies had an anti-monopoly regulation, that one party could not use the wires for more than ten minutes at a time. " [Branch p. 22]

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] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

New York to Buffalo line constructed by the New York, Albany and Buffalo Telegraph company. "The opening of the office here was eventful and exciting day in the city. When the machine was connected and the operator had adjusted his relay, Albany called him up and asked 'Do you hear me?' When Rochester answered 'To be sure I do,' Albany quickly rejoined, 'Ha ha! Dr. Tichnor, give me your hand!' These words communicated to the crowd , were caught up by the excited spectators and passed mouth to mouth, and the telegraph and the mysterious hand-shaking were on every lip." [Cheney, The Early Days of Telegraph, Telegraph Age Jan 1909]

Washington & New Orleans Co. established. [Beauchamp 58]

H O'Reilly Contract Co. established. [Beauchamp 58]

North Western Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]


Lake Erie Telegraph Co. reaches Cleveland [Busch] [Beauchamp 58]

Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & Louisville Co established [Beauchamp 58]

New Orleans & Ohio Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]

New York & Erie Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]

Maine Telegraph Co. [Beauchamp 58]

1848: Era of Patent Litigation

Western Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]

Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]

Ohio & Mississippi Telegraph Co. established. [Beauchamp 58]

New Brunswick Electric Telegraph Co. [Beauchamp 58]

"In 1848 a Scotch scientist, Alexander Bain, received his patents on a telegraph. These were but two of many competing and incompatible technologies that had developed. The result was confusion, inefficiency, and a rash of suits and counter suits." [Smithsonian Guide 1986]


Selden and Hiram Sibley established the New York State Printing Telegraph Company, which competed against the New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Company. [Smithsonian] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Co established [Beauchamp 58]

Erie & Michigan Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]

New York & New England Telegraph Co. [Beauchamp 58]

Era of Competition



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. [WU History] (See AT&T Vail and Universal Service). Sibley proceeded to acquire companies westard. [Smithsonian] [Smithsonian Guide 1986 (After struggling to compete against New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Company, "Selden suggested that instead of creating a new line, the two should try to acquire all the companies west of Buffalo and unite them into a single unified system.")] Western Union would become the first nationwide monopoly. [Beauchamp p. 67] Western Union gained access to railroad ROW by, in part, agreeing to give priority service to railroad messages. [Beauchamp 65]

Over 50 telegraph companies in business. [Smithsonian] [Smithsonian Guide 1986] [Alven] 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).

Why did telegraph develop differently than mail, telephone, or Internet service, with so many small separate companies? According to the Smithsonian Guide,

This corporate cornucopia developed because the owners of the telegraph patents had been unsuccessful in convincing the United States and other governments of the invention's potential usefulness. In the private sector, the owners had difficulty convincing capitalists of the commercial value of the invention. This led to the owners' willingness to sell licenses to many purchasers who organized separate companies and then built independent telegraph lines in various sections of the country. [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

1852: New York, Albany, Buffalo Telegraph Co. established [Beauchamp 58]

1853: Electronic telegraph disrupted optical telegraph service. [Decker "The optical telegraph disappeared as fast as it came. This happened with the arrival of the electrical telegraph, fifty years later. The last optical line in France was stopped in 1853, in Sweden the technology was used up to 1880. The electrical telegraph was not hindered by mist, wind, heavy rainfall or low hanging clouds, and it could also be used at night."]


"In 1854, Sibley acquired the Morse patent rights for the Midwest from Jeptha Wade and John Speed for $50,000 (without the knowledge of their partner Ezra Cornell from the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company). The NY&MI company proceeded to migrate to the superior Morse Code system." [Smithsonian] [Smithsonian Guide 1986] This began the unification of previously "unreliable and inefficient" service.

Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company incorporated in Maine. [NYT Mach 31, 1954PDF]

1855: Sibley NY&MI acquired Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company from Cornell "thus assuring dominance by the NYMVPTC in the Midwest" [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

1856: NY&MI becomes Western Union"indicating the union of the Western lines into one compact system. ". [Smithsonian Guide 1986] [Smithsonian] [Brooks 62] [WU History]

1857 Treaty of Six Nations

"In 1857 the six largest telegraph companies entered into a cartel called the "Treaty of Six Nations." ... This set of principles evolved during negotiations, so that by the time the agreement was completed, the signatories divided the country into six sections and assigned monopoly control of each section to one form. Some of the smaller competitors objected and began to undertake the construction of competitive lines. Negotiations to satisfy these firms were concluded in 1859 (under the auspices of the North American Telegraph Association), which essentially resulted in their buyout by or merger with the six major firms. Thus, only 15 years after the first telegraph line had entered service, the consolidation of the industry from lively competition to a cartel of a few small firms was complete." [Nonnenmacher] Treaty of Six Nations was between:

[Beauchamp p. 64] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

1860: The Pacific Telegraph Act is enacted authorizing the construction of a transcontinental telegraph. Western Union, the sole bidder, wins the contract. [Smithsonian] [Beauchamp 66] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]



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 ~ Era of Consolidation


US Civil War starts

"During the Civil War, Anson Stager was appointed military superintendent of all telegraph lines and offices in the North. He continued to serve simultaneously as general superintendent of Western Union, and before the war's end he left Washington for Cleveland, where he performed both duties." [Busch]

Pacific Telegraph Company formed to build transcontinental telegraph line westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The California State Telegraphy Company was formed out of local telegraphy companies, which then formed the Overland Telegraph Company to build the line eastward from California.

Oct. 24th: First Transcontinental Telegraph System completed. Western Union's eastern and western networks are linked in Salt Lake City. [America's Story, LOC] [] [Learning Lincoln Online] [Engineering and Technology History Wiki] [Standage 59] [WU History] "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] [Smithsonian ("In 1860 Congress passed, and President James Buchanan signed, the Pacific Telegraph Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to seek bids for a project to construct a transcontinental line. When two bidders dropped out, Hiram Sibley, representing Western Union, was the only bidder left. By default Sibley won the contract. The Pacific Telegraph Company was organized for the purpose of building the eastern section of the line. Sibley sent Wade to California, where he consolidated the small local companies into the California State Telegraph Company. This entity then organized the Overland Telegraph Company, which handled construction eastward from Carson City, Nevada, joining the existing California lines, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Sibley's Pacific Telegraph Company built westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Sibley put most of his resources into the venture. The line was completed in October, 1861. Both companies were soon merged into Western Union")]

First Telegraph over the transcontinental line:

The Pacific Telegraph Company and the Overland Telegraph Company were then merged into Western Union. [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

Completion of transcontinental telegraph line disrupts Pony Express Postal Service, which ends service. [Standage 60] [America's Story, LOC ("On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph system was completed. This communication advancement would soon spell the end for the horses and their riders working for the Pony Express.")] [Pony Express Historical Timeline, Pony Express National Museum ("The Pony Express is discontinued. ...the government contract stipulated the service be discontinued after the Overland Telegraph Company completed its construction of the telegraph line.")] [Evan Andrews, 10 Things You May Not Know About the Pony Express, (June 10, 2016) ("For all its financial troubles, the Pony Express didn’t truly collapse until a better alternative appeared on the scene. The company had spent its brief history bridging the gap between the Eastern and Western telegraph lines, but it was finally rendered obsolete on October 24, 1861, when Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph system at Salt Lake City. ")]

1862: Thomas Edison is hired as a telegraph operator at the age of 15 (telegraph operators had gone off to fight the Civil War, creating a demand for operators)


American Telegraph Company formed out of several smaller networks [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

Morse patent expires. US Telegraphy Company is formed from the consolidation of multiple telegraph companies. [Smithsonian] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

July 2 Act of Congress requires railroads "to operate and use said roads and telegraph for all purposes of communications, travel, and transportation, so far as the public and Government are concerned, as one continuous line, and in such operation and use to afford and secure to each equal advantage and facilities as to rates, times, and transportation, without any discrimination of any kind in favor of the road or business of any or either of said companies, or adverse to the road or business of any or either of the others, and it shall not be lawful for the proprietors of any line of telegraph authorized by this act, or the act amended by this act, to refuse or fail to convey for all persons requiring the transmission of news and messages of like character." [NYT Apr 5 1880PDF]


US Civil War Ends

"Western Union found itself in a particularly good position during the Civil War.  Its lines generally ran from east to west and were almost unaffected by the war, unlike their main rival, the American Telegraph Company, whose lines ran from north to south and were frequently damaged or destroyed by the competing armies." [Beauchamp p. 67]

Western Union was given the miles of telegraph line that it had laid for the Army of the North.

Formation of International Telegraph Union Convention & ITU [Cybersecurity Review 2009]


Western Union acquires US Telegraphy Company and the American Telegraph Company. [Smithsonian] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]

Western Union acquires more than 500 small telegraph companies. [Beauchamp p. 67]

Western Union introduces stock ticker [WU History]

Post Roads Act of 1866 (granting telegraph companies right to operate over federal lands)

"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

"As New York newspapers had combined (in the first Associated Press) to receive European news from ships some hours before the vessels reached harbor, so the Pittsburgh press quickly learned cooperation in the use of the telegraph. An agent in Philadelphia gathered the eastern news and despatched it to one office (the Commercial Journal), where it became the common property of the associated papers. This arrangement served until the "big" story of 1850 was "scooped" by one paper. Professor John W. Webster of the Medical College at Cambridge had been in debt to Dr. George Parkman of the preparatory school; and it seemed that, most unacademically, Professor Webster had dissected his colleague and disposed of some of the pieces in the college furnace. Was Webster the victim of a diabolical conspiracy? Or what was Harvard, the Unitarian heresy, the younger generation, coming to? Interest was nationally intense; and the Pittsburgh newspapers printed full accounts (received by mail) of each day's testimony at the trial. At the unexpectedly speedy conviction, the eastern agent despatched a full column to the Pittsburgh papers by telegraph. (There was another newsworthy event the same day; Senator John C. Calhoun died. That news was despatched in seventeen words.) The Commercial Journal published an extra edition while the other papers were yet uninformed of the story. The league of Pittsburgh papers split up; and the O'Rielly telegraph lines entered the breach as a news-gathering agency. This arrangement was maintained until the Associated Press expanded from its seaboard origins into a national agency." [Branch p. 27]

Western Union was establishing its monopoly for telegraph; Associated Press was establishing its monopoly for news (Associated Press has been founded in 1848). 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] [Annteressa Lubrano, The Telegraph: How Technology Innovation Caused Social Change 72 (2013).] 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]

1867: In the disputed election of 1876, Western Union and Associated Press are accused of influencing the outcome of the Presidential Election. Associated Press ran numerous articles in favor of Republican Rutherford Hays and critical of democrat Samuel Tilden. Western Union gave the New York Times telegrams from the Democratic Party showing that there was uncertainty whether the democrats or the republicans had won the electoral college votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Republicans quickly took advantage of the telegraph services of pro-republic Western Union. " During the long controversy in Congress over who actually won the districts in the disputed election of 1876, Western Union secretly siphoned to AP's general agent Henry Nash Smith the telegraph correspondence of key Democrats during the struggle. Smith, in turn, relayed this intelligence to the Hayes camp with instructions on how to proceed. On top of that, AP constantly published propaganda supporting the Republican side of the story. Meanwhile, Western Union insisted that it kept "all messages whatsoever . . . strictly private and confidential." " [Ars Technica] [Ezra Klein, When Control Crushes Innovation, Washington Post , Dec. 5, 2010] In 1877, the Progressives in Congress would subpoena from WU all of the telegraph traffic ofr republicans involved in the 1876 disputed election; Western Union would object.

1867: William Orton named President of Western Union [Wolff 42]

1868: Hubbard lobbies Congress to establish a private postal telegraph company, critical of Western Union's exorbanant rates [Wolff 41]


The Telegraph Wars (Jay Gould)







1878 Patent Wars: 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. [Smithsonian Guide 1986] WU settles with Bell in order to focus on the attack from Gould.




1896: Postal Telegraph Calendar.


Group of Western Union Messengers in Norfolk, Va. Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, June 1911. National Child Labor Committee Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

"Direct postal telegraph wire at a truck service station on U.S. 1 (New York Avenue), Washington, D.C." Call Number: LC-USF33- 020650-M1 [P&P]. June, 1940. Public Domain


AT&T acquires Western Union. This created an economic efficiency as both AT&T and Western Union could now share use of long lines. In addition, customers could order a telegram by telephone. This however placed competitive telegraph services at a disadvantage. Postal Telegraph sued for antitrust. [Wadsworth] AT&T divested itself of Western Union in 1913 in order to avoid antitrust action. [See Kingsbury Commitment] Western Union would acquire Postal Telegraph in 1945, eliminating its last telegraph competitor.

US Becomes Member of International Telegraph Union Convention & ITU [Cybersecurity Review 2009 p C-2]

"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.

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

1917: Jan. 19th: Zimmerman Telegram. Telegram between Foreign Secretary for the German Empire Arthur Zimmerman and German Ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckardts proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico if the USA were to enter WWI. Mexico would be given Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

"We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.

1918: World War I: USG nationalizes telephone and telegraph companies.

1925: Western Union Teleprinter machines came into use .

1936: Varioplex 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] [Smithsonian Guide 1986]


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] [Standage 80]

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] [Standage 84]

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] [Standage 88]

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.

. . . . .

1884: MacKay Bennett System established 1883, which soon became the Commercial Cable Company. lays two trans atlantic cables in 1984. Rate was 40 cents per word. Gould and CCC would go in a rate war which would drop price to 12 cents per word. By 1890 the rate had stablized at 25 cents per word. [Mackay History] CCC had ownership in common with the Postal Telegraph company.


"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

Utopian Fervor



Privacy and Wiretap

As a message traveled through the network, every operator and transcriber in the route would know the contents of the message. The contents of the message would also naturally be revealed to the third-party recipient end user of the message. During the Civil War, intercepted telegrams were regularly provided to The North's leadership and to Pres. Lincoln. During WWI, the British intercepted the Zimmerman telegram, which proposed an alliegance between Germany and Mexico should the United States enter The War (when Secretary of State Henry L Stimson was presented with intercepted Japanese telegrams, he terminated the program infamously stating "Gentleman do not read each other's mail."). After WWII, the US implemented Operation Shamrock, delivering all telegrams to the NSA. See also Dreyfus Affair.

Some telegraph companies required operators to sign confidentiality agreements.

A popular method of end users to dprotect the privacy or confidentiality of a message was to encrypt the contents using a cipher. The ITU was formed in 1865 out of European initiatives to harmonize rules about the use of code in telegraph messages. [Standage 111] Code books emerged: The Secret Corresponding Vocabulary Adapted for Use to Morse's Electro-magnetic Telegraph and Also in Conducting Written Correspondence, Etc 1845; The Telegraph Dictionary, and Seamen's Signal Book: Adapted to Signals by Flags Or Other Semaphores; and Arranged for Secret Correspondence, Through Morse's Electro-magnetic Telegraph: for the Use of Commanders of Vessels, Merchants 1845

Law Enforcement Agents acquired copies of telegraphs using subpoena duces tecum. [Oliver, Privacy Advocates (''A subpoena duces tecum for telegrams provided the imprimatur of judicial authorization without any meaningful oversight of a court.")]. States had laws against disclosing the contents of telegrams, but these laws did not see much enforcement and there were not used to block government access to telegrams.








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