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The telegraph was the outgrowth and application of advances in electrical science between about 1800 and 1840, particularly the discovery of galvanic electricity by Luigi Galvani and the invention of the electrical battery by Allesandro Volta around 1800, and research into electromagnetism by Hans Christian Oersted, Andre Marie Ampere, Joseph Henry, and Michael Faraday during the 1820s and 1830s. The ﬁrst two telegraph lines opened in Great Britain in 1837 and the USA in 1844. The telegraph was the only form of electrical communication until the invention of the telephone in 1876, and it remained the mainstay of rapid long-distance communication until the development of practical long-distance telephony after 1900. After 1920, as long-distance telephone rates dropped and many countries introduced airmail service, telegraphy’s share of the long-distance communications market entered a long decline. By 1970 the overland telegraph industry in the industrialized world was dead or dying. Submarine telegraphy survived longer; it was the only medium for rapid overseas communications until the advent of transatlantic radiotelephony in 1927, and it remained the cheapest and preferred medium until the installation of undersea telephone cables in the 1950s. After 1980 other technologies, such as facsimile and electronic mail, took over the role of long-distance record communications formerly supplied by the telegraph.
In technological and scientiﬁc terms, the telegraph was important for three major reasons. First, telegraphy was the ﬁrst major application of discoveries in electrical science, and it was one of the ﬁrst technologies with a ﬁrm scientiﬁc foundation. Second, telegraph electricians during the mid-nineteenth century helped to establish the discipline of electrical engineering. Finally, technical problems, especially in submarine telegraphy, stimulated major scientiﬁc advances in physics and oceanography.
Telegraphy was the ﬁrst technology to sever the connection between communication and transportation. Because of the telegraph’s ability to transmit information almost instantly, it aﬀected many aspects of society, culture, politics, international relations, and economics after 1840. It helped to create integrated national and international markets, sped the dissemination of news, provided a model for new literary forms, aided Western imperialism, and spurred national governments to develop telecommunications and technology policies.
1. The Telegraph In Great Britain
In the mid-1830s William Fothergill Cooke developed a telegraph which indicated letters by using the transmitted electrical current to deﬂect magnetized needles at the receiver. During the same period, Charles Wheatstone conducted several important experiments on the long-distance transmission of electricity. In February 1837, the two men pooled their eﬀorts and in June they obtained a patent for an electromagnetic telegraph using ﬁve wires to deﬂect ﬁve needles in order to indicate letters of the alphabet. They built their ﬁrst commercial line in 1838 and 1839. In late 1842, Cooke patented an improved telegraph which used two wires and needles, instead of ﬁve, to indicate letters; this halved construction and installation costs.
During the early 1840s, railways were the major customers of the telegraph. In 1846 Cooke and a group of investors founded the Electric Telegraph Company to build a commercial telegraph system for the use of the press and businessmen. By 1855 its network encompassed nearly every important town in England and Ireland. For the next quarter century, the Electric company dominated the industry but competed with four other companies for business. During this time the industry shifted from the Cooke and Wheatstone two-needle instruments to various forms of printing or recording telegraphs.
By the mid-1860s, much of the British public, Parliament, and the civil service supported the nationalization of the telegraph industry, claiming that Post Oﬃce operation would reduce rates, expand the network, and provide better service. In 1868, Parliament authorized the purchase of the telegraph lines, and the Post Oﬃce began operating them in February 1870. Despite initial successes, it was soon apparent that the British postal telegraph faced serious ﬁnancial obstacles, including an inﬂated purchase price, unremunerative press and railway rates, commercial rates which barely broke even, and competition from the privately owned telephone industry.
At the turn of the century, telegraph traﬃc peaked at some 90 million messages. Throughout the following decades, traﬃc dropped and losses mounted because of competition from the telephone and the letter post which delivered letters within the British Isles within 24 hours of posting. The telegraph’s heyday was over by 1920, and by 1970 the telegraph had ceased to be an important communications medium in Britain.
2. The Telegraph In The USA
In 1837 and 1838, Samuel F. B. Morse publicly demonstrated his electromagnetic recording telegraph to prominent scientists and government oﬃcials. Morse’s system at this time comprised an alphabetic code of dots and dashes, a telegraph key to encode messages, and a receiving register which recorded signals on to a moving strip of paper. Morse believed that the federal government should own and operate his telegraph, and hoped to convince the American government to purchase his system. In 1843, Congress gave Morse $30,000 to build an experimental line between Washington and Baltimore. This line began operation in May 1844, but the government refused to fund an extension of the line northward to New York. In 1846, the government turned over the Washington–Baltimore line to private investors.
Over the next 15 years, the telegraph network spread rapidly; by 1850, lines reached every important point east of the Mississippi River, and by 1861, a transcontinental line reached California. The major change to telegraph equipment in this period was the elimination of the recording register; operators shifted to sound reception by deciphering the clicks of the receiving magnet. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, a confusing welter of several dozen companies sprang up to build telegraph lines, many of them poorly organized and short-lived. During the late 1850s, a cartel of six companies coalesced and provided stability to the industry. The end of the Civil War in 1865 sparked a ﬁnal wave of consolidation, and Western Union emerged in 1866 as the country’s telegraph monopoly.
During the remainder of the nineteenth century telegraph technology remained relatively static. The only major advance arose in the 1870s, Thomas Edison’s invention of the quadruplex which allowed the simultaneous transmission of four messages on a single wire. Between 1866 and 1910, Western Union faced two major challenges to its dominant position in the American communications market. During this period, a vocal and vigorous movement arose to nationalize the telegraph and place it under postal administration, and Western Union oﬃcials spent much time and energy defending their private monopoly to the public and to Congress. The telephone, independently invented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, was Western Union’s second major challenge. Bell oﬀered to sell Western Union his patent, but Western Union refused and established a competing telephone system in the late 1870s using Gray’s and Edison’s patents. Because of Bell’s superior patent position, Western Union withdrew from the telephone market in 1879 in exchange for Bell’s promise not to compete with Western Union’s long-distance telegraph business. In the 1870s and 1880s, the telephone could not operate over distances longer than a few dozen miles. However, by about 1890 telephone engineers expanded the range of audible conversations to a few hundred miles, culminating in the establishment of Bell’s transcontinental telephone service in 1915. As Bell’s long-distance network expanded and rates declined, the telephone steadily eroded the telegraph’s share of the long-distance communications market.
Under the leadership of Theodore N. Vail, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), Bell’s parent company, was powerful enough to acquire working control of Western Union in 1910. AT&T’s control of Western Union demonstrated that the telephone had eclipsed the telegraph as the nation’s preferred long-distance communications medium. AT&T voluntarily relinquished its Western Union holdings in 1914 to forestall federal anti-trust proceedings. Although short-lived, Vail’s administration modernized Western Union’s antiquated accounting and management structure and spurred the company to replace its Morse instruments with automatic telegraph equipment.
Between 1915 and the end of World War II in 1945, the telegraph’s share of the long-distance communications market continued to decline because of competition from the telephone, government air mail service, and AT&T’s teletype service inaugurated in the 1930s. During the War, the Federal Communications Commission forced Western Union to divest itself of its international cable network and to consolidate with its sole remaining competitor, the bankrupt Postal Telegraph Company, two moves which weakened Western Union’s long-term ﬁnancial position.
Following World War II, Western Union’s managers attempted to modernize the company’s physical plant and to preserve a market niche for record communications. Between 1945 and 1980, the company undertook three major modernization programs, the development of analog facsimile technology, the construction of a microwave beam network to replace its wires and cables, and the launching of communications satellites. Although these systems were technologically successful, they failed to reverse Western Union’s declining market share with respect to the telephone; by 1990, Western Union was defunct except for its money-transfer service.
3. Telegraphs In Asia And Africa
The ﬁrst telegraph in India, constructed by two British army oﬃcers, opened in 1851. During the 1850s, the British government encouraged the construction of a government-owned telegraph network to link the major trading and political centers, and by 1856 India had some 7,000 km of telegraph line and 45 oﬃces.
The French telegraph network in Indo-China was also an instrument of colonial control. France began telegraph construction in 1861 and by the turn of the century the Indo-Chinese network comprised about 12,000 km of land lines and cables connecting over 200 oﬃces. After 1880 the colonial powers occupying Africa built land and cable networks to connect their possessions with the home countries. The Indian, Indo-Chinese, and African telegraph networks were primarily instruments of imperial control and only secondarily commercial systems.
The Chinese government regarded telegraphy suspiciously, as a tool of the Western powers to gain control of their country. During the 1860s, Russian, British, and French entrepreneurs and government oﬃcials began pressuring China for telegraph concessions. Chinese oﬃcials resisted until the 1870s, when they granted foreign companies limited franchises to build telegraph lines. In 1881, the government established an Imperial Telegraph Administration to build and to operate a national network, but oﬃcials continued to resist the wholesale construction of foreign-owned telegraph lines. However, several European countries used the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 as a pretext to extract political and economic concessions, including the right to build telegraphs, from the weakened Imperial Chinese government.
Whereas Chinese government oﬃcials sought to shield the country from foreign inﬂuences in the second half of the nineteenth century, in Japan the Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought to power an elite eager to modernize the country along Western European lines. Japan’s new rulers embraced the telegraph and hired a British telegraph engineer in 1869 to build a line between Tokyo and Yokohama and gave landing rights to a Danish cable company. By 1872, Japan enjoyed direct telegraphic communication with Europe. During the next two decades, the Japanese telegraph network expanded rapidly. By 1891, Japan had over 400 telegraph oﬃces connected by nearly 12,000 km of wire.
4. Submarine Telegraphy
The successful development of submarine telegraphy between 1851 and World War I established an international communications network and helped Western nations to pursue their imperialist and commercial ambitions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. From 1850 to the early 1870s, engineers confronted and solved several problems in submarine telegraphy: insulation, cable-laying ships and equipment, signal distortion and attenuation, and sending and receiving apparatus. British scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs played leading roles in all four areas.
In 1851, a British ﬁrm laid the ﬁrst successful undersea cable between Dover, England, and Calais, France. British and American entrepreneurs and government oﬃcials soon began exploring the feasibility of a transatlantic cable. In 1856, the American Cyrus Field and the British telegraph engineers John Brett and Charles Tilson Bright headed a group of investors who started the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The company received subsidies and naval support from the American and British governments. After two failures in August 1857 and July 1858, the company successfully laid a cable between Ireland and Newfoundland in August 1858. The cable failed, however, after a few weeks of weak and intermittent signals. The 1858 cable failure, the straitened ﬁnances of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and the American Civil War (1861–65) all combined to delay a renewed attempt until 1865. Under the leadership of John Pender, the newly formed Anglo-American Telegraph Company successfully laid two cables in July 1866, marking the start of uninterrupted electrical communication between the two hemispheres. During the last third of the nineteenth century, the Atlantic cables were instrumental in establishing global markets in news, agricultural commodities, and ﬁnancial securities.
During the late 1850s and 1860s, British telegraph engineers and government oﬃcials sought to connect Britain with its possessions in India, southeast Asia, and Australia. In 1870, they successfully laid a cable from England through the Mediterranean, Red, and Arabian Seas to Bombay. In 1872, an extension from India provided direct telegraphic connection to Singapore and Australia. Between 1870 and 1914, several American and British cable companies competed for the telegraph business of the Caribbean and Latin America, a competition which mirrored and fueled the general commercial rivalry between the two countries in the region.
On the eve of World War I, about 500,000 km of undersea cables existed, over half under British control and one-ﬁfth under American control. France, Denmark, Germany, and The Netherlands accounted for the remaining cables. This global submarine cable network helped Western nations to attain economic and political dominance of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. During World War I, British leadership in cable and wireless communications played an important role in the Allied victory over the Central Powers.
During the 1920s, demand for international communications boomed and the submarine telegraph industry reached its peak. Furthermore, AT&T introduced a major technological advance, inductively loaded cables which increased message-handling capacity by a factor of ﬁve. Western Union installed the ﬁrst inductively loaded cable in the Atlantic Ocean in 1924, and the new cables ensured that submarine telegraphy would occupy a central place in global communications over the next several decades. However, economic depression and World War II between 1930 and 1945 reduced demand for international communications generally.
After World War II, two new technologies, telephone cables and satellite communications, converged to make international telephoning easier and cheaper, and hence to render submarine telegraphy obsolete by 1980. AT&T laid the ﬁrst transatlantic telephone cable in 1956, and by 1983 seven transatlantic cables provided over 11,000 voice circuits. During the 1970s, satellite communications reached maturity, and by the early 1980s satellites provided about 50,000 voice circuits. The installation of digital ﬁber-optic cables during the 1980s increased the number of international telephone circuits by an order of magnitude and reduced greatly the cost of overseas telephone calls.
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