The 19th century developments of firstly the telegraph, and later the telephone, opened a gateway to a new, closer, more interdependent world. For a country as large as the United States, with a population now scattered from east to west, the implications were tremendous. The infamous tyranny of time and distance had been conquered.
Widespread acceptance and appreciation, however, were not immediate. Both inventions met with initial scepticism, ridicule, and even elements of fear. The wisdom of twenty-first century hindsight makes such reticence seem incredible and somewhat amusing, but the very magnitude of instantaneous communication was the source of anxiety in the first recipients as much as of excitement. In an era when any form of distance communication necessarily involved travel, the advent of the US telegraph in the 1844 represented a huge shift in reality. It is hardly surprising that it took a significant period of time before initial misgivings were surmounted.
Over thirty years later the appearance of the telephone was met with similar uncertainty, although for somewhat different reasons. The acceptance of the telegraph had accustomed people to the rapidity of electric communication, but it was by then so well established that the potential benefits of the telephone were not overwhelmingly obvious. Although evoking some of the fears and superstitions associated with the early telegraph, many early views of the telephone saw it largely as an expensive toy, or an “improved speaking tube, through which orders could be sent” , usually to servants. It was to take time to cultivate appreciation for the revolutionary ability to converse with another human voice over distance.
The psychological hurdles of these two inventions affected the way in which they were established. Government hesitation reflected that of the public, and financial support was minimal – neither the telegraph nor the telephone received significant sponsorship from Congress. Early opportunities to purchase patent rights to the telegraph were refused by the federal government, forcing Morse and his partners to seek out private capital. The telephone followed the path of its predecessor, and the Bell Telephone Company embarked upon a future as one of the greatest of American monopolies.
The effects of the telegraph and telephone upon American culture, industry, and society are difficult to overstate. As the pioneer of modern communication, the telegraph revolutionised information access and organisational ability for all manner of commercial, government and private interests. Initial anxieties, both real and imagined, gave way to a dependence that entrenched the telegraph as a vital part of America’s social infrastructure. The telephone, though in many ways a progression of the telegraph, was equally ground-breaking for the amazing capacity to transmit sound directly, and ultimately came to assume the ubiquitous presence it has today.
The paths of their development and the impact of the telegraph and telephone have a number of parallels, but also some intriguing divergences. The telephone was, naturally enough, greatly influenced by the telegraph’s presence. The telegraph had proved the viability of electric communication and established an industry template for the telephone. The evolution of the telephone began on a competitive basis with the telegraph, but soon adopted a more integral social role. The transmission of the human voice dispensed of the need for Morse code and intermediary operators, making the telephone a more personal and accessible medium.
The invention of the telegraph was greatly indebted to the efforts of numerous pioneers of electricity and associated disciplines undertaken years, decades and even centuries before. It was less than twenty years before the exhibitions of the first electric telegraph in America that Danish physician Hans Oersted discovered the critical connection between electricity and magnetism, inspiring a flurry of related research around the world. By the time Samuel Finley Breese Morse first set down his own rudimentary ideas on the subject in 1832, work to produce the electric telegraph was well underway in France, England, Germany, Russia and America.
The son of a Reverend, Samuel was born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. His studies at Yale refined his primary passion for art, but Morse was also fascinated by the sciences, particularly the new theories of electricity. The studies he enjoyed at this time fostered his continued interest and attention to developments in the field, and were to form the basis of his discoveries decades later. For despite the concentrated efforts of others from the 1820s to create an electromagnetic telegraph, Morse did not appear to have been aware of these developments and he worked, in the main, independently.
Throughout Morse’s financially insecure career as an artist, his studies, both in America and Europe led him into contact with other men of scientific interests. In 1827 Morse’s role as founder and president of the National Academy of the Arts and Design in New York provided opportunity to attend lectures on electricity and electromagnetism by James Freeman Dana. A friendship developed based on their mutual interest which furthered Morse’s knowledge in the area. Years later, Morse was to have a critical chance encounter with a fellow passenger on a steam packet returning to America from a European trip. A discussion concerning electromagnetism inspired Morse with a notion of transmission of intelligence through electricity.
Although keen to pursue his new and enthusiastic ideas, Morse was obliged to maintain his art career as a livelihood, and four years passed before his initial concepts induced his first electric telegraph in 1836, together with the code necessary for its use. Morse then appealed for the assistance of a colleague, chemistry Professor Leonard Gale, to perfect the more technical aspects proving beyond his expertise. Gale was familiar with the recent efforts and articles of fellow American Joseph Henry, and the knowledge of both of these men was crucial to the successful development of the electromagnetic telegraph.
In the later months of 1837, intelligence of Morse’s work attracted interest from the scientific and professional community, and a select demonstration in September inspired the enthusiasm and support of Alfred Vail, who soon became a most useful partner. Vail was a man of both technical capability and financial means. His family owned a successful iron and brass works and he was known for his skill in metal craft and inventive ability. With Vail’s input Morse was soon in a position to file his invention with the United States Patent Office and to approach Congress to secure government interest.
Development and establishment
In December 1837, Morse requested federal government backing for his machine, and proceeded to conduct a series of exhibitions in New York and Washington. Despite apparent interest, it took five years from early telegraph exhibitions in 1838 before a $30,000 sum was granted to construct a telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington. On 24 May 1844, however, the first official message was transmitted on the completed line: “What hath God wrought?”, and the establishment of the telegraph in America henceforth progressed at a rapid rate.
It was initially Morse’s preference that the federal government take full control, genuinely believing that the telegraph’s potential could best be harnessed for national interest in this manner. He expressed his hope to Congress shortly after the successful completion of the Washington/Baltimore line, together with a proposal for a government financed extension to New York. His entreaties were unsuccessful, however, and Congress instead instructed the Postmaster General to allow the existing line to be sold off or leased to interested parties. Consequently, Morse and his partners were forced to seek private resources to progress the telegraph, and to that end engaged lawyer and retired Postmaster General, Amos Kendall, to manage business development.
Despite the hopes of Morse and his partners for some form of unity in the telegraph industry it was soon awash with numerous individual investors. Most of these were licensed by Morse and his partners, but many developments were based on rival technology emerging at the time. The incompatibility and competing interests of the various systems caused mayhem and legal conflict for several years. As a result, the early reputation of the telegraph was not all that it could have been. Many of the early technical and operational problems were attributable to the disparate influences and standards of numerous small companies.
The Magnetic Telegraph Company, creator of the first commercial telegraph line, was formed in May, 1845. Just six years later, more than fifty separate companies had been established in the United States. Among them was the “New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company”(NYMVPTC), an organisation originally in direct competition with a number of other companies and telegraph systems. After a process of rival takeover, and the uniform adoption of the Morse system, the NYMVPTC evolved into the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1856, foreshadowing a pattern of consolidation that by 1861 would see the emergence of six comprehensive telegraph giants, representative of most of the industry.
By now a firmly established institution of American life, the telegraph had only to increase its scope. The Pacific Telegraph line, joining east to west coast, was completed in October 1861 , and a transatlantic telegraph cable between Britain and America succeeded in 1866 . The emergence of the telephone, however, could not be countered by the comparatively slow and cumbersome telegraph, and its role in society dwindled as the telephone’s hold strengthened.
Reactions and social impact
Early exhibitions of the telegraph inspired a high level of interest and curiosity amongst the scientific community and the public. A successful private demonstration was also provided to the President and his cabinet in February 1838. At the same time, scepticism was initially, and understandably, very high. Fear of the unknown inspired mistrust and superstition, even amongst some of the telegraph’s present and future advocates. The Reverend Ezra S. Gannett’s reference to electricity as the “swift winged messenger of destruction”, as well as being the “vital energy of creation”, conveys something of the ambivalence of the times regarding the technology. In considering Morse’s bill for assistance in 1843, Congressman Cave Johnson from Tennessee (ironically later to become administrator of the United States Telegraph), compared telegraphy to experiments in mesmerism, and moved, unsuccessfully, that half the amount requested be allocated to a researcher in that field.
Even the approval of Morse’s grant did not necessarily indicate a majority of congressional confidence in the telegraph. Some congressmen absented themselves from the vote to avoid making a decision about such an incomprehensible phenomenon. Others backed the bill largely for their respect for Morse himself than for their belief in the validity of the telegraph. Numerous displays to prove the telegraph’s worth were required.
The telegraph gained some support for its integrity by the real life scenarios in which it played a part. The Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1844 famously provided the newly constructed telegraph line with one such opportunity. James Polk’s nomination was reported to a Washington audience, and Silas Wright telegraphed his notice of decline of the vice president nomination to Baltimore. The reports were verified by a Baltimore committee sent by train to personally confirm Wright’s refusal, and the subsequent press reports and eyewitness accounts greatly enhanced the telegraph’s reputation.
As the validity of the telegraph came to be accepted the purposes for its employment increased proportionately and its position within. The press became reliant upon news by wire at an early stage, farmers needed current stock prices, shipmen sought weather forecasts, the railway scheduled trains, the military telegraphed logistic and personnel information, businesses issued directives, families received emotional notices of births and deaths…the list was endless.
The existence of the telegraph was moulded by society and in turn left its own cultural legacies. The corporate monopoly, first emerged in the telegraph industry as a response to the chaos of diverse private ownership, and in turn these large corporations instilled greater uniformity of standards and service. The telegraph also inspired the rise of American Associated Press, created to accommodate the impact of electronic news transmission. Even the concise manner in which news itself is reported can be traced to the telegraph, and its emphasis on brevity for reasons of speed and expense.
The early days
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Scotland in 1847, into a family greatly affected by sound. His grandfather and father were respected experts in the field of speech, and his mother’s deafness is believed to have been a further motivation for Bell’s lifelong interest in the area. As a child, Bell had discovered that he could create recognisable vibrations by speaking with his lips against his mother’s forehead. A successful career in the education of the deaf and mute brought Bell to America and aided the pursuit of his scientific works, until his obsession with the latter led him to abandon it. The parents of two of his pupils, however, were to become Bell’s primary financial supporters for his invention: Thomas Saunders and his future father in law, Gardiner Hubbard.
The early experiments that led Alexander Graham Bell on the path to the invention of the telephone were actually focussed upon perfecting the multiple telegraph. By the 1870s it was possible to send two messages simultaneously, but Bell and others were searching for a method of accommodating multiple messages on the same wire. The almost accidental discovery of the ability to transmit sound with electrical current saw the emergence of the telephone. Just as progress toward the telegraph’s invention had been ongoing on a number of fronts, so too had a number of able minds been labouring towards the telephone’s creation during Bell’s endeavours. Aware of this competition, Bell filed for patent in anticipation of the machine’s final completion. The patent for the telephone was issued on 7 March 1876, and five days later the first transmission of human speech occurred: “Mr Watson – come here – I want to see you.” Bell’s expertise in speech and acoustic knowledge ultimately gave him the advantage that allowed him to narrowly beat his competitors.
Development and establishment
Like the telegraph, the telephone’s development was the product of private investment. The patent for the telephone was initially offered to the Western Union Telegraph Company. Their refusal was an indication of a prevailing attitude of the period: that the telegraph provided a more than adequate communication service and there was no real requirement for the telephone.
Following this rejection, Bell and his partners embarked upon a strategy of development that maximised power and control over their product. Accordingly, one of the key philosophies of the Bell Telephone Company, formed in mid 1877, was the ownership and control of both equipment and service. By offering leased equipment and licenses to local franchisees, the company attracted ongoing revenue and was freed from obligations of constructing wiring, switchboards and connections. Further, the equipment for lease was manufactured exclusively by the company, ensuring a hegemonic rule not altered for over a century. In 1984 a decade of legal battles with the federal government concluded in a divestiture agreement, aimed at reducing the stranglehold of American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T – parent of the original Bell system from 1899) on the industry.
Colin Cherry credits the invention of the telephone exchange as more significant than that of the actual telephone:
…the telephone system allows us to move about the country (or, today, over much of the world) and yet appear to stay in one place…”.
The telephone itself, and its initial early employment as a predetermined point to point method of communication, did not constitute a significant alteration for American society. The development of the switchboard, or telephone exchange system, however, realised the potential of the small transmission device, and improved upon the pioneering work of the telegraph.
The first telephone exchange system opened in New Haven in January 1878, less than two years after the telephone was patented, and it represented an enormous technological leap forward: – entire networks of potential connections for subscribers. Within a relatively short time frame the exchange became an integral part of social infrastructure. The switchboard also provided an employment niche for women as operators. The increasing size of switchboards and subsequent difficulties for operators, however, led to the 1892 opening in La Porte, Indiana, of the first automatic telephone exchange , greatly enhancing the scope and quality of communications.
The enormity of the telephone’s invention was perhaps slower to be felt than that of the telegraph. Fischer describes the telephone industry as “…a direct descendent of the telegraph industry in many ways…” and while creating a direction for the later innovation’s practical development, it may also have diluted its initial impact. The appearance of the telephone in the 1870s was seen variously as a frivolity, or novelty, or as competition to a well established and familiar telegraph system. The concept of instant communication was no longer new, and the additional benefits of the telephone were not immediately evident.
The telephones early critics were wary of its encouragement of idle chatter, its intrusiveness, and even fearful of the performance aspect of its use. The relatively expensive nature of early telephone usage had been a deterrent to residential use and persuaded promoters to concentrate their efforts toward the business and commercial sector. Early technical shortcomings initially proved to be a hindrance for 19th century professional enthusiasm, but the success of the telephone as a social instrument lay behind its ease of use, and most importantly, the intimacy of the human voice.
That intimacy also represented a cultural shift in reality that many were uncomfortable with. Apart from a lack of privacy from eavesdropping operators , the telephone also provided “…a major force for social levelling…” , something not universally appreciated. The telephone allowed direct access into homes and business to anyone able to access another handset. Additionally, it was extremely difficult to assess a caller’s identity in terms of class or social position, and this was a new and disturbing concept to the middle and upper classes. Early telephone promotion avoided contributing to this unease by focussing upon uses appropriate to the master/servant relationship.
Despite early hiccups, the telephone fast became a fixture of society. Statistics show that private telephone ownership was not adopted as enthusiastically or rapidly as other great hallmarks of modernity such as the automobile or the television, but at the same time evidence indicates that telephone usage and dependency became high relatively soon after its emergence. Early private telephones were expensive and largely confined to the affluent, but public and pay telephones were commonplace, and well established by the end of the 1800s. The telephone instilled itself in society through usage and presence, therefore, more than via actual ownership.
The telephone’s place in the world has continued to strengthen and expand. Technological advances now mean that telephone is with us more than ever before in the form of mobile handsets. A minority in developed nations have resisted ownership, but the presence of the telephone is unavoidable in business and public life. This saturation has occurred despite criticisms of intrusiveness and expense, as common today as they were in the 19th century.
Both the telephone and the telegraph can be considered iconic symbols of the growth of modern American society. The gift of instantaneous communication substantially contributed to the extensive Republic’s unity and organisation, enabling a strong common identity for its scattered population.
It is testimony to the importance of electronic communication in the Republic, that the industry it created assumed such gigantic proportions. The rise of both the telegraph and telephone facilitated and highlighted the pivotal role of the corporate monopoly, today a key feature of America’s economic character. The telegraph industry, highly technical, and developed in the decades preceding the Civil War, remained largely a male domain. In contrast, the telephone evolved later, and, devoid of the encumbrance of Morse code, came to be the subject of more female influence, both in use and employment opportunities.
The telegraph and the telephone, essentially alike in their core purpose and early development, jointly changed the ‘shape’ and pace of America. By eliminating distance from the communication equation, they effectively reduced the size of the Republic and quickened the pulse of daily life. The distinction between the two great inventions was fundamentally one of progress – the telephone was simply a logical advancement from the telegraph, and with the benefit of hindsight, an inevitable successor.
Brooks, John. Telephone: the first hundred years. Harper & Row. New York. 1975.
Czitrom, Daniel J. Media and the American Mind: from Morse to McLuhan. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill. 1982.
De Sola Pool, Ithiel. The Social Impact of the Telephone. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge. 1977.
Fischer, Claude S. America Calling: a Social History of the Telephone. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1992.
Innes, Harold A. The Bias of Communication. University of Toronto Press. USA. 1951.
Short, John. Williams, Ederyn. Christie, Bruce. The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. John Wiley & Sons. London. 1976.
Thompson, Robert Luther. Wiring a Continent: the History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States, 1832 – 1866. Princeton University Press. Princeton. 1947.
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Samuel F.B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793 – 1919. October 2001.
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, 1862 – 1939. September 2000.
Casson, Herbert, N. The History of the Telephone. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. 1997. (originally published in 1910 by A.C.McClurg & Co., Chicago)
Farley, Tom. TelecomWriting.com’s Telephone History Series. West Sacramento. 2003.
Fitzgerald, Owen. Alexander Graham Bell. Fitzgerald Digital Ltd. May 2003.
Gorman, Michael E. Alexander Graham Bell’s Path to the Telephone. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. University of Virginia. March 1998.
Harding, Robert S. and Oswald, Alison. Western Union Telegraph Company Records, 1820-1995. Smithsonian Institution. 2001.
The Franklin Institute Online. Bell’s Telephone. September 2003.
Weisstein, Eric. Eric Weisstein’s World of Science. Wolfram Research. 2003.
White, Thomas H. United States Early Radio History. March 2003.
Czitrom, Daniel J. Media and the American Mind: from Morse to McLuhan. Uniworld