The Invention of the Telegraph


Writing is a technology. Although Plato feared that the emerging technology of writing would one day undermine oral literacy, he was correct in that writing alters the meaning of literacy, and it also greatly enhances and expands our ability to communicate more effectively (Bolter, 2011). Before the digital era, there were technologies that are now considered outdated, but once proliferated and connected the world. With the invention of the telegraph, its inception developed a pivotal turning point in how we communicate with each other (Overholser, 2005). Through its development and implementation in the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States, the telegraph determined how wars were fought and won, the role in how journalists and newspaper conducted business, and the economic growth that was made possible through mass communication. Although new technologies, such as the telephone, fax machine and internet would ultimately overshadow the telegraph, it once remediated technologies of the past, such as communicating on foot or horses, and opened the door for new possibilities in connecting our world, promoting higher literacy and education.

Its Inception­

The telegraph is a joint invention, where there were many developers that contributed to the different parts of the machine. The incorporation of galvanic batteries, coils of wires, moveable magnets, electro-magnets and counting of the signals to compose the alphabet, when all combined, created an entire telegraph, which allowed communications to transcend physical barriers at almost instantaneous speed (Highton, 1852). This said, the notion of transmitting and receiving messages through wires was popularized by Morse on May 24, 1844, who demonstrated the practicability of the telegraph, and would take over more traditional modes of transportation, such as foot, horse, boat and rail (Kielbowicz, 1987). The development of this first modern communication allowed humans to exert control over information and its activities. Bolter (2001) contends that when a newer technology takes the place of an older one, remediation occurs, where a technology borrows, reorganizes and incorporates characteristics of writing and reforms its cultural space. The implementation of the popularized telegraph in the nineteenth century shaped and redefined the social, cultural and political landscape in the United States.

Civic War and World War One

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph to great effect in creating the first “modern war”. By beginning to understand the telegraph’s ability to send and receive “lightning messages”, Lincoln communicated his thoughts and executed warfare tactics to allow the Union army to ultimately prevail over the Confederacy (Wheeler, 2008). Indeed, the telegraph acted as an agent of change in how warfare was conducted and won. Ong (1982) points out that writing is artificial, and through practise, writing, with technology, can be used as a tool to transform human thought. Through the continual advancement of the telegraph, humans are able to make this writing tool to be even more rapid and accurate, sending critical messages to the battlefront during the First World War. Telegraph lines were rendered to be incapable of being taped, where the use of codes and ciphers prevented sensitive information from being revealed to enemy units (Vernam, 1926). In many ways, Morse’s unveiling of this technology transformed how we think of wars, where effective use of communication allowed soldiers to stay more informed, and easily move into position and overcome enemy forces.

Journalism and Newspaper

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, nonlocal news came by post. The Baltimore Sun was one of the first newspapers that changed this process, using telegraph in popular culture. It encouraged public acceptance by using telegraph to gather and share information, and using the penny press to distribute news (Overholser, 2005). Journalism thus experienced major changes in literary practices, especially in how business was conducted. Interestingly, the advent of telegraph did not cause the decline of news received by mail. Although telegraph was a new way for transmission of news, it was expensive, and few people had access to the technology. Messages transcribed in telegraph led to “just the facts” orientation in reporting, where stories were summarized, and skeletonized to save expenses (Overholser, 2005). In ways, high costs in transmission restricted competitive newspaper to streamline and standardize stories, making it more objective than before (Kielbowicz, 1987). Therefore, newspapers continued to use more traditional ways to transport news, such as mail, to obtain news from different perspectives across the country. The two ways of communication, as Bolter claims, remediated and complimented each other, ensuring that news reported were accurate.

Mass Communication

In 1844, Congress decided to implement the first U.S. telegraph line along the existing railway line between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Investors became more aware of this new technology, and implemented more telegraph stations across major cities, such as the line between New York and Philadelphia. Selling news dominated the use of telegraph, where businesses, foreign news and war updates connected the country (Standage, 1998). By 1850’s, Atack, Bateman, Haines and Margo (2010) points to the spread of the rail network and telegraph lines promoted faster and easer access of communication and accessibility across the country. Urbanization was made possible in the Midwest, and allowed individuals and families to connect with each other.  The telegraph was the first of its kind to bridge the worlds of rural and agriculture, and urban and industrial closer. Furthermore, Shaw (1967) argues that the telegraphic wire gave a platform for presidential campaign to influence voters, where the continual expansion of telegraph facilities, decreasing costs of telegraph news brought an expansion of press associate and reader demand for timely wire news. Through the growth and the popularity of the telegraph, its usage became varied and was enjoyed not only by the privileged, but commoners as well. This allowed the US to enjoy mass literacy and communication and connect the country into a unified front.

Rapid Advance of Technology

Ten years after the invention of the telegraph, the telephone was booming. By the turn of the nineteenth century, there is an estimate of near 2 million telephones used in the U.S. (Standage, 1998). Bolter (2001) argues that new technologies are not neutral, but rather a mediating factor in human behaviour and social change. The telegraph and telephone were merely tools in which to communicate from point-to-point. People needed to control and demonstrate the practicality of the technology to ensure the prospect of mass communication. In many ways, the use of the telegraph met the needs of the culture and became a technology that connected people across the nation. It changed into how newspaper presented their information and facilitated economic growth. The introduction of the fax machine, and internet confirmed the fear of Plato, where writing would undermine the meaning of literacy. However, like Standage (1998) argues, it is part of human nature rather than technology that causes these hopes, fears and misunderstandings. As technologies continues to be more sophisticated, it is important for us to understand how to use the technology effectively to enrich and improve our ability to communicate. 


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