The Telegraph, a communication revolution!

The telegraph was a true revolution for communication back in the nineteenth century. Telegraphy, broadly defined, allowed people to communicate from miles away without even leaving their house. From optical to wireless, the telegraph device was only one stage in the technological progress. It brought changes in the people’s way to communicate with each other in their daily life and to the American society as well.

Img 1 - Telegraph
Wood engraving from 1860s celebrating the transatlantic the telegraph cable

‘Telegraph’ is a word that covers many inventions. From optical telegraphy to wireless telegraphy, each of these inventions allowed the dematerilization of messages from sender to receiver. But the best remembered kind of telegraph is the electrical one. Chappe’s system of optical telegraphy, using semaphore signals, in 1790s Europe required good weather and daylight, whereas the electrical version did not rely on the weather and could be used by night. In order to make this new long distance communication possible in the United States, American inventors such as Samuel Morse were already working on their own version of the telegraph in the early nineteenth century. Wireless telegraphy made worldwide communication possible through the installation of telegraph lines all over the globe.1 Exchange information between continents was possible: therefore, countries as well as localities could get organized in accordance with the rest of the world. James Carey in Communication as Culture lays out three important points on what the telegraph brought to the American society during the nineteenth century. Firstly, the telegraph separated transportation and communication. “Until the telegraph those words were synonymous,” Carey notes.2 Messages used to depend on horses or trains for delivery, but this system was made obsolete by the rise of telegraphy: messages no longer needed to be written and physically delivered. Communication did not depend on transportation anymore, but transportation came to rely on communication for its organization instead. Before long distance communication was possible, it was impossible to predict the exact arrival time of trains because most towns did not share the same exact clock time.

By the 1860s, ascertaining the time connection between train lines was complicated
By the 1860s, ascertaining the time connection between train lines was complicated

But with telegrams, allowing information exchange between towns, arrival and departure times could be shared and therefore known in advance. Secondly, telegraphy standardized market prices all over the country. “The telegraph puts everyone in the same place for purpose of trade; it makes geography indifferent. The telegraph brings the condition of supply and demand in all markets to bear on the determination of a price.”3 This standardization had impacts both on small businesses (like retail stores, farmers’ markets, etc) and on Wall Street, for speculations became more predictable through telecommunication. The value of a product or a stock could be estimated rather than guessed for “everyone [working in markets] was in the same [price] place for purposes of trade, time as a new religion, uncertainty, speculation, and exploration was opened up to the forces of commerce.”4 Moreover, buyers could be sure of the actual value of a product before actually buying it: the country had become united through communication.

Lastly, telegraphy allowed the standardization of time. In 1883, Railroad and Telegraph Time was established for the railroad networks after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad; this system was quickly adopted by commerce, government and individuals in America5. Dividing the country into four time zones, this system was a “penetration of time, the use of time as a mechanism of control.”6 Although Carey uses these terms from a negative perspective, control of time over transportation and market is part of today’s culture. And thanks to the telegraph that allowed the unification of time, individuals from all over the country could know what time it was and where, and could get organized around it. Not only did this nationalization of time unify the country around the same system but it also created a community of communication. The telegraph brought fast communication, unification of daily life aspects and control over society: the American population was truly living within the same country and community at once.

Personal accounts of the telegraph’s impact, perceived through stories, can take readers back in time. Clarence Day’s Life with Father (1936) depicts the daily life of the narrator’s family in the 1880s and focuses on its patriarch. The “Father” character shows how a relatively important part of the American population may have reacted when new technological devices were being introduced into cities and households: he is scared of it. The telephone already co-existed with the telegraph at the time of this autobiographical story, but very few private households had installed either of them. The author’s father worked in a Wall Street brokerage firm: communication between buyer and seller was capital in Clarence Day, Senior’s profession. The character’s original distrust towards the electrical telegraph, despite knowing its advantages in the work place, may have been revealing of insider knowledge. We readers clearly understand that Father regards the telegraph as dangerous. But eventually, the family installed a telegraph wire and was amazed by the device’s capacities; the distrust wore off. “This ‘buzzer,’ as we called, seemed almost as remarkable to us as the lamp of Aladdin’s. By giving some extra pulls on it and making it buzz enough times, the directions said, a policeman could be summoned, or even a fire engine.”7

Life With Father was adapted for theater and for a movie (1947)
Life With Father was adapted for theater and for a movie (1947)

Annoyed at first by the presence of the messenger boy coming when buzzed or when carrying a message, the family got used to the intrusive aspect of the telegraph. Their amazement turned into dependence on the device. Today, this effect parallels our modern dependence on cellphones and computers. Just like electrical telegraphs, cellphones and computers also inspired fear and amazement in own time periods.

Other parallels to our time appear in the novel Wired Love, a Romance of Dots and Dashes (1880) by Ella Cheever Thayer. The author was a former telegraph operator who therefore knows the job situation, for she experienced it herself. The story focuses on Nattie, a 19-year-old operator earning her own salary for independence: the young woman is the only one in town who knows how to use the device. At the beginning of the story, Nattie receives a message from another town fifty miles away, and keeps corresponding with the sending operator afterwards. The conversation sounds like a seduction game (although other telegraph operators around could ‘listen’ to it) between Bm, the sending operator, and Nattie as Xn. This situation was not uncommon, or at least inspired many authors according to Elizabeth Burton’s article Love on the Wire:

Postal telegraph messengers (1910)
Postal telegraph messengers (1910)

« It was the romance, possibility, and personal use of the telegraph which caught the popular imagination, and these aspects began to be featured in popular literature in the late Victorian age. (…) The telegraph was frequently depicted both as a tool of the modern man and the modern nation as well an object of desire, mystery, and sometimes even romance. »8

This makes telegraph romances sound more romantic than modern online dating, but the two share several correspondences in how they work. The person has a group of ‘visible’ friends and a group of ‘invisible’ friends, the second one taking more time than the first one, and the person does not personally know with whom he or she is starting a romance. Wired Love, a Romance of Dots and Dashes foretells how telecommunication will drastically change people’s interactions. In the story, when Nattie and Clem (the male operator with whom she chats on the wire) eventually meet in real life, they cannot communicate as freely as they used to when they were 50 miles apart. The woman is embarrassed and has trouble enjoying the man’s actual company rather than the company he used to be on the wire: their exchange was simpler, as only messages mattered before they met. The characters then go back on talking with dots and dashes under the same roof: “It is nicer talking on the wire, isn’t it?” as Clem asks Nattie.9 This change in human interaction is discussed by Clive Thompson on the website ‘Collison Detection’. He points out how the story of Nattie and our own is similar:

The ‘dots and dashes’ refer to the Morse Code used in the story
The ‘dots and dashes’ refer to the Morse Code used in the story

« Wired Love anticipates everything we live with in today’s online, Iphoned courtship: Assessing whether someone you’ve met online is what they say they are; the misunderstandings of tone and substance that come from communicating in rapid-fire, conversational bursts of text; or even the fact that you might not really be sure of the gender/nationality/species of the person you’re flirting with. (…) This book is 130 years old, but it could have been written last week. »10

The telegraph is depicted as precursor of today’s use of telecommunication: the users lose their ease to communicate face to face by getting dependent on the device of their times. The installation of a telegraph in daily life could be seen as intrusive or revolutionary, depending how it was used. The stories Life With Father and Wired Love, a Romance of Dots and Dashes give readers good and bad opinions on electrical telegraphy: both of them illustrate the change in basic human interaction.

The electrical telegraph was among the first distance communication device: it unified the American society on several levels and it changed the way people communicated with each other. The telegraph was available for house installation: people may have resisted to it at first, but most of them moved with their times either with telegraphy or with telephony. A telephone would provide more privacy to a conversation, and would allow the correspondents to hear one another; on the other hand, telegraphy would provide an ‘indirect’ conversation with coded messages. Telegraphy compares better to online conversations that are so popular and easy to have nowadays, thanks to private computers and to the overwhelming presence of the internet. Telegraphy was indeed a first step of many in technological progress and in society changes.



[1] « History of the Telegraph in Communications | ShoreTel Sky. » ShoreTel Sky. 2014, last accessed April 17, 2015,

[2] James Carey, « Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph, » in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Routledge, 1989), 165

[3] Carey, Communication as Culture, 167-8.

[4] Carey, Communication as Culture, 168 and 169.

[5] « Time Standardization. » The Transcontinental Railroad, last accessed April 20, 2015,

[6] Carey, Communication as Culture, 176.

[7] Clarence Day, « Father Lets In The Telephone. » In Life with Father (New York: Knopf, 1935), 161.

[8] Elizabeth Burton. « Love on the Wire, Elizabeth Burton Communicates the Romance of Telegraphy in Fiction. » BSHS Viewpoint No 106 (February 2015): 11.

[9] Ella Cheever Thayer, « Chapter XI. Miss Kling Telegraphically Baffled. » in Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes (New York, 1880), Kindle edition.

[10] Clive Thompson, « “Wired Love”: A Tale of Catfishing, OK Cupid, and Sexting … from 1880. » Collision Detection, last modified June 24, 2013, last accessed April 16, 2015.

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