Sending Out an S.O.S.! – 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Telegraph

Today marks an important milestone in the history of the world: the completion of the Transcontinental Telegraph. 150 years ago, today, the final line was terminated from Carson City, Nevada. Associated Press contributor, John Rogers, compared the Transcontinental Telegraph to today’s internet.

A rudimentary version of the Internet — not much more advanced than two tin cans and a string — had been born. But it worked, and it grew.

The Transcontinental Telegraph connected the war-torn eastern United States with the newest member state, California. California was admitted to the U.S. in 1850 and had a booming economy at the time. Most of the eastern U.S. was already wired, as well was California, but there was no means of connection between them. The importance of communication between the union and the newest non-contiguous state became immediately apparent, which prompted congress to authorize the U.S. Post Office to spend $40,000 per year to build and maintain an overland line. In 1860, the Pacific Telegraph Act awarded Hiram Sibley, president of the Western Union Company, the funds to make this overland line possible. Sibley was able to build a consortium between his company and the California telegraph companies to share in both construction and profit of the new line.

Construction of Transcontinental Telegraph
Courtesy of WikiMedia Wood Engraving after George M. Ottinger

It is really amazing when you consider the parallels between the Transcontinental Telegraph and the internet of today. For instance, the struggles that the U.S. Postal service is having today due to the impact of e-mail and instant messaging, is reminiscent of the impact the telegraph had on the Pony Express. Before the telegraph, the Pony Express was the fastest means to get messages between California and the Union. Upon completion of the Transcontinental Telegraph, the Pony Express shut its doors two days later.  It is hard to measure the impact that this new technology had on the nation. The government in Washington could communicate with the distant west in real time. Business could now be done across the country at mind-blowing speed. Much like today’s internet, the telegraph connected a society across great distances.

Samuel Morse's Telegraph
Courtesy Samuel Morse's First Telegraph

I would be remiss if I did an article on the impact of the telegraph without mentioning the father of the U.S. telegraph, Samuel Morse.  It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. This statement certainly rang true in the invention of the telegraph. Samuel Morse, a scholar and inventor, was also a great painter and was commissioned to do some work in Washington. While there, he received a message via a horse messenger that his wife was ill. By the time reached her back home, she was already buried. This was the motivating factor in his working on a long distance communication medium. Morse’s chance encounter with Charles Thomas Jackson on a sea voyage home inspired him to develop the single-wire telegraph. It wasn’t long after that his telegraph became the standard across the U.S. and the U.K. Morse is also credited with the invention of Morse Code which became the standard method of transmitting telegraphic information.

So, today, when you type that e-mail or Tweet something out to your friends, take a moment to remember the early pioneers who truly connected the world with wires. When you type LOL today, remember that HEE was  Morse  code for humor intended long before you or your grandparents were even thought of. It seems appropriate to remember such a milestone on the same day that Steve Jobs’ biography is released. Maybe the thought of the great men behind world-changing technology will inspire us all to achieve a little further today.


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Darrin Jenkins

Darrin is an IT manager for a large electrical contractor in Louisville KY. He is married and has 3 kids. He loves helping people with their technology needs. He runs a blog called Say Geek!