It would hard to overstate the significance of the electric telegraph in American (and world) history. Before the 1830s, nothing could travel faster than a running horse – not people, not goods, not even information. (In France, Napoleon had somewhat earlier established an optical telegraph system – what would now be called semaphore – but this was limited and cumbersome at best.) Before the 1830s had ended, the railroad was beginning to increase the speed of travel, but progress was relatively slow and quite expensive.
Then, on May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse, an artist and inventor, sent a brief message along an electric wire strung between the Supreme Court building in Washington and the site of the political conventions then underway in Baltimore, a distance of forty miles; and the world changed forever.
The First Telegram
“What hath God wrought” – These four words were sent using a code that Morse had developed, in which each letter of the alphabet was represented by a particular combination of presses and releases of a key that controlled an electric current passing along a wire. At the receiving end of the message, a mechanical device made an indentation on a moving strip of paper, corresponding to the “ons” and “offs” of the key at the sending end; this paper could then be “read” by translating the indentations back into the letters they represented (see illustration below). What made this process so revolutionary was that, for the first time, information could be received, and responded to, nearly instantaneously – or as we would say today, in “real time.” It was now possible to have a long distance conversation.
What Hath God Wrought
In the King James version of Numbers 23:23, these words are followed by an exclamation point: “It shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!” Although in the actual transmission, Morse did not use any punctuation, when he later wrote the words next to the original paper indentations made by the telegraph, he mistakenly added a question mark, thus turning the phrase, unintentionally, from an affirmation to a question. There were many of Morse’s countrymen who would in fact question the significance of the new invention and the implied suggestion that America was God’s new “chosen land.” As Thoreau famously wrote in Walden just ten years later, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
The Value of Instant Information
But for most Americans, and especially for American businessmen, no questions were necessary; the value of real-time communication, especially reciprocal communication, was readily apparent. Back in 1815, investment bankers in London learned of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo sooner than their competitors because of their use of carrier pigeons; they were thus able to buy up British government bonds which quickly increased in value once the news became more widely known. After Morse’s demonstration, telegraph lines were constructed rapidly, and were used chiefly by financiers to track the prices of stocks and other commodities. The telegraph was also instrumental in the growth of the railroads, by enabling faster scheduling of trains and avoiding collisions on single-track lines.
The significance of the telegraph to American life overall can be shown in one simple statistic: in 1846, when the Mexican-American war began, there were 146 miles of telegraph lines in the United States, none of them south of Richmond. By the time the war ended two years later, telegraph lines reached from New York to New Orleans; and by 1850 the country had ten thousand miles of lines. The communications revolution, intertwined with the transportation revolution and the industrial revolution occurring at the same time, transformed America in a mere three decades into a profoundly different country from what it had been.