the telegraph -- 7/26/21

Today's selection -- from An Illustrated Business History of the United States by Richard Vague.

"The telegraph had been patented in 1837 in England, but usage in the United States only took off when Samuel Morse developed his dot-and-dash code. Funded by a $30,000 grant from Congress, Morse built a test line between Washington and Baltimore and gave a high-profile initial demonstration in 1844. He formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company to run lines between New York, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Boston, and the Mississippi, and by 1846 the company had turned a profit and was paying dividends. By 1861, telegraph lines totaled tens of thousands of miles and stretched to California. 

"Competition in the telegraph service was fierce. By 1851 ten separate firms had run lines into New York City, and seventy-five companies collectively had a total of 21,147 miles of wire. Rates fell by more than 50 percent as new firms entered the fray. 

"Quality among competitors varied, and messages, usually business related, could easily get garbled. Cross-country messages often traveled over the lines of multiple firms, which became an impetus for consolidation. The industry evolved into large regional firms, and the six largest among them rationalized competition further with the so-called Treaty of Six Nations. By 1864 only Western Union and the American Telegraph Company remained of these six, and two years later Western Union took over its last competitors to secure market dominance. 

Clark Telegraph Relay, 1846

"The telegraph business benefited from rapid technological improvements, such as the invention of better insulation for telegraph wires by Ezra Cornell (cofounder of the eponymous university in New York) and Thomas Edison’s Quadruplex system in 1874, which allowed one wire to transmit four messages simultaneously. 

"Cyrus West Field and his Atlantic Telegraph Company laid and completed a transatlantic cable in 1858 -- a huge but short-lived achievement, as the new cable only worked for three weeks. (In 1866, he would finally succeed in laying the first continuously working transatlantic cable across the Atlantic Ocean, putting Europe and America in continuous communication.) 

"The railroad industry benefited the most from the telegraph. It widely adopted the technology when an engineer on the Erie Railway realized that railroads could use the telegraph to transmit news of accidents and delays between trains. "



Richard Vague


An Illustrated Business History of the United States


Penn Press


Copyright 2021 University of Pennsylvania


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