The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)
Chapter 6. What Hath God Wrought?
“You can’t throw too much style into a miracle. It costs trouble, and work, and sometimes money; but it pays in the end.”
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
As the history book legends have it, Samuel Finley Breese Morse defied all doubters and stretched the boundaries of technology with his invention of the telegraph and the code that went with it. It was Morse, or so we are taught, who led the charge in the conquest of distance and united America from coast to coast with the humming, pulsing wires of his invention. What the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes described as “…a network of iron nerves which flash sensation and volition backward and forward to and from towns and provinces as if they were organs and limbs of a single living body.”
Morse himself handcrafted and diligently nurtured this appealing legend over decades, exerting even more effort toward its creation and maintenance than he put into the telegraph. However, depending on your point of view, the true story of Morse and the telegraph far surpasses that of his own fictional account for drama and unlikely success.
Morse’s real talent was for drawing together all of the disparate elements that made the telegraph possible. And, too, he was in the right place at the right time. The scientific heavy lifting of experiment after experiment that formed the basis for the telegraph was mostly completed by the time Morse arrived on the scene.
What was missing was someone to refine the basic mechanics and coordinate the organizational components. In the corporate parlance of the twenty-first century, Morse played the role of project manager, attracting and then coordinating the expertise, funding, publicity, and even political lobbying to bring a functioning telegraph to life. This was no small thing in an age that had not yet come to fully trust technology whose mechanism could not be seen in the gearworks and boilers that powered the Industrial Revolution.
IF MORSE’S TECHNOLOGY WAS NEW, the concept itself—rapid communication over long distances—was centuries old. Instantaneous communication had long been a potent concept, even when it existed solely as a myth. As far back as the sixteenth century there were rumors and whisperings across Europe of a magical device that used “sympathetic needles,” similar to a compass, to communicate over great distances. A complete description appeared in the book Prolusiones Academicae penned by the Italian Jesuit academic Famiano Strada in the seventeenth century.
The first actual telegraph didn’t use electricity at all. Designed by Claude Chappe and his brother, René, in France, the system was made up of a series of signal towers with large semaphore-like mechanical arms that could be raised and lowered to spell out words. Although it’s not often noted, Chappe had experimented with an electrical form of communication using Leyden jars, though little came of it. The technology just wasn’t up to the job, so he switched his attention to visual communication. Originally Chappe thought to call the system a “tachygraphe” from the Greek words for “fast” and “writer.” In the end, a friend, who happened to be a classics scholar, suggested the more descriptive “telegraphe” for “far writer.”
The towers, which were arranged every few miles, eventually crisscrossed France, their controls of levers and pulleys artfully designed by the clockmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, whose name continues on luxury watches and who would also later enter the telegraph marketplace as a manufacturer of electromechanical receivers. Though cumbersome and labor intensive, the signal towers were a communications breakthrough. The 1797 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica paid homage to the Chappe brothers’ invention, noting, “The capitals of distant nations might be united by chains of posts, and the settling of those disputes which at present take up months or years might then be accomplished in as many hours.” The optimism expressed in the encyclopedia’s entry was as genuine as it is enduring. Two centuries later similar sentiments would be voiced amid the growing popularity of the Internet.
WITHIN SEVERAL YEARS, OPTICAL TELEGRAPH systems, as they were eventually known, began to spring up across Europe. Napoleon was an enthusiastic supporter, ordering the construction of the system to extend to Boulogne, and then launching a study to assess the feasibility of signaling across the English Channel in preparation for an invasion of England. By the mid-1830s, all of Europe was dotted with towers of varying designs that worked reasonably well—a big step forward.
Today we measure communication in near real time—that is the time it takes to speak into a telephone or write and send an e-mail or text message. But throughout most of human history communication time was measured in terms of transportation, travel time. That is to say, the time it took to communicate was defined by the speed of horses or ships and factored in a large number of variables, such as weather and even the reliability of the messenger. Delays in communication or miscommunications were so common they became a standard plot device in drama. Shakespeare’s characters frequently used untrustworthy or slow-moving messengers that conveniently shaped the plot. Romeo and Juliet would have been a much different play if the star-crossed teens had had access to text messaging or cell phones.
As transportation improved along with infrastructure—faster carriages, faster ships, better roads, more accurate navigation—so did the time it took to communicate. However, the idea of communicating over hundreds of miles within a few hours via the Chappe brothers’ invention must have seemed revolutionary, an engineering miracle, and a point of national pride not unlike the Roman viaducts or America’s railroads.
The technological seeds that would render the Chappe brothers’ towers obsolete were planted as early as 1816 when Sir Francis Ronolds (sometimes spelled Ronalds), an English meteorologist, used a friction generator to send an electrical impulse down a wire to move a pair of suspended pitch balls—a crude voltmeter or electrometer. He offered his idea to the Royal Admiralty, which summarily rejected it. Electricity was still the stuff of natural philosophy as far as the military was concerned. And, of course, there was Henry, who had been amusing his students by sending electrical current through wires to ring a bell since his early days at the Albany Academy. Among Henry’s inventions, the relay—a secondary electromagnet and battery to pass current along the line—would prove essential to the development of the telegraph.
Then there was a mysterious letter that appeared in the February 17, 1753, issue of The Scots magazine signed only “C.M.” The letter detailed an eerily prescient plan for an electrical telegraph system that included poles and overhead wires, one for each letter of the alphabet. And then, in the 1790s Agustin de Betancourt, a businessman and engineer, ran a line made up of more than seventy wires between Madrid and Aranjuez, while Carl Friedrich Gauss, the German mathematician, set up a simple telegraph system across the rooftops of the University of Göttingen as early as the 1830s with a device that moved a needle to the left or right. There were other experiments serving to varying degrees as proof of concept.
It was into this environment of proven science and early prototypes that Morse stumbled. As the legend goes, he was a struggling artist struck by inspiration during a return voyage from Europe. The first part, of course, is true. Morse was an artist, and somewhat struggling. There could also be no denying that he was passionate about his art. In an early letter to his mother, he immodestly wrote, “My ambition is to be among those who shall revive the splendor of the 15th century, to rival the genius of Raphael, a Michael Angelo [sic], or a Titian; my ambition is to be enlisted in the constellation of genius which is now rising in this country.”
To say the least, Morse was a man of oversized ambition as well as fierce, often fanatical patriotism. That he saw himself in the center of a second Renaissance in early nineteenth-century America was not out of character. His masterpiece, called the House of Representatives, was an immense canvas weighing more than 600 pounds. The huge painting, according to Morse, was intended to show “…a faithful representation of the national hall with its furniture and business during the session of Congress.” He toured the painting, which could be described as a very early version of C-Span, charging admission to see it, though in the end it turned out to be a modest failure when the expected crowds did not materialize.
BORN AS HE WAS IN 1791, in the shadow of the American Revolution and a little over a mile from Franklin’s birthplace, it is not surprising that Morse was very much pro-American in his views. However, the influence of his father, Jedediah, is more than likely responsible for pushing that sensibility to extremes. An evangelical Calvinist preacher, Jedediah harbored dark suspicions of secret conspiracies aimed at destroying America. He preached sermon after sermon on the dangers of Catholicism, Masons, the Illuminists, and the dreaded French imperialism.
If Morse inherited his passions as well as his prejudices from his father, what he lacked was an outlet. Unable to break into the lucrative portrait business or create an American Renaissance, Morse was ripe for a new project into which to pour his considerable energies when the new technology of electromagnetic telegraphy captured his imagination. He had already dabbled in inventing. In 1817, along with his brother, he came up with a flexible water pump that received some notoriety along with a patent, if little financial success.
Bouncing from New York to Europe to Mexico and back to Europe, Morse encountered Dr. Charles Jackson on one of these voyages sailing back home from England aboard the Sully in 1832. A twenty-eight-year-old Harvard-educated Boston physician and amateur scientist, Jackson was returning from Europe where he had been studying geology. Among his rock samples, the good doctor also had on board a small electromagnet and battery, which he demonstrated. Morse, who was forty-one at the time, was intrigued enough to begin experimenting with electricity.
However, Morse was easily distracted. When he reached New York, he secured himself a professorship at New York University, kept up with his painting, helped establish the National Academy of Design, and began one of the strangest phases of his life, that of a social activist and politician.
As Morse and a few others saw it, America was in grave danger from immigration. By today’s standards, and even those of his own day, Morse came out on the politically incorrect side of nearly every political and social debate. A fierce nationalist, he wrote prolifically on the threat from immigration, even going so far as to edit a manuscript called Confessions of a French Catholic Priest. Published in 1837, at a time of rampant “antipapist” sentiment, it’s an extraordinary lurid piece of hateful propaganda. Filling some 250 pages, the book is packed with tales of murder, sexual depravity, and bizarre practices, such as drinking mysterious elixirs fermented from water lilies. Later, he would pen a pamphlet condemning the abolitionists, describing them as “demons in human shape.”
Thoroughly engulfed in the Nativist movement, Morse ran for New York City mayor in 1836 as the candidate for the Native American Democratic Association, whose core platform was a particularly virulent form of anti-Catholicism. He was thoroughly beaten, getting just 1,500 votes to his Democratic opponent C. W. Lawrence’s 16,101.
Then, in 1837, word reached him—through his brother in the newspaper business—that a pair of Frenchmen named Gonon and Serval were demonstrating a device that could send messages instantaneously across great distances. Morse, who had been toying with an electric telegraph off and on since returning from England, didn’t realize the two inventors were just updating the optical Chappe system, though it did prompt him to pay more attention to the technology and learn that an electromagnetic telegraphic concept was being used throughout Europe in isolated instances with varying degrees of success.
ONE OF THE MOST PROMISING and successful of these early efforts was that of Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke. Wheatstone, the son of instrument makers and an inveterate tinkerer, had gained some local fame with an instrument he called the “enchanted lyre” or “aconcryptophone,” which seemed to sound like a variety of instruments. If nothing else, it was a neat trick. The cord from which it hung was actually a hollow rod that transmitted the sounds speaker-tube style of other instruments played in a different room. The lyre itself was a type of acoustic amplifier. Later Wheatstone would follow up this invention with the much-maligned accordion.
Cooke, who left military service before retirement age, was scraping out a living of sorts by making anatomical wax models for use in medical schools. Like Morse, he was a man very much in search of the main chance and the fortune it would bring.
Wheatstone and Cooke hit on the idea of the telegraph almost simultaneously in the 1830s and eventually decided to join forces. Introduced by Peter Roget of thesaurus fame, who conducted a series of gentlemanly electrical experiments himself, the pair made an odd team. Fothergill had been inspired by a lecture on Baron Pavel Lvovitch Schilling—a Russian diplomat who invented a crude electromagnetic telegraphic system in the 1820s. The unit essentially used a voltmeter to signal from place to place, much like Henry’s early experiments. After much effort Schilling finally convinced Tsar Nicholas I to construct a telegraph network, then promptly died before construction began, and the idea was scrapped.
However, one of Schilling’s voltmeters fell into the hands of a professor in Heidelberg as a curiosity, and it was this unit that Cooke witnessed in use during the lecture. Cooke immediately set about designing his own version, which used three needles and six wires along with an unwieldy code.
Wheatstone, who was by turns intolerably arrogant and painfully shy, had designed a simple telegraph with six wires that activated five separate dials on a beautiful diamond-shaped face. He also had a stockpile of some four miles of wire. Only by teaming up were they able to get their design off the ground, though the pair feuded for years. Cooke, the public face of the duo, treated Wheatstone as a junior partner. Wheatstone, for his part, was insistent that he receive credit for the device, arguing over whose name appeared first on paperwork.
Whatever their personal problems, by the 1830s the pair were granted a patent for their system—the first for electrical transmission. One of the first practical uses for their telegraph was through a mile of wire that stretched between the Euston and Camden Town terminals in London to signal arrivals and departures. The experiment was a success—even the public embraced the new technology, primarily because it made obsolete the piercing whistles and drums that had been used previously.
Cooke and Wheatstone’s telegraph would eventually gain prominence in the United Kingdom, chiefly because of the comprehensive patent they filed. In fact, their patent in America, dated June 10, 1840, beat Morse, whose filing is dated June 20, by ten days.
SPURRED INTO ACTION, MORSE LAUNCHED a publicity campaign, first by getting his journalist brother to announce his invention, and then by polling other passengers aboard the Sully to establish a time line for his invention. He became obsessed with beating the Europeans. Only one thing stood between Morse and what he saw as his rightful place in the history books: his telegraph system was overly complex and less efficient than systems Henry had employed years before Morse even boarded the ship. That is not to say the system didn’t work; it did, but only up to a point. That point was about forty feet before the signal dropped precipitously.
To help solve his problems, he visited Henry, then at the College of New Jersey in Princeton, who freely shared his thoughts on the subject, which included increasing the power of the batteries as well as the concept of relays. He also enlisted the assistance of Leonard Gale, a professor of chemistry at New York University. The problem, as Gale saw it, was simple: Morse was using the wrong kind of battery and magnet. After substituting the single cup battery of zinc and copper for larger, more efficient batteries made up of forty cups or cells, Gale set to work on Morse’s electromagnet.
Morse, who had not kept pace with the latest scientific advances, had built an electromagnet closer to Sturgeon’s loosely wrapped model than to Henry’s tightly wrapped design. By simply increasing the number of turns of wire around the core, Gale was able to substantially increase the magnet’s power. These two design enhancements—both widely known in the scientific community for years—boosted the signal’s range from 40 to about 1,700 feet.
Although much improved, the system was still not practical in any commercial sense. Morse could, like Henry, string wires around his artist’s studio or between the buildings of New York University, but he had much larger plans. By 1837 he arranged a public demonstration followed up with a letter-writing campaign asking for government funds. His timing could not have been worse. The speculative bubble on Wall Street burst in May of that year, causing the Panic of 1837, closing nearly half the banks in the country and drying up funds. To sway public opinion, Morse stepped up his publicity campaign. Articles about his device were quickly published in magazines intended not for scientists, but for the general public, such as The Journal of Commerce.
He also enlisted the help of one of his students, Alfred Vail, whose family conveniently owned the Speedwell Iron Works in New Jersey. Along with Vail came the young man’s mechanical expertise, the resources of the tool-and-die company, and the much-needed funds the well-to-do Vail family could provide. The first battery the partnership produced was a lovingly designed Grove-type unit housed in a cherrywood box lined with beeswax. The little chemical power plant was downright elegant and so was the wiring, which they insulated with material used by milliners for hats.
Vail also possessed a better sense of industrial design than Morse, and within a very short time he had streamlined the telegraph key or register. The young man was also clever with code. Rather than adopt the massive dictionary comprised of entire of words Morse had labored to assemble, he settled on a simple binary code of dots and dashes representing letters of the alphabet. In researching his code-making Vail consulted with the typesetters at a local paper to see which letters appeared most often. It was these frequently occurring letters for which he saved the simplest groups of dots and dashes. To represent the letter “e,” for example, Vail assigned a single dot, while the less frequently used “q” was given the more complex combination of two dashes, a dot, and another dash.
This code, of course, eventually became known as Morse code rather than Vail code. It is not to Morse’s credit that he would invariably refer to Vail as his “mechanical assistant.”
MORSE GOT HIS BIG BREAK when a proposal went before Congress to construct a series of Chappe-style signal towers between New York and New Orleans. Taking his simplified electromagnetic telegraph system to Washington, he demonstrated the device by setting up the sending and receiving stations a few feet apart. The lawmakers, who couldn’t quite grasp the technology, were profoundly unimpressed. Undeterred, Morse decided to try his device in Europe, where Wheatstone’s system was catching on, then returned to the United States and arranged for another demonstration, this time stringing wires between two committee rooms of the Capitol building.
The revised demonstration got the lawmakers’ attention, but Morse still needed to lobby hard, soliciting letters from well-known scientists. In one of these letters, Henry called for the construction of the telegraph as a matter of national pride in much the same way Davy had solicited funds for his oversized battery and similar to the way President John F. Kennedy would rally a nation around the space program. Henry’s letter argued for the project’s funding not only as a practical matter of communication, but also to “advance the scientific reputation of the country” and to “…be furnished with the means of competing with his European rivals.”
Morse was tireless in his promotion, launching demonstrations of his electromagnetic telegraph for anyone who might help him get the project off the ground. In one of the stranger instances, he joined efforts with Samuel Colt, of Colt revolver fame. The inventor of the “gun that won the West,” just twenty-eight at the time, was working as a research scientist for the Department of the Navy, trying to employ electricity as a weapon.
What Colt had in mind was a waterproof battery, called a submarine battery, capable of exploding mines as a means of harbor defense. Though working on the battery in the strictest secrecy, he eventually gave four public demonstrations in Washington and New York City. Much later, following on the heels of Morse, he would switch his focus to telegraphy, constructing his own short-lived telegraph system from Coney Island to Manhattan to announce ship arrivals.
In 1842, Morse attempted to send a signal across New York Harbor, but the experiment failed because of a weak battery. The same day, Colt launched his own far more dramatic demonstration. With a crowd of some 40,000 gathered along the shoreline of lower Manhattan, he used an electrical charge to blow up a ship, curiously named the Volta, in New York Harbor. There was nothing particularly unique about the demonstration except, perhaps, scale. Davy had ignited a small amount of gunpowder on stage during his demonstrations using a Leyden jar, while Volta had performed the same trick for Napoleon with a battery. Still, Colt’s pyrotechnics must have been impressive.
Decades later, in Mark Twain’s 1889 classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist, Hank Morgan, perhaps taking a page out of Colt’s explosive promotion, performs a similar feat by blowing up a building via an electrical charge.
We knocked the head out of an empty hogshead [cask] and hoisted this hogshead to the flat roof of the chapel, where we clamped it down fast, poured in gunpowder till it lay loosely an inch deep on the bottom, then we stood up rockets in the hogshead as thick as they could loosely stand, all the different breeds of rockets there are; and they made a portly and imposing sheaf, I can tell you. We grounded the wire of a pocket electrical battery in that powder, we placed a whole magazine of Greek fire on each corner of the roof—blue on one corner, green on another, red on another, and purple on the last—and grounded a wire in each…
TWAIN’S MEMORABLE WORDS, “YOU CAN’T throw too much style into a miracle,” accurately summed up the view of technology in Morse’s time. It was a slogan that Morse, as well as Colt, could have adopted as their own. In Twain’s book, the public, along with royalty, is quick to substitute one belief system for another. For Morse, the task was not nearly as daunting. He simply needed to convince the Washington lawmakers to write a relatively large check.
Still, this was not as easy as it seems. The technology was baffling and downright suspect to the lawmakers. During the last debate on the House floor in early March 1843, Representative Cave Johnson of Tennessee famously ridiculed the proposal, joking that they start funding mesmerism along with the “Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.” Still, the measure passed, and Morse received his money, but just barely and without much enthusiasm from Congress. Seventy congressmen did not vote at all “to avoid responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they could not understand.” In the end, Morse received $30,000 for an experimental line to run between Baltimore and Washington, about forty miles.
The idea was to lay the wires along an existing railway line underground, a system abandoned halfway through the project in favor of overhead poles. This made sense not only because it required permission from just a single entity, rather than dozens of homeowners and businessmen, but from an engineering standpoint as well. The railroad connected the two cities with a direct path that had already been surveyed and cleared. Later, as telegraph lines began to stretch across the country, the railroads would prove particularly valuable to the effort. Many of the smaller rural communities, though linked by rail lines, were not linked by direct roads. Railroads would also provide office space at local depots as well as personnel for telegraph operations.
© Chris Costello
Eventually the railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, agreed to participate on the condition that it had access to the system, if the contraption actually worked, which was far from a certainty. Then, covering all its bases, the railroad’s lawyers added a clause to the contract that clearly stated the telegraph would function “…without embarrassment to the operations of the company.”
In America, telegraphs would remain closely linked with railroads just as in England they maintained close ties with the postal service. This would prove a mutually beneficial relationship for decades as the railroads continued to expand their operations and needed a means to communicate while telegraph companies wanted the surveyed, single-owner land between cities.
Even after the funding was approved, doubts persisted in Congress. Fearing the inevitable scandal that would accompany a failure of Morse’s technology or his exposure as a charlatan, the lawmakers appointed John W. Kirk as an observer. If Morse turned out to be a fraud or the technology flawed, Kirk would know soon enough, and Congress could get out in front of any accusations of chicanery.
The first experimental line was an awkward thing in terms of power, employing huge Grove batteries with eighty cells at the sending and receiving ends, though Morse later managed to cut the number down considerably. The relays that carried the transmission along the forty miles were also oversized. According to one account, they weighed some 150 pounds and were housed in three-foot-long wooden boxes two feet wide. In concept, these relays were relatively simple things. With each electrical burst from the telegrapher’s key, the relay’s own electromagnet opened a new circuit powered by a battery inside the box. That charge would send a fresh burst, duplicating the telegrapher’s original, along to the next relay.
The relay concept, originally thought up by Henry, was an entirely different way of dealing with electrical transmission over long distances. With relays it wasn’t necessary to transmit a powerful signal along a thousand miles of uninterrupted wire. All that was needed was to send a signal to an electromechanical relay—a matter of a few miles. By adding relays, the range of the telegraph became limitless. “If it will go ten miles without stopping,” Morse would later say, “I can make it go around the globe.”
IT IS TRUE THAT MORSE famously transmitted “What hath God wrought!” a biblical quotation from Numbers 23:23, as the first telegraph message on the line from the Supreme Court chambers to Mount Clare Depot in Baltimore on May 23, 1843. That is to say, it is technically true. However, the first actual transmission over the line was significantly less poetic or memorable. As a practical demonstration for Kirk, Vail transmitted the names of the Whig National Convention’s nominees some three weeks earlier. The line had not yet been completed, falling around fifteen miles short of Baltimore, but the demonstration was enough to convince Kirk of the telegraph’s usefulness after the train carrying the same names arrived more than an hour later.
News of Morse’s success with his “lightning line” spread quickly, but the telegraph did little immediate business. When the first public telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington was opened, the total receipts came to about a dollar the first week. Offered for sale to the government for $100,000, lawmakers turned it down as a non-moneymaker, and later, when a telegraph office opened in New York City, Morse charged admission to watch the telegrapher at work as a way to subsidize the company.
Still, the battery—electricity itself—had reached a turning point. With the telegraph’s usefulness, if not profitability, proven beyond all doubt, batteries entered the world of commerce and industry.
Very quickly, telegraphy grew into a major concern. Along with the railroads, telegraph companies would be among America’s first large corporations. As it turned out, the government and nearly everyone else misjudged the potential of the technology. Within two years of the first transmissions, a large roster of independent companies had strung up about 2,000 miles of cable, and by 1850 there were said to be some 12,000 miles of wire crisscrossing the countryside and cities. The electromagnetic telegraph caught on in Europe with hundreds of miles of wire stretching out in spokes from the major cities. France, notably, seems to have gotten a late start simply because it had such an early start with its Chappe optical telegraphs. The system, more sophisticated and widespread than any in Europe, worked just fine as far as many of the French were concerned. As an interesting historical note, France did eventually get into telegraphy with a system at least partially designed by Louis-François Breguet, grandson of Abraham-Louis Breguet, who had designed the mechanism for the optical telegraphs. Called the “French telegraph” or “Breguet telegraph,” the system remained in use for years in both France and Japan.
It didn’t take long before businesses seeking an advantage over their competitors began to rely on the telegraph. Just as personal and portable devices have changed expectations for business communication in the twenty-first century, the telegraph very quickly set the standard in the mid-nineteenth century.
Codebooks flourished as businesses sought to keep their private affairs secretive. Within a year after Morse’s famous message traveled forty miles, former Congressman Francis O. J. Smith, Morse’s lawyer and sometime promotional agent (who just happened to have headed the committee that approved the experimental line), published a commercial codebook called The Secret Corresponding Vocabulary: Adapted for Use to Morse’s Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.
Unlike railroads or shipping lines, which required vast amounts of money to launch, virtually anyone could enter the telegraph business. With companies multiplying at an exponential rate and wires unspooling across the continent at breakneck speed, the situation grew chaotic. As more and more companies sprang up, the quality of service quickly dropped, even as competitors began slicing away at the profit margins. To compete, companies began stringing ever more wire, rapidly expanding the networks in an attempt to gain market share.
Finally, companies began consolidating, first regionally, and then nationally. In the 1850s, businessman Hiram Sibley saw the mood right for mergers and formed Western Union out of the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, founded a few years prior. His plan was simple: buy up and merge all the struggling telegraph companies he could find. “This Western Union seems to me very like collecting all the paupers in the State and arranging them into a union so as to make rich men of them,” quipped a man of finance.
Of course, Western Union eventually succeeded for a variety of reasons, the most interesting of which is a nineteenth-century version of Metcalfe’s Law. Named for Robert Metcalfe, an engineer at Xerox PARC and coinventor of Ethernet, the law simply states that a network increases in value as more users (or communicating devices) are added to it. Stated another way, one electromagnetic telegraph was useless, two marginally better, and six better still. Specifically, a network’s value is proportional to the square of the number of devices or users.
Western Union would eventually link thousands of telegraph keys as a web of disparate lines were joined into a seamless and seemingly endless network. Economies of scale kicked in too with the standardization of equipment, including batteries and the chemicals they required, boosting the profit margin of each message sent.
The most common batteries employed were the zinc-platinum Grove cells that used nitric acid. They differed significantly from our batteries today. Very much a piece of industrial equipment, their upkeep required special training. Thick in-house technical manuals as well as books intended for the general public included pages and pages on telegraph batteries, their different components, specifications, and proper maintenance.
ALONG THE WAY SOMETHING VERY interesting began to happen. A subculture arose among telegraph operators, much as it had around swifts (typesetters) in the Victorian era and tech support personnel today. Abbreviations arose for common messages, denoting dinner breaks and chess moves. According to some linguists, the popular expression “okay” is derived or spread by telegraph slang for “Open Key Prepare to Transmit.” The term “hams” for new operators would later transfer to amateur radio operators. During slow periods, telegraphers shared jokes and gossiped long distance. There were long-distance feuds between the part-time telegraph operators in rural communities, who also sold tickets and checked freight at local train depots, and the professional big-city telegraphers.
Later they would call themselves a “brotherhood.” And powering it all were the batteries, hundreds of thousands of them placed in every telegraph office and relay station around the country.
The Scottish mathematician, physicist, and hobbyist poet James Clerk Maxwell, wryly captured the mood of the telegraphers and the new technology in his poem “Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk.”
The tendrils of my soul are twined
With thine, though many a mile apart.
And thine in close coiled circuits wind
Around the needle of my heart.
Constant as Daniel, strong as Grove.
Ebullient throughout its depths like Smee,
My heart puts forth its tide of love,
And all its circuits close in thee.
O tell me, when along the line
From my full heart the message flows,
What currents are induced in thine?
One click from thee will end my woes.
Through many a volt the weber flew,
And clicked this answer back to me;
I am thy farad staunch and true,
Charged to a volt with love for thee.
On July 4, 1861, work began on America’s transcontinental line, which carried the wires westward from Omaha, Fort Laramie, and Salt Lake City to San Francisco, linking both coasts. Subsidized by the government with $40,000, it was estimated that the project would take two years from start to finish. It was completed in four months, a full eight years before rail lines connected both coasts. The new network not only linked a sprawling continent, but definitively un coupled communication from travel time. This was more than simply another instance of the death of distance. It was a way to efficiently govern a nation whose cities were sprawled across a continent of once seemingly insurmountable size.
The pony express, which still occupies a cherished place in America’s mythology, was actually a financial disaster, in large part because of the telegraph. Launched in April 1860, the relay mail service that spanned a continent couldn’t compete with the telegraph, which opened for business in October 1861. Within weeks, the pony express, which carried a letter coast to coast in ten days, was closed down after losing money for its backers.
Amid the rapid expansion, the general public could not read enough about the miracle of electromagnetic telegraphy, though not everyone was so enamored of the new technology. Henry David Thoreau sourly dubbed it “an improved means to an unimproved end.” And in Hawthorne’s classic The House of Seven Gables (1851), two characters debate the relative merits of the new technology against a backdrop of superstition and witchcraft.
“Then there is electricity,—the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!” exclaimed Clifford. “Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!”
“If you mean the telegraph,” said the old gentleman, glancing his eye toward its wire, alongside the rail-track, “it is an excellent thing,—that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics don’t get possession of it. A great thing, indeed, sir, particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers.”
The debate, which seems quaint by today’s standards, can with very little editing take on new significance, becoming a discussion on the Internet, the cell phone, or any one of the new technologies that have entered our lives over the past few decades. Then, as now, the entire world was rapidly changing. Financial news could be transmitted quickly, companies began to expand, opening branch offices, while train traffic moved with more precision.
Science also benefited. During the government-funded United States Coast Survey to measure longitude, astronomers relayed their time signals between observatories by telegraph for more accurate readings.
There were also problems. America ran on local time. The death of distance caused havoc in commerce when it came to keeping accurate schedules and conducting business long distance. The world had become split between the near instant communication of ideas and the physical world, which was (and is) very much subject to travel time. For instance, railroads were expanding nearly as rapidly as telegraph lines after 1840. By some accounts, rail lines increased more than tenfold in just a few years. Pushing west, they struggled to reconcile their schedules to the vast array of local times then commonly in use across America. An hour’s train ride from east to west could throw off a traveler’s pocket watch. And worse, back at the railroad company’s headquarters the efficient allocation of resources and scheduling made possible by the telegraph were in danger because of the jumble of local time zones.
Adding to the confusion in America, rail lines took an ad hoc approach to the problem, often using the corporate headquarters’ time as accurate. In the 1840s guides to train and steamship schedules were published to correct the problem, but they often only added to the confusion. Although usually technically accurate, differences of fifteen minutes between relatively nearby cities quickly became unwieldy for businesses and proved disastrous in 1853, when two trains collided in New England when both train guards had different, but technically accurate, times on their watches. Thirteen passengers were killed and scores more injured.
The near instant communication of telegraphs only made the problem more confusing. Bankers in New York consulted schedules for banks in Pittsburgh while corporate headquarters for large railroads grew awash in time schedules as their lines expanded westward. One of the most dramatic illustrations on record occurred when the two ends of the transcontinental railroad were joined at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. Leland Stanford, cofounder of the Central Pacific Railroad, was supposed to pound in the last spike, which was wired to send a telegraph signal to both coasts. At the very least, it was a neat publicity trick. However, Stanford missed the spike, and a nearby telegraph operator keyed in a single word “Done.” Though the announcement was less dramatic, it got the point across from coast to coast. America cheered the accomplishment with papers listing dozens of exact times for the historic event, all of them technically accurate.
Public debates over time keeping were common and usually centered on instituting a standardized time. In some instances, the debate took on overtly religious overtones. Does man or the heavens set the proper time? Standardized time, the argument went, was an attempt to supplant the divine creator’s own watch. It was, they argued, in defiance of God’s plan and an act of sinful hubris. The railroads were having none of it and finally settled the matter, somewhat uneasily, in the 1880s by instituting standardized times on their own with the government reluctantly and somewhat timidly following suit years later.
BY THE 1870S WESTERN UNION began selling time. A “time ball” rigged to the Naval Observatory in Washington by telegraph on top of its New York headquarters dropped once a day at noon for citizens to set their watches. Watchmakers, factories, and businesses could subscribe to a service that offered special Western Union battery-powered clocks in factories and other businesses linked directly to the National Observatory via telegraph. Two small Leclanché batteries in glass jars that were changed out yearly powered the clocks. The fees ran up to $375 a year for the service.
IT WAS INTO THIS TECHNOLOGICAL expansion and optimism that Cyrus W. Field stumbled. Born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he was a self-made man who started out as a dry-goods clerk and ended up wealthy enough to retire in his early thirties. Still ambitious and anxious for a new challenge, Field found what he was looking for in a ruined telegraph promoter, F. N. Gisborne, who had recently lost a fortune trying to run a line from Newfoundland to New York. The enterprise ended in disaster, primarily because of the rugged terrain. Not only did the line not work, but Gisborne had been hung out to dry by investors. He was arrested and his assets seized.
Still, he was optimistic and somehow managed to inspire Field to get into the electromagnetic telegraphy business. What’s more, he would do it in a big way. Field’s plan was much grander than simply a line from Newfoundland to New York. He would build a line from Newfoundland to Europe, approximately 1,700 miles. According to one often-repeated account, he got the idea by looking at a globe in his study just after Gisborne left his Gramercy Park town house. “It was a very pretty plan on paper; God knows that none of us were aware of what we had undertaken,” Field later wrote.
In the mind-set of 1854, it was very much like planning a trip to Venus. What’s more, it didn’t seem to matter to Field that he knew next to nothing about telegraphy, electricity, or oceanography. Gisborne, though a ruined man, was an engineer. And Field could leverage his past successes to raise the funds. Perhaps he saw himself as a new type of industrialist for a new age. Vast fortunes had been made in ships and railroads—why not telegraphy?
Although some admired Field’s oversized telegraphic ambitions, many more viewed a transatlantic cable as just another rich man’s folly. As soon as word leaked out what Field was planning, the skeptics leapt on it with both feet, providing a litany of reasons why the venture was destined for failure. Hostile fish, icebergs, unknown underwater terrain, ship anchors, tides, and the simple enormity of the project were all dutifully listed as reasons for the inevitable failure of the endeavor. The British Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy, confidently pronounced the enterprise doomed because pressure at such great depths would squeeze the electricity from the cable. Even Thoreau sourly offered an opinion in his 1854 book Walden: “We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and ring the Old World to the new, but, the first news that we will hear is that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
Of course, there were also some optimists who viewed the undertaking as the final piece of technology that would bring about utopian global peace for all time.
Through it all, Field maintained an unwavering belief in the project’s eventual success. In fact, he had every reason for optimism. By 1854, the technology was proven and more or less perfected. Infrastructure had arisen in the past decade to supply most of the basic equipment needed. The cable required, for instance, could be manufactured on the same machinery that produced cables—similar to rope—for mining operations and the new increasingly popular suspension bridges. And, as he would eventually discover, the underwater terrain where the proposed cable would rest off Newfoundland was particularly well suited, forming a gentle ledge to carry it eastward to Ireland.
There was also plenty of small-scale precedent. Morse, by then hailed as the inventor of the telegraph, had experimented with underwater cables as far back as 1842 with a hemp and India-rubber-coated cable. In England, Wheatstone had performed experiments in the Bay of Swansea. And, as far back as 1811, Jacobi, of failed electric boat fame, had used a wire insulated with rubber strung beneath the Neva in St. Petersburg to set off a mine. Cables had been laid across riverbeds and lakes, and two years earlier, in 1852, a cable had joined England and France across the English Channel.
To capture some credibility, Field solicited Morse to join the enterprise. How could the inventor of the telegraph resist the greatest telegraphy project in history? However, neither could he resist his old methodologies as project manager. Before signing on, he consulted with Matthew Fontaine Maury at the Naval Observatory. An oceanographer who studied currents and conducted soundings off Newfoundland, Maury discovered the ledge between Newfoundland and Ireland that made it perfect for the cable. Morse also consulted with Faraday, addressing him as a fellow scientist and seeking advice, much as he had with Henry years prior.
The tireless Field floated the stock offering, putting up a quarter of the capital himself. The venture, called the Atlantic Telegraph Company, came to life in 1856. Among the first investors were William Makepeace Thackeray, a contemporary of Dickens and the author of Vanity Fair, and Lady Byron, the widow of the poet, Lord Byron, and the mother of Augusta Ada Byron.
Unfortunately for Field, even the abundant enthusiasm of blissful ignorance has its drawbacks, particularly in those things technical. Oddly, the single largest obstacle the enterprise would encounter was not two miles beneath the Atlantic, but in London. His name was Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse, and Field hired him as engineer and chief electrician.
A retired physician, amateur telegrapher, and gentleman scientist, Whitehouse was a plainspoken, commonsense man of the very worst variety. That is to say, he was arrogant, unable to admit mistakes, and conducted himself as something of a bully when challenged. Even worse, both his science and his engineering skills left much to be desired, so there was quite a bit to challenge. In the end, he turned out to be very much the villain in the enterprise.
Whitehouse made mistake after mistake with the design of the system. Some of these early mistakes were so basic they should have tipped off Field and the other investors to Whitehouse’s incompetence. For instance, the cable was ordered from two different factories—Glass, Elliot Company of Greenwich and Messrs. R. S. Newall Company of Birkenhead—with somewhat vague technical specifications and a careful eye on the price.
It wasn’t until a good portion of the cable had been produced that the first of many mistakes was discovered. One of the manufacturers had given the cable a clockwise orientation in turning the strands of copper while the other manufacturer had the windings running counterclockwise. The two halves of the cable were nearly impossible to splice together in any traditional manner. The anticipated stress would unwind them, much like turning the lid on a jar. The solution came by way of a complex, specially designed clamp.
The cable itself was made up of seven strands of thin copper wire, sheathed in gutta-percha, an early plastic derived from the resin of the Isonandra gutta tree native to Malaysia. It was originally imported by a Scottish surveyor, Dr. William Montgomerie of the East India Company, who hoped it might have use in surgical instruments. The venture proved less than a sterling success, but Faraday, Wheatstone, and others adopted the substance as wire insulation.
On top of the gutta-percha was a kind of tarred yarn, and finally a winding of iron wire. The cable, which measured about half an inch thick, was light, flexible, weighed about 107 pounds per nautical mile, and proved entirely unsuitable. Whitehouse’s experiments, conducted on a small scale, didn’t take into account the massive size of the enterprise. The diameter was far too small to carry a transmission the distance it needed to travel without benefit of a relay system. Added to the cable’s woes was the quality of the copper. Either Whitehouse’s vague specifications or the manufacturers’ lack of quality control produced a less than ideal conductor.
When the system’s flaws were pointed out to Whitehouse, he conducted a few haphazard experiments on his own, then blithely waved off the objections. “No adequate advantage would be gained by any considerable increase in the size of the wire,” he wrote. After all, common sense dictated that electricity itself was “small” and there was plenty of room for a lot of it within the half-inch of tarred yarn and gutta-percha–sheathed wire. Whitehouse pushed on, ever confident he would prevail over the theoretical scientists.
Batteries on the boats carrying the cable ran constant tests. These were specially built Daniell cells filled partially with sawdust to prevent the acid solution from sloshing over the sides with the ships’ rocking. However, the battery Whitehouse designed for the stations in Ireland and Newfoundland was massive. He called it the “Whitehouse Laminated” or “Perpetual Maintenance Battery.” Made up of a wooden trough, the slotted cabinet held 10 pairs of platinum-coated silver plates and 10 pairs of zinc plates that totaled some 2,000 square inches of surface area. In the end, he used several of these batteries, equaling more than 300 Daniell cells. A complex mechanism allowed the operator to increase or decrease the power by lifting the plates from the acidic solution. The batteries’ power was boosted by five-foot-high induction coils that jumped the current up to a frightening degree. Although accurate ways of measuring current didn’t exist, some estimates place the output at upward of 2,000 volts. On the upside, as Whitehouse bragged, the cost of operation was about a shilling a day.
Three well-documented failures prevented the joining of the cable. The first attempt ended in complete disaster with both ends lost to the ocean. The fourth try proved the charm, and on August 5, 1858, the two continents were joined. Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan exchanged messages. And the entire world seemed to go “cable crazy.” As with the invention of the Chappe brothers’ telegraph system, pundits joyously predicted the outbreak of world peace. Surely such a miraculous device would cause even the most belligerent of the world’s citizens to “make muskets into candlesticks.” A story in the London Times enthused, “The Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as well as in wish one country. The Atlantic Telegraph has half undone the Declaration of 1776, and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people.”
© Chris Costello
Field, who had more than twenty miles of the flawed cable left over, sold it off at a tidy profit to manufacturers and retailers who quickly set about fashioning it into trinkets. Within weeks bits of cable were turned into earrings, umbrella handles, snuffboxes, candlesticks, and some very odd commemorative displays mounted on wooden pedestals. Even Tiffany & Co. got into the act, selling lengths of the stuff at fifty cents apiece. In a newspaper story, Tiffany proudly announced, “In order to place it within the reach of all classes, and that every family in the United States may possess a specimen of this wonderful mechanical [sic] curiosity they propose to cut the cable into pieces of four inches in length and mount them neatly in brass ferules.”
However, even before the celebrations ended, the signal began to fade. Whitehouse, of course, was confident of the solution and began pumping more current through the line by way of his large batteries and massive induction coils. After all, common sense dictated that if the signal was weak, more power was needed to span the 1,700 miles from Newfoundland to Ireland. As the signal grew increasingly faint, Whitehouse stepped up the current even more. Finally, less than a month after going into operation, the signal dropped out completely. In the end, the massive number of volts Whitehouse pumped into the cable more than likely burned out the insulation.
As expected, the press, which had hailed the technological marvel just a few weeks prior, wasted no time in declaring the entire enterprise an expensive folly. Some went so far as to label it a stock swindle and hoax.
MADDENINGLY, THE ANSWER TO VIRTUALLY every problem was at hand in the form of William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), one of the leading physicists of the age, the best-known authority in the field of electrical science, and a member of the company’s board. The son of a Scots-Irish farmer, Thomson showed early promise that kept on delivering throughout his entire life.
What Thomson told Whitehouse, who ignored the advice, was that the cable’s effectiveness in carrying an electrical charge could be calculated with a simple mathematical formula based on Fourier math. So easy that a bright junior high school student could work it, the formula was based on the law of squares. Simply stated, it more or less accurately calculated that the drop-off in the current of a line is proportional to the square of the distance traveled. That is to say, a cable of two miles would have about four times the drop-off in power as a cable one mile long. So the result at the end of the line would be only one-quarter strength.
Thomson brought more than engineering math to the project. A few years previously, the German physicist and chemist Johann Christian Poggendorff had developed a new type of galvanometer for testing electrical current. More sensitive than those in use, it relied on a mirror suspended by a silk thread with tiny magnets glued to its back and a lantern’s light reflected on its front. When a coil encasing the chamber where the mirror hung received the slightest charge, it would turn the mirror and reflected beam of light. The more current going through the coil, the more the mirror’s magnets would react to the electromagnetic field and the more the beam of light would shift its position on a screen.
The ingenious device was capable of detecting and reacting to even the smallest current flowing through the coil. A much-updated version of the mirror galvanometer, as it was called, exists today in theatrical lighting. Shifting mirrors control lasers and high-intensity lights in theaters and nightclubs.
What Thomson had done was refine the device, making it suitable as a telegraph receiver. In fact, he had used it to test the cable on board one of the ships during an attempt to join Newfoundland and Ireland, and the device had worked perfectly. Whitehouse, of course, rejected the mirror galvanometer, though rumors persist that, out of desperation, he used it at the Newfoundland station as the signals began to fade and then swore the staff to the strictest secrecy.
© Chris Costello
Whitehouse’s problem, aside from an unpleasant variety of stubbornness, was his understanding of electricity. He had imagined the electrical substance flowing from his large batteries and induction coils into the cable much as water travels through pipes. The way he saw it, electricity flowed out of batteries into the copper of the wiring. In Thomson’s view, batteries served to energize an invisible field throughout the length of a wire. Faraday had also quite correctly theorized such a field. This wasn’t a theory that tough-minded, commonsense men like Whitehouse, or even Field, could easily grasp. For them, it was much more likely that electricity—whatever it happened to be—was poured into one end of a wire from a battery and exited from the opposite end into an electromagnetic device.
Whitehouse’s huge batteries and induction coils probably created a field of energized electrons in the copper core that eventually overloaded it. More than likely, when the copper heated up, it melted the rubberlike insulation and shorted out the system when the copper and outer metal sheathing made contact.
In all fairness to the widely despised Whitehouse, others held the same opinion about how electricity worked. In Prussia, a surgeon by the name of Wilhelm Josef Sinsteden strongly advocated the use of newly designed high voltage generators to push large quantities of electricity through long-distance telegraph lines. In an 1854 paper, he outlined his plan that required high voltage power, and some rudimentary testing by Sinsteden actually seemed to back up his theories.
Following the transatlantic debacle, an inquiry was called to look into the matter. An eight-member committee was formed, with four members from the British government, which had partially funded the project, and four from the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Witnesses were called and testimony heard. Thomson and other scientists gave lucid testimony, explaining the theories and likely reasons for the failure. In the end, Whitehouse, along with his commonsense views on electrical transmission, was shown the door. Any reasonable man would have faded tactfully into obscurity. He published a self-serving book, wrote letters, and gave interviews placing the blame on everyone but himself.
With Whitehouse out of the picture, the project was revitalized when Thomson’s theories were proven in other parts of the world with other submarine cables. New money was raised and a second attempt was in the planning stages even as the Civil War raged. The deathblow finally fell on what little remained of Whitehouse’s credibility when a new cable was stretched across the Atlantic. The redesigned cable, completed just months after the war’s end—with two sections turned in the same direction—differed significantly from the first. The copper core was larger and of better quality, and so was the insulation. The cable also boasted a significantly wider diameter and weighed in at about three times the 107 pounds per mile of the original cable. After several mishaps, the cable was finally connected between Ireland and Newfoundland in 1866. Using Thomson’s mirror galvanometer, the telegraph functioned perfectly with a modest power supply of 12 Daniell cells for a total of an estimated 12 volts.
In the end, Thomson could not resist a practical, if not dramatic, demonstration of his theories. Filling a thimble with sulfuric acid and lowering in two metals, he created a tiny battery. He then connected his battery to the cable and sent a small burst of electricity across the Atlantic that was picked up by his mirror galvanometer in North America.
JULES VERNE IN HIS CLASSIC science fiction tale 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, published in 1870, paid tribute to the technology with a tour of the cable aboard Captain Nemo’s sub.
I did not expect to find the electric cable in its primitive state, such as it was on leaving the manufactory. The long serpent, covered with the remains of shells, bristling with foraminiferae, was encrusted with a strong coating which served as a protection against all boring molluscs. It lay quietly sheltered from the motions of the sea, and under a favourable pressure for the transmission of the electric spark which passes from Europe to America in .32 of a second. Doubtless this cable will last for a great length of time, for they find that the gutta-percha covering is improved by the sea-water.
What became clear in the wake of the transatlantic debacle and subsequent inquiry was the fact that no accurate measurement for electricity existed, at least not one easily understood by engineers. Even as the causes of the misadventure were examined, the board and witnesses struggled for language to describe exactly what had happened. Just how much electricity had Whitehouse’s batteries and induction coils pumped into the cable? A lot? Too much? Far too much? A whole bunch? Even today various accounts of the failed cable provide starkly different estimates. By one widely accepted account, Whitehouse’s batteries and induction coils were said to have pumped out 2,000 volts, while another estimates the number at 500 volts. The imprecision of the language was as objectionable to engineers as it was to those men of finance and industry who would potentially pay for future projects.
Scientists had been struggling for a standardized measurement of electricity for years. Describing the same concepts with different words was confusing enough, but with electricity entering the commercial realm, the situation was becoming intolerable. Engineers needed a precise way of describing and calculating the different qualities and quantities of the “subtle fluid.” Committees were formed, and scientists commissioned to look into the matter. After years of haggling and no small amount of backroom politicking between the French and British, the standard units of watt, ampere, and volt emerged.
The term “volt,” after Alessandro Volta, the Italian inventor of the battery, was pushed hard by the French in large part because of his support of Napoleon. Watt, for James Watt, who perfected the steam engine for industrial use, had nothing to do with electricity at all. However, he had coined the idea of horsepower as a unit of measurement, primarily as a way to make his engine’s power understandable to potential buyers accustomed to equine-powered machinery. What would come to be known as the amp or ampere, was named after André-Marie Ampère, the French mathematician turned physicist who studied electromagnetic fields.
ALTHOUGH THE TRANSATLANTIC TELEGRAPH MET with failure, both sides in the American Civil War understood the value of the technology on a smaller scale. Union and Confederate troops strung up more than 15,000 miles of wire and deployed mobile telegraph stations pulled by horses or mules. The impact of the telegraph in warfare was immediate and not altogether pleasant. The same kind of efficiencies delivered by improved communications to railroads and other businesses were now delivered to the battlefield with devastating results. Generals could receive reports or coordinate troop movements with more precision and speed. Plans could change quickly as new intelligence arrived from spies in the field.
General Ulysses S. Grant proved particularly adept at using the telegraph to direct troop movements with remarkable precision, while Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart hired his own wiretapper—one J. Thompson Quarles—who rode with him. Both sides tapped telegraph lines that were quickly replacing couriers on horseback. Done correctly, it was a nearly risk-free form of spying.
President Abraham Lincoln embraced the new technology with gusto, spending hours in the War Department’s telegraph room, keeping in near real-time contact with his generals on the battlefield. In all, Lincoln sent nearly a thousand telegrams during his presidency, many of them in the same conversational tone he used in letters. At one point, telegraphing Grant, he urged, “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.”
IT IS DIFFICULT TO OVERESTIMATE the speed at which telegraph networks spread across the landscape. Within thirty years of Morse’s demonstration in 1844, there were some 650,000 miles of cable and 30,000 miles of submarine cable linking more than 20,000 towns and villages. By 1880 there were an estimated 100,000 miles of undersea wiring connecting continents. The world was becoming smaller.
With the success of the telegraph, electricity was becoming a part of everyday life. Technology that was not readily understood by the “man in the street” was slowly integrating itself into his landscape. Predictably, odd and often outlandish theories about how the telegraph actually worked emerged as the lines continued to extend their reach, touching more and more lives in distant towns and hamlets.
Then as now, journalists delighted in retelling stories of the less sophisticated who either mistrusted or misunderstood such an obvious instrument of progress and modernity. According to press reports at the time, some simple country folk believed the wires were hollow and transported tightly wrapped written messages sent on a burst of air or acted as speaking tubes capable of carrying a voice over long distances. And in one popular story, the mother of a soldier arrived at the telegraph office with a plate of food to be telegraphed to her son fighting in the war between Prussia and France.
Today, with technology becoming increasingly sophisticated, it is not unreasonable to estimate that the percentage of the general population that understands the workings of their digital cameras or cell phones is about equal to those who understood the telegraph. However, unlike the nineteenth-century citizenry, today’s population has little or no expectation of understanding the principles behind those technologically sophisticated gadgets. The devices with their intuitive user interfaces work, at least most of the time, and that is enough.