Who Invented the Telegraph?
The telegraph, a precursor to the Internet, changed the way people communicated. Several men can lay claim to its invention.
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The telegraph was an early form of mass communication. It changed the way information was spread, transforming the news industry and how government did business. In a way, the telegraph was a precursor to the Internet in that it allowed rapid communication, for the first time, across great distances.
The name most people associate with the telegraph is Morse. Samuel Morse developed the Morse code — the binary language of dots and dashes that spell out words. He won a patent for the invention. He even persuaded Congress to finance the first experimental lines in the United States. But Morse has a weak claim on actually inventing the telegraph.
Morse was born in 1791 in Charlestown, Mass. He graduated from Yale in 1810 and soon after moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Art. Upon his return to America, he supported himself with portraiture and teaching for nearly 20 years. He also cofounded the National Academy of Design in New York City. In 1832, while on a ship back from Europe, Morse said, he became inspired to develop a telegraph.
Yet by 1832, several other inventors in Europe were already experimenting with telegraph lines.
Pavel Schilling and the electrochemical telegraph
Pavel Schilling, a diplomat from present-day Tallinn, Estonia, developed an electrochemical telegraph in 1812. He demonstrated his work to Czar Alexander I, but the Russian leader was reportedly suspicious of the technology, and Schilling moved on to other work.
Then, in 1820, Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted discovered that an electric current could induce a magnetic field. Oersted's report sparked a fury of discovery. Within a decade, Oersted, Johann Schweigger, André-Marie Ampère, Michael Faraday, William Sturgeon and other scientists made significant advances in the understanding of electromagnetism.
In the 1830s, Schilling tried his hand at a telegraph again, but this time he used electromagnets to deflect needles, which then pointed to symbols or letters to communicate a message. He introduced his invention to scientific meetings in Bonn and Frankfurt. In 1836, the new czar, Nicholas I, commissioned Schilling to build a telegraph line between imperial buildings in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Schilling died in 1837 at the age of 51 before work on the St. Petersburg lines began. However, an Englishman named William Fothergill Cooke saw a copy of Schilling's telegraph, and started working on an improved model. In 1837, Cooke and Charles Wheatstone applied for a patent in England for their telegraph, which also deflected needles. Meanwhile in New York, Morse was perfecting his telegraph with the help of machinist Alfred Vail and professors Leonard Gale and Joseph Henry.
Joseph Henry and electromagnetism
Some of the first electromagnets were too weak for a telegraph to work over a meaningful distance. With academic intentions, Henry began improving electromagnet designs while teaching mathematics and natural philosophy at Albany Academy in New York. He found that by winding coils of wire tightly around a horseshoe, he could produce an electromagnet that was very strong. And with a slight change in design, Henry created an electromagnet that could be controlled over a very long wire. He published his findings in 1831, and mentioned they could be applicable to telegraphs.
Henry held several dramatic public demonstrations of the electromagnets in Albany, and again after he took a position at what is now Princeton University in 1832. Henry moved permanent magnets with a signal sent over a mile of copper wire or over wire strung between buildings. Henry also loaded electromagnets with heavy weights, and dropped them from across the room with his battery controller.
Between 1839 and 1842, Morse and Henry corresponded to improve the telegraph, as well as find funding. According to the Smithsonian, Morse used both the long-range and more powerful electromagnets in his telegraph. However, instead of using needles to point to symbols, Morse used a pattern of shorter and longer interruptions of the electric current to represent letters. A device on the telegraph then recorded the dots and dashes on paper. By 1838, Morse had finished the Morse Code.
Morse won $40,000 in congressional funds to build an experimental line up the mid-Atlantic coast. In 1844, Morse sent the first message over the first line. Sitting in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers, Morse tapped to his colleague Vail in Baltimore, “What hath God wrought.”
But, as with the birth of most technology, a patent fight ensued, and Henry was called to testify against Morse in a lawsuit in 1849. Years later, Morse shot back against Henry in a letter to the New York Daily Times claiming Henry had nothing to do with developing the telegraph. Henry went on to head the Smithsonian Institution, and used the telegraph to set up a national weather report and warning system that later became the National Weather Service.
Werner von Siemens
Once electromagnets made the technology possible, the telegraph sprawled over the New and Old World in a matter of decades.
In 1848, Werner von Siemens and his business partner Johann Halske won a contract to build a telegraph line from Berlin to Frankfurt — a distance of more than 300 miles — using improvements to Wheatstone's technology. By 1853, their company started work on a Russian telegraph network that spanned 6,000 miles and ranged from Finland to Crimea. Their Indo-European line, finished in 1870, could send messages from London to Calcutta in 28 minutes. By 1866, a telegraph line spanned the Atlantic Ocean.
Back in the United States, businessmen Samuel Selden and Hiram Silbey started buying and consolidating some of the 50 telegraph companies, many of which were licensing Morse's telegraph. That company that became known as Western Union and would go on to provide telegraph service to Europe, Northern Africa, North and South America, Australia and Asia. In 1860, Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act (signed by President James Buchanan) to pay for a telegraph line to California. Western Union won the contract and finished the line to California a year later. A telegraph line crossed the continental United States before a railroad did.
Once upon a time news traveled only as fast as horses could gallop or ships could sail. But with a telegraph line, information could spread across nations in a matter of hours. One day after Morse's famous 1844 “what hath god wrought” demonstration, the Capitol send its first news dispatch by telegraph about discussions on the Oregon Territory. In 1849, telegraphs in Germany received notice that Wilhelm IV of Prussia was elected emperor within an hour after it happened.
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln received daily battle updates over telegraph. The Office of the Historian at the U.S. State Department notes the telegram changed diplomacy too. Before the telegraph, communication delays gave diplomats and politicians time to think between correspondences. It also put local diplomats in a greater position of power to deal with immediate issues. Thanks to telegraphs, heads of state, and the public, heard the same news in a matter of hours.
By the early 1900s, the telephone took the place of the telegraph in daily communications. But it was the telegraph that nudged the world towards the modern state of near instant global communication.