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The Electric Telegraph (1838-1922)
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The electric telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication, replacing earlier semaphore communication lines. In addition to its primary use for point-to-point messages, other applications were developed, including printing telegraphs ("tickers") used for distributing stock quotes and news reports.
Electric Telegraph Development and Morse code -- Telegraphic News Gathering and Time Signals -- News and Entertainment Distribution -- Early Wireless Speculation


Early communications development included a variety of semaphore telegraph lines, where spotters used visual signals to relay messages from one elevated location to the next. By the early 1800s, these mechanically-operated visual telegraph lines were fairly common in Europe, although only a few simple links were ever built in the United States. However, visual telegraphs were slow, covered limited distances, and were usable only during good visibility, so inventors worked to develop a way to send signals by electrical currents along wires, which promised nearly instantaneous transmissions over great distances in all kinds of weather. But progress was slow, in part because the nature of "electrical fluid", as it was then known, was poorly understood.

William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed the first electric telegraph to go into commercial service, which began operation in England in 1838. Like the earlier mechanical telegraphs, this pioneer electrical telegraph used visual signaling -- in its initial configuration, two needles at a time, out of a total of five, rotated on the receiving device to point to letters on a display. Meanwhile, other inventors worked on electric telegraphs based on different principles, the most important being Samuel Morse in the United States, who developed a single-wire system that imprinted dots and dashes on a moving paper tape. (Later, operators would learn to read the dots and dashes directly, by listening to the clicking of the receiver). An early review of Professor Morse's Electro-Magnetic Telegraph, appearing in the April, 1838 issue of The American Biblical Repository, lauded his approach as "more simple, less expensive, and more complete and permanent" than the designs of other electric telegraphs, and predicted that "Should its success equal the expectations of most who have examined it, the results of this discovery upon society will be greater than the imagination of the most sanguine can now distinctly conceive." In 1844, the first commercial line using Morse's design went into service between Washington, District of Columbia and Baltimore, Maryland. Its success was followed by the rapid construction of telegraph lines throughout the United States, and eventually Morse's dot-and-dash approach became the worldwide standard. (Although the electric telegraph made most visual telegraphs obsolete, telegraph wires couldn't be run out to sea, so, until the development of radio, a few semaphore links continued to provide ship-to-shore communication. A Semaphore Telegraph Station, from the April 20, 1895 issue of the Scientific American Supplement, described a French shoreline installation, which displayed meteorological signals, sent messages to passing ships, and also received commercial telegrams sent from the ships by semaphore flags.)

Morse used standardized sequences of dots and dashes to represent individual letters and numbers for transmitting messages, and this became known as the American Morse Code. However, Morse's original code specification included a few oddities, so although American Morse was widely adopted throughout the United States, a more consistent version was developed in Europe, known as Continental Morse Code. Telegraphic Codes, from the 1912 edition of the Electro-Importing Company's Wireless Course, compares the American and Continental Morse Codes with a third, short-lived code used by the U.S. Navy. Radio would also adopt dot-and-dash signaling in its early days, and radio operators generally used the same telegraphic codes as landline telegraphy, so at first most U.S. radio stations used American Morse, while a majority of the rest of the world used Continental Morse. However, radio's use in international communication meant that a single standard telegraphic code was needed in order to avoid confusion. Eventually Continental Morse was universally adopted for radio communication, and, reflecting its expanded status, it became known as International Morse. Meanwhile, the original American Morse largely disappeared from radio use.


Although the telegraph was mostly used for sending individual messages, other more general applications were also developed. As lines spread throughout the country, the telegraph was recognized as ideal for rapidly gathering and distributing news items. In George B. Prescott's 1860 History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph, The Associated Press of the United States section reviewed the first telegraphic press association, which had been formed in 1848. (The Associated Press would later take seriously the threat that radio newscasts posed to newspaper sales. From 1922 to 1939 AP greatly restricted use of its reports by radio stations -- even those owned by newspapers -- in what became known as the "Press-Radio War"). It also became common to run special telegraph lines to major sporting events, so newspapers could receive up-to-the-minute reports. Banks of operators would be set up in the stands, each clattering away at their keys, such as those shown in Electrical Service at Harvard-Yale Football Game from the December 6, 1913 The Electrical World. Nine years later, Emile Portal recounted, in Former San Jose Boy Now Foremost Expert in Radio [telegraph extract], from the December 10, 1922 San Jose Mercury Herald, how, as usual, a club had hired a telegraph operator to receive that year's telegraphed reports from the Harvard-Yale football game. However, this time the telegraph operator was considered a reserve, to be used only if a radio broadcast of the game could not be picked up. Because the game broadcast was successfully received, "The inactive operator and the muffled sounder were mute testimonials of the passing of the old and the advent of the new."

An important innovation occurred beginning in the late 1840s, when Great Britain used telegraph lines to establish standardized time throughout the country. The United States was somewhat slower to adopt this practice. The first step was to establish regional "railroad times", based on the solar noon at selected hub cities, which varied by railroad company. On the Allegheny System of Electric Time Signals by Samuel Pierpont Langley, from the 1873 Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, reviewed how an astronomical observatory located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had expanded its telegraph time service, originally provided to local jewelers, in order to establish a standard time for use along the Pennsylvania Central Railroad lines. It wouldn't be until 1883 that the various railroad companies agreed on a common standard, using hourly time zones offset from the base time at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in London, England. Eventually the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. began using telegraph lines to transmit daily time signals nationwide, as reported in Distribution of Time Signals by Waldon Fawcett, from the March, 1905 The Technical World. Around the same time, U.S. Navy radio stations started broadcasting daily time signals, but during World War One private citizens were banned from possessing operational radio receivers. This prohibition was lifted in 1919, and an extract from Wireless Equipment for the Practical Jeweler by Eugene Dynner, from the October 1, 1919 The Jewelers' Circular, celebrated the restoration, listing the deficiencies of the telegraph services, and concluding "it has long been no secret that the time signals as transmitted by radio were unquestionably superior to the old land line time signal systems".


The information gathered by press associations was generally made available only to member newspapers. However, the introduction of printing telegraphs -- informally known as "tickers" -- which printed letters and numbers on paper tape, made it possible to also distribute news and information directly to paying customers. At first subscribers received stock and commodity prices, but later news items were added. (A sardonic vignette, The Man and the Ticker from Tom Masson's 1905 book, A Corner in Women and Other Follies, tells what happened when "the Ticker didn't tick right".) In 1908, a section in What Burlingame Did, a promotional pamphlet written by Robert Cleveland to entice investors into buying stock for the Burlingame "telegraphing typewriter", claimed that within a couple of years ticker services would be nearly universal, and "Commencing early in the morning, and continuing all day long and into the hours of the evening, the news of the world will be sent to these business houses and homes all over the city". Although the Burlingame promotion was guilty of over-enthusiasm, ticker services were set up in a number of cities, serving mainly businesses and clubs, but also a few private homes. The importance of the tickers -- formally known as "stock indicators" -- for smoothing the operations of Wall Street brokers and other financial markets was reviewed in depth in the opening pages of the Tools of Wall Street chapter from Sereno S. Pratt's 1909 book, The Work of Wall Street. In its February 13, 1910 issue, the New York Times detailed the competitive race between operating ticker services in that city to provide "Fresh News Every Minute", while at the 1912 U.S. Senate Titanic hearings, the Testimony of Mr. Maurice L. Farrell provided detailed information about the minute-by-minute reports issued by the Dow Jones ticker service. In the April, 1914 issue of Technical World Magazine, C. F. Carter's Within a Tick of the News reviewed a New York City based news distribution service which provided "up-to-the minute knowledge of what the outside world is doing" to customers for whom even hourly newspaper editions were not enough.

The telegraph was also sometimes utilized for group connections, both by businesses and private citizens. In 1860, the A Novel Meeting section of History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph reported how thirty-three offices of the American Telegraph Company were linked together in order to conduct a business meeting. In the February, 1917 QST magazine, Irving Vermilya's Amateur Number One (telegraph extract) recalled a private line, begun in 1903, which eventually connected forty-two locations, creating a telegraphic party-line for youths in Mount Vernon, New York to exchange messages with each other 24 hours a day. And in Germany commercial enterprises made use of an innovative printing-telegraph system that provided an early form of electronic mail, as the August 21, 1912 issue of Electrical Review and Western Electrician reported in The Teleprinter that "Business offices, large hotels and other establishments in Berlin and Hamburg, are now subscribers to the teleprinter exchange" and "Messages are thus sent and received directly and without any loss of time".

The clicking noise made by telegraph receivers led to audio experimentation, as recounted in the Music by Telegraph section of History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph. Elisha Gray developed a simple remote-control piano, described in Music By Telegraph from the April 10, 1877 National Republican. Dr. G. P. Hachenburg spent many years promoting the use of telegraph lines to remotely operate distant musical instruments -- Musical Telegraphy, from the November 14, 1891 Electrical Review, was one review of his not-very-practical ideas, although, despite very little progress after more than thirty years of promotion, Hachenburg extolled his system as "An invention that in the near future will assert its importance as one of the great inventions of the age", and one with great financial potential, "For who would not pay an admission fee to hear this electro-music?" A somewhat more practical device, although not a financial success, was Dr. Thaddeus Cahill's electronic synthesizer, the Telharmonium. Marion Melius' Music By Electricity, from the June, 1906 The World's Work, reported that it was now "as easy to create music at the other end of fifty miles [80 kilometers] of wire as to send a telegraph message". A second reviewer, Thomas Commerford Martin, was equally impressed, and in the April, 1906 Review of Reviews, The Telharmonium: Electricity's Alliance With Music reported that "In the new art of telharmony we have the latest gift of electricity to civilization". The Telharmonium consisted of a massive assembly of 145 electrical alternators, whose currents could be combined using a musical keyboard to create a full range of notes. Although Cahill looked forward to day when four concurrent services would provide electronic music 24-hours a day to subscribing commercial establishments and private homes, the invention ultimately proved impractical, in part because the high currents produced interfered with adjoining telephone lines. In the March 8, 1907 New York Times, Music By Wireless to the Times Tower reviewed Lee DeForest's experimental radio broadcast of a Telharmonium concert, but, given the extremely crude nature of DeForest's arc-transmitter at this stage, it could hardly have impressed Cahill, whose Telharmonium was lauded for its "purity of tone".


The earliest experimental telegraphs employed multiple connecting wires -- in some cases a wire for each letter of the alphabet -- but over time simpler setups requiring fewer wires were developed. By 1844, Morse's line between Baltimore and Washington consisted of just two wires, one carrying the electrical current for signaling, and the other acting as a return line, to make a complete circuit. However, it turned out that even that could be simplified, and the return wire eliminated, if the sending line was "grounded", i.e. physically connected to a plate buried in the earth. The ability to eliminate the return wire was something of a mystery at the time, and the phenomenon became known under the misnomer of the "ground return", since it was incorrectly thought that the return electrical current was somehow flowing through the ground all the way back to the sending location. Actually, the earth around the grounding point was acting as a sink, so the "return current" was not traveling any significant distance. However, this mistaken belief that "return" currents were traversing the ground for extended distances suggested the idea of signaling without any connecting wires at all. Investigating this possibility, disappointed experimenters quickly found they were unable to send electrical currents through the ground more than a few meters, which they found perplexing, given their mistaken belief that "ground return" currents were somehow readily traveling hundreds of kilometers. In 1860, the Steinheil's Telegraph section of History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph reviewed what was known about the seemingly contradictory phenomenon, finally concluding that "It must be left to the future to decide whether we shall ever succeed in telegraphing at great distances without any metallic communication at all." And in 1910, one of E. J. Edwards' "New News of Yesterday" columns remembered Cyrus W. Field's Prophecy of the Wireless, when in 1878 the man responsible for the Atlantic cable speculated that "I am pretty sure that some day somebody will show how messages can be sent across the Atlantic through the air, without the aid of any wires whatever".

In the end, it turned out that there was in fact no way to send standard electrical currents for long distances through the ground. However, in 1895 Guglielmo Marconi would discover the next best thing -- groundwave radio signals -- which were radio waves that used the earth as a waveguide, traveling across land and sea to the "great distances" envisioned by Steinheil. And Marconi would later also employ "skywave" signals, which could travel "through the air" and across the Atlantic.

"This is the age of telegrams. The public is accustomed to the consideration of useful facts set forth in the briefest terms."--The Science Record for 1873.