On May 24, 1844, the question, "What hath God Wrought?" traveled electronically across sets of wires from Baltimore, MD to Washington D.C. by what was to become one of the most important inventions within the realms of modern communication: the telegraph. The word "telegraphy" itself comes from the Greek words tele and graphien and literally translates as "far-write." In a world where written letters could take days to reach their destination, the speed of this new form of communication was truly a modern marvel.
The history of the telegraph is one of many origins, although Americans almost always refer to Morse as the "father inventor'. However, it is important to note that Joseph Henry, a college professor in NY State, worked on telegraphy a few years before Morse. Henry solved the obstacle of electrical currents fading as they traveled down a longer line of wire by, “using relays and batteries at regular intervals,” along the wire itself. (Dulken 192) Henry was then finally able to send a signal across a wire that measured a mile in 1831. Morse followed up on Henry’s work, well aware that his final product was more of an innovation then a pure invention and was known to have said that, “the chief merit [of discovery] is that of so combining together things and inventions already existing, as to produce a result never before attained.” (Dulken 192) Soon enough, telegraph lines were being spread across the country and by 1861 a telegraphic line reached from the east coast all the way to the state of California inevitably putting the short-lived Pony Express out of business. Even more stunning was the first successful trans-Atlantic submarine cable that joined America with England in 1866.
Americans like Lane witnessed their country shrink in size as telegraphy became a part of everyday life. Below are several incidents and mentions of this modern device and how telegraphy was utilized in the incidents of Lane's life:
Lane writes about events in October of 1852:
From New York, on Monday, I went to Chicopee, Massachusetts, to visit my mother, sister Betsey Maria, and brothers Lorenzo – Julius M. and Comfort V. – the latter then residing in Boston, having been informed by telegraph of my arrival. (Lane 237)
Lane writes about a "misunderstanding" between himself and a Banker:
Arriving at home on Saturday evening as before narrated, about the next Tuesday I was startled at the receipt of a telegram from brother C.V. in Boston, saying, “Draft protested – Warriner wants money refunded – telegraph him at once!” Though feeling a little shakey myself, but surmising the cause of the hitch, I immediately telegraphed both C.V. and the Cashier that it would probably be all right, in a day or two – and sure enough Mr Warriner telegraphed me the next day that the draft had been paid. The facts were, that it had been presented for payment before the Steamer, bearing the advices of the Bank upon which it had been drawn, had arrived, and had, in accordance with commercial and financial usage, been protested. But the scare, all around, was none the less genuine. On getting the notice of protest, Mr Warriner, supposing that he had been taken in by a Western Sharper, not only telegraphed C.V. that he should hold him responsible, but also hustled himself up to Chicopee to complain to my brothers there – Lorenzo and Julius M – of the shabby manner in which he had been treated by that scalawag Western brother of theirs. On getting advices of the payment of the draft, however, he made all proper apologies, and afterwards, when I called upon him, we had a hearty laugh together over the affair. (Lane 239-240)
Lane writes about experience with starting a Newspaper:
… to start a Daily paper, providing we could be guaranteed from loss the first year, by a sufficient amount of pledged advertising from the business men of the city. This Mr Canfield was to undertake to work up, but, when it came to the point, the task was devolved upon me. The estimated amount required was $3,500, and on making the canvass I secured pledges, at the rates which we had made, for $4,500. I was also detailed to go to Cleveland to make arrangements for special Daily Telegrams, from the Associated Press dispatches after their appearance in the Cleveland papers – those papers, being members of the Association, refusing their con sent to our getting to our getting them first handed. After many hindrances, a satisfactory arrangement was closed with the Superintendent and chief operator of the Western Union, at Cleveland, which gave the Daily Telegraphic news in a condenced form, several hours sooner then the people of Akron could get it through the Cleveland papers. (Lane 272-273)
Lane recounts the time he received a telegraph requesting his service as Akron's probate judge:
Voluntary Honors from Governor Dennison.
A few items, intimately connected with my life-history thus far, not readily woven into the main warp and woof of the preceding narative, may properly be mentioned here: In July, 1861, after I had been connected with the Beacon about six months, the death of William M. Dodge, the Probate Judge of Summit County, created a vacancy in that office, to be filled, by appointment from the Governor, until the ensuing October Election. Governor Dennison, reading the news of Judge Dodge’s death in the papers, said to my friend Coggshall, then State Librarian, and Acting Military Secretary to the Governor, that he desired to fill the vacancy before the scramble for the place commenced, and asked him if he thought I would take it? Coggshall said he thought I would. The Governor immediately turned to his Private Secretary and said: “Make out a commission for Samuel A Lane, as Probate Judge for Summit “County, in place of William M. Dodge, deceased”. Coggshall then sent me the following telegram
“Columbus, July 24th, 1861
“To S. A. Lane Esq. Akron, Ohio.
“Governor Dennison has appointed you as Probate Judge, in place of Dodge, “deceased. Commission goes up by mail
W. T. Coggshall”.
My predecessor in the Editorial Chain of the Beacon, having professedly, and apparently, reformed his intemperate habits, had just started for Columbus, via Cleveland, with a respectable petition, asking for his appointment to the vacancy in question. Being in the Telegraph office in Hudson, when the message to me came over the wires, the operator informed Mr. Lewis of its import, who immediately telegraphed to me, as follows:
“Hudson July 24th 1861
“To S. A. Lane Esq. Akron, Ohio,
“Do you accept the Probate Judgeship?
“Answer. A. H. Lewis”
To this I instantly replied as follows:
“Akron, July 24th 1861
“To A. H. Lewis Esq, Hudson, Ohio,
S A Lane.”
I then immediately telegraphed Gov. Dennison as follows:
“Akron, July 24th 1861
“To Hon William Dennison
“Thanks for the compliment, but cannot accept the Probate Judgeship. S. A. Lane”. (Lane 294 -295)
In a speech delivered by Lane, he comments on the importance of the telegraph:
[the] application of electricity to the purposes of telegraphic communication, by which not only time and distance have been annihilated, both in our own and foreign countries, but which, spanning and fathoming the ocean, has drawn the two great continents of the earth so closely together, that the mightiest or the minutest event transpiring in any portion of the one, may be known, in detail, throughout the length and breadth of the other, within the very hour of its occurrence (Lane 280)
See an example of a telegraph from Lane's manuscript
Space, once measured in miles, was now measured in moments. Telegraphy not only changed the face of communication technology, it helped enhance the quality of life for people like Lane who were once limited by time and weather. Although cell phones and computers have replaced the telegraph, its initial impact made it impossible to ever go back to the way things were in the world of communication.
Van Dulken, S. (2001). Inventing the 19th century: 100 inventions that shaped the Victorian Age from aspirin to the Zeppelin. New York: New York University Press.
1. The Western Union Telegraph Building. [Manufacturer and builder / Volume 5, Issue 12, December 1873]