Telegraphy in Canada, Sending Instant Messages

In 1846, the First Telegraphic Message from Toronto to Hamilton

Transmitting code by electric telegraph key, messages were received almost immediately. The Telegraph was used by varying business sectors in Canada for nearly 122 years.

The telegrapher of the Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara and St. Catherines Telegraph Company tapped out letters on a small metal machine. Dot, dot, dot… dash, dash. His finger was pressing on the brass key, sending the first telegraph message in Canada. At a desk in Hamilton, Ontario, the coded message from Toronto was received almost as immediately as it was sent, then translated and written down. It was December 19, 1846.

Samuel Morse and the Morse Code

Invented in the late 1700s in Europe and first used in England in 1837, the possibilities of telegraphy did not catch on in North America. The code was complicated and not easy to operate Samuel Finley Breese Morse of Massachusetts came along, and in 1837 devised a simple encoded method of dots and dashes to form letters, numbers and symbols. (Morse was a fine artist and early photographer.) He also developed equipment to send and receive the messages “by opening and closing electric circuits,” said the Canadian Encyclopedia. Morse sent his first message in the United States on May 24, 1844, a telegraph of four words. “What hath God wrought” was transmitted from Baltimore to Washington.

Telegraph Lines Along Train Tracks

The Montreal Telegraph Company opened for communications business in 1847 and held the market until 20 years later when the Dominion Telegraph Company became a competitor. (Western Union eventually took the lead.) Tapping out the code on a small machine called the Key, commercial messages were sent through wire lines strung from pole to pole alongside the railway tracks, first between Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton and London by 1847 and, in time, all across Canada and into the United States. In the late 1800s, the cost to send a telegram was 25 cents for the first 10 words and then a penny each for additional words.

A Glimpse of Telegraphy Equipment

A Key, made of brass and iron, used an up and down finger motion to tap out messages. The first Keys held the possibility of shock due to lack of insulation between parts, and later inventors came up with safer models. In 1878, Jesse Bunnell made improvements to the Key designed by Morse, noted the Alberta Railway Museum, by adding an insulated knob for operation and making the key semi-portable.”

A Bug was a version of a Key but used a side to side motion, easing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome from the repetitive up and down action. The Bug was invented in 1904 by Horace G. Martin. He patented his design and created many variants.

A Sounder produced the dot and dash notes for operators to hear and translate into a message.

A Repeater was an electromechanical device used to boost the transmitted signal along the land lines.

A Pocket Test Set was a portable Key used by repairmen to send transmissions and trainmen to make report of late trains.

The Last Telegraph Message in Canada

Along with business and personal use, the telegraph became a life-line for shipping, the railways, police and emergency departments. In Canada, the last message transmitted by telegraph was on May 30, 1972, almost one hundred and twenty-two years after the first message was issued. Sent from Batiscan, Quebec to Montreal, the Canadian Pacific operator Rene Chevalier tapped out, “This is the last telegram via Morse Code in Canada. What hath God wrought?”

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