Articles published in the New York Herald and an untitled article from an unknown source
Published in 1844 and 1848
"The result is, that space and time are annihilated."
—New York Herald, 1848
It is hard to imagine the world of 1842, when Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) was struggling to make a success of his invention, the electric telegraph.
Electric lights for reading this book? Not invented yet.
Utility poles carrying telephone, electric, and cable TV wires? Nonexistent.
News received minutes after it happens (or even as it's happening, via television)? Unimaginable.
Until 1844 long-distance communication in the United States relied on the U.S. Post Office, and even then letters were only delivered to towns and cities, not to the farms where millions of Americans lived at the time. Letters and news took days, or weeks, to arrive. Newspapers received copies of other papers from big cities, and reprinted stories days later. It was dramatically different from the world of the Internet and the World Wide Web, in which news from every part of the world is delivered in a matter of seconds.
On May 24, 1844, Morse sent a message from Baltimore, Maryland, to Washington D.C., a distance of about forty-five miles, over wires strung with the help of government financing. An associate in Washington sent the message back, confirming it had traveled round-trip in seconds. Suddenly, an invention that had been in development for over a decade became the talk of the town, in Washington and elsewhere. Newspaper writers were wildly enthusiastic about the possibilities for getting news, and conducting business, using the new technology.
For Morse, the moment of victory on that May day had been long in coming. He had been working on his invention for a decade, as had other engineers in Europe. In 1837 he had applied for a grant being offered by Congress to demonstrate a long-distance telegraph, but Congress did not get around to granting the money, $30,000, until near the end of 1843. The following May, Morse demonstrated his technology, which was almost immediately heralded in the press as a revolution in communications.
The telegraph sent electricity through wires to coil of wire, which caused metal in the center of the coil to become magnetized; the magnet, in turn, attracted metal, and enabled the receiver to record a series of long and short electrical signals. The principal contribution of Morse was developing a code, based on different combinations of long and short signals, that operators could translate into letters and numbers.
Morse kept a scrapbook of newspaper stories about the telegraph that is now in a collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He did not always label the articles, so it is not always possible to determine what newspaper published them, or on what date. But these clippings, all from the 1840s, show how the country reacted to an invention that was similar to what the Internet is today. The telegraph may have been even more exciting when it was introduced, because no such means of communication had ever been seen before.
The telegraph became a vital component of the Industrial Revolution. With rapid communications, merchants could place, and fill, orders from far away in a more timely fashion. Factories could ship products to national markets instead of regional ones. Investors and businesses outside New York could be kept current on the price of stocks (shares of businesses) and other business and financial developments that affected them.
Reading newspaper articles published at the time the telegraph was brand new offers an insight into the excitement Morse's invention caused at the time.
Things to remember while reading newspaper accounts regarding the telegraph:
- Morse's first demonstration of his telegraph was in Washington, D.C.; later a message was sent over a wire from Washington to Baltimore, about forty-five miles away. The cost of stringing telegraph wires to connect the large cities of the United States was staggering, and Morse gave his demonstration to Congress as part of a campaign to gain support for government financing. Then, as now, there were arguments against using taxpayer dollars to finance an unproven technology, and many held the belief that the government had no business getting into an enterprise that could be funded by private investors (as many telegraph wires eventually were). On the other side were those who believed that the benefits of the telegraph to the whole nation were so great, the expense could be easily justified.
- It is not precisely correct to say that Morse invented the telegraph. Nearly a century before Morse's demonstration, in 1753, a writer known only as C. M. wrote an article in Scots Magazine describing a system to send messages using electricity sent over twenty-six wires, one for each letter of the alphabet. In 1837, two British inventors, William Cooke (1806–1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875), patented a successful telegraph system that sent messages a distance of about thirty miles, using five wires instead of one. In the United States, it was the combination of inventiveness and salesmanship that enabled Morse to get government money to finance his own system that used one wire and a unique code. Not only did Morse demonstrate the first practicable telegraph system over a long distance; he also was a tireless promoter of the telegraph as a superior means of communication.
- The style of newspaper writing in the 1840s was much different from what we are accustomed to today. Most newspapers were biased in favor of one or another political party and had no hesitation in denouncing politicians they did not care for. The telegraph changed the way that news was transmitted, and contributed to a more objective writing style, as papers of many different political persuasions were receiving the same stories via telegraph.
"The Age of Miracles"; clipping from the New York Herald, 1848
On the first of January, 1848, of the Christian era, the new age of miracles began—an age that will be more astonishing and wonderful than all the preceding ages of the world. We have had geological periods, traditionary eras, historical ages, and now we have just commenced, on the 1st of January, 1848, the electric, or miraculous age, of the history of this world, and the races on it, that will far outstrip that of Moses and the Prophets. Printing was the first invention, steam was the next discovery, and the third was that of the electric telegraph. They are now combined in one movement, and have presented, during the last week, one of the first symptoms of the miraculous age, in the columns of the New York Herald.…
It is difficult, however, to convey to the public any idea of the wonderful combination by which these miracles are performed. Steam, electricity and machinery, operated upon by Heaven-born intellect, produce the whole. The result is, that space and time are annihilated. By this wonderful process, the city of New York becomes the central point of the nation, and all the cities connected with it by telegraph, on the Atlantic sea board, become its faubourgs—its wards—communicating with them as rapidly and readily every hour, as Wall street does with Chambers street, or Astor Place does with the Park. In fact, time is not only beaten, but it is annihilated. We can send a message from New York to St. Louis at twelve o'clock at noon, and it will reach its destination on the banks of the Mississippi at ten minutes before twelve.…
The city of Washington, and Congress, are now part of the metropolis of New York, by means of the telegraph; and by our system of reporting and our machinery, we have accomplished the removal of the Capitol northward, even nearer than Hoboken is to New York. These wonders of the week—these miracles of seven days—in the beginning of the year 1848, are only the first rude efforts of genius and art, directed to elements that will revolutionise the whole world in less than fifty years. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, Hoe, the inventor of the new printing press, and those editors and conductors of public journals, who understand and have enterprise to use those inventions and discoveries, and to combine them with intellect all together, will henceforth create a change in the history of the human race that will make them be remembered thousands of years hence, as the Confuciuses, or the Mahomets, or the Zoroasters, or the Moseses of the nineteenth century, in those matters which change the destiny of races, of nations, and of people.…
The expense of this is great; but what of that? The American people love, adore, idolize, and cheerfully patronize and pay for enterprise, skill, sagacity, talent, genius, in the greatest and sublimest.…
"Newspaper Enterprise—Extraordinary Express from Lexington, Kentucky"; clipping from the New York Herald, 1844
Probably one of the most remarkable feats of newspaper enterprise, is the result of that which appears in this morning's Herald—the speech and resolutions of Mr. Clay, delivered at Lexington [Kentucky] the day before yesterday.
The distance is nearly one thousand miles.—Knowing the importance of Mr. Clay's opinions and movements in the popular contest now about to take place in this country [the presidential election of 1844, in which Clay ran for president], we made extraordinary arrangements last week to run an Express exclusively for the Herald. We have, however, taken into the enterprise since our arrangements were made, two of our cotemporaries, who will also publish the same this morning.
About eleven or twelve o'clock, on the day before yesterday, the meeting was held at Lexington. Our reporters were there, and when the resolutions were read, and Mr. Clay had delivered his speech, our express started on horseback, running eighty-four miles, to Cincinnati. At Cincinnati the notes of our reporters were written out, and the whole was sent on through the electric telegraph, to this city, a distance of nearly a thousand miles. The speech and resolutions were received early yesterday morning, and, but for the intervention of Sunday, we should have been able to have published the whole Lexington proceedings in less than ten hours from their delivery in Kentucky.
This feat in newspaper enterprise has never yet been paralleled in the civilized world. In England, where journalism is carried on with more enterprise than in any other country, nothing hastaken place which can be compared with this extraordinary fact. But this is not all. In less than six months, when the telegraphic wires shall be completed to New Orleans, and to other points, we expect to publish intelligence fifteen hundred or two thousand miles distant, the day after it transpires at all the different extremities of the republic.
Thus it will be seen, probably in the present year, that all this vast republic will be covered with telegraphic wires, and important intelligence from every extremity of the nation will be known every morning at New York, with as much accuracy and certainty as we know what has taken place in the City Hall. These wires may be extended to the Pacific, to California, to Oregon, and to every part of Mexico. It is no wonder, therefore, that the young spirit of the present age, the modern impulse of the American people, the great movement which is now urging on this mighty Anglo-Saxon race, paralyses, astonishes, transfixes, all the old politicians of the day, from Mr. Clay down to the lowest one that may hang upon the extremities of either party. Steam and electricity, with the natural impulses of a free people, have made, and are making, this country the greatest, the most original, the most wonderful the sun ever shone upon. And if our great statesmen and our noisy Congress, do not comprehend the position in which they stand between the eternity of the past, and the eternity before them, they will be hurried out of the line of movement, and others will take their places. The annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, the renovation of that country, are only part and parcel of the great and wonderful movement of the age, begun by the American people. Those who do not mix with this movement—those who do not become part of this movement—those who do not go on with this movement—will be crushed into more impalpable powder than ever was attributed to the car of Juggernaut. Down on your knees and pray.
Newspaper clipping, title unknown, circa 1844
Well, this Mr. Morse, during the last session of the laborious, incorruptible, and (of course?) much-abused Twenty-seventh Congress, made his appearance in the Capitol with an earnest request for the aid of Congress, to construct a telegraph on the plan of his new invention. The proposition was that this first line of electric wires, should be laid between Washington and Baltimore, and that Congress should appropriate $30,000 for its construction, it being impossible to obtain the necessary amount by individual contributions among the few who were intelligent enough to appreciate the value and feasibility of the enterprise.
To show to Members of Congress by actual experiment the principles and the mode of operation, Mr. Morse and Mr. Vailwere hard at work at the two ends of the telegraphic wires for two or three months, sending messages back and forth to each other, as they were dictated by Members, for the sake of learning the character of the invention, and the reality of its wonderful pretensions. In the course of the session there was not a Member of either House, that had not an opportunity to become perfectly acquainted with it if he chose. This "Capitol affair" by the way, was probably the first Electric Telegraph ever put in operation for so great a distance.
Among the rest, Millard Fillmore was much interested with the novel and extraordinary machine, and in due time moved an amendment to the great annual civil appropriation bill, appropriating the required $30,000 for the construction of an electric telegraph from Washington to Baltimore, under the direction of Mr. Morse. Never was a motion so savagely, abusively, bitterly, derisivelyopposed, as this was by Cave Johnson, Hop Turney, and that sort of abominable Locofocos, who could not, and would not, be made to regard it as anything but a humbug, a worthless invention, a cheat. Cave Johnson raved and scolded, and ranted, and screamed, and foamed against the House, like a demoniacally possessed man. There never was an angrier man than he, when, under the urgent and impressive representations of Fillmore, the House, in spite of all these outrageous clamors, adopted the amendment. To give the hated telegraph one final expression of his baffled and stupid hostility, Cave Johnson then rose, and grinning with impotent malice, moved as a further amendment, an appropriation of sixty thousand dollars to carry on experiments in Animal Magnetism, as a doubly important and much more rational object!! This amendment was actually voted for by himself, and several Locofoco animals of the same breed, as an insult to Mr. Morse and Mr. Fillmore, and indeed the House itself!
Two years afterwards, this same ignorant, heartless blockhead [Cave Johnson] was made Postmaster-General, and put in charge of this same Telegraph, to direct its operations as the property of the government.
What happened next …
By 1854, there were twenty-three thousand miles of telegraph wires being used in the United States, linking most of the major cities in the eastern half of the United States. In 1868 a telegraph cable was strung across the Atlantic, a distance of about five thousand miles.
The desire for faster, better communications continued well beyond the telegraph. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) demonstrated the first telephone used to transmit sound. A century later, in 1973, the U.S. Defense Department provided funding to develop a network linking computers, now called the Internet.
The telegraph also had profound effects on business. Tied together with rapid communication of news, the United States became a single market for manufacturers. Investors were able to follow stock prices in New York, and it became possible to tap the savings of people all over the United States to raise the money (capital) needed to build large enterprises. New fortunes were made from instant knowledge of conditions (such as weather disasters) that affected the prices of crops. Without instant communications, pioneered by the telegraph, it is difficult to imagine the rapid growth of America's industrial economy.
Did you know …
In 1848 six highly competitive newspapers in New York City agreed on a plan to share the expenses of sending news via telegraph. The newspapers formed an organization called the Associated Press (AP), which still serves the same purpose, long after telegraph wires have been superceded by high-speed electronic communications. Many newspapers belong to the AP and regularly print its stories from all over the United States and overseas. Newspapers also continue to contribute their own stories for use by the AP.
For more information
Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.
Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers. New York: Walker and Co., 1998.
Totty, Michael. "Deja-vu: How the Internet Is Like, and Different from, Inventions of the Past." Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2002, p. R13.
"The Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793–1919." Library of Congress, American Memory Collections. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/sfbmhtml/sfbmhome.html (accessed on April 11, 2003).