Winter 2010 | Volume 59, Issue 4
The telegraph was an even more dramatic innovation in its day than the Internet
On May 24, 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, tapped a message into a device of cogs and coiled wires, employing a code that he had recently devised to send a biblical text: “What hath God wrought.” Forty miles away in Baltimore, Morse’s associate Alfred Vail received the electric signals and returned the message. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world.
For thousands of years messages had been limited by the speed messengers could travel and the distance eyes could make out signals, such as flags or smoke. Neither Alexander the Great nor Benjamin Franklin, two thousand years later, had known anything faster than a galloping horse. Now instant long-distance communication was possible for the first time.
At the beginning of the 19th-century, the United States remained an agrarian country of limited technology. Most people lived on isolated farmsteads, their lives revolving around the weather and the hours of daylight. Many people grew their own food; many women made their families’ clothes. It was the difficulty of transportation and communication that kept Americans’ lives so primitive. Only people who lived near navigable waterways could easily market their crops and procure the money to buy commodities that were not produced locally, which they could barter with their neighbors or the local storekeeper. With transportation costs high, only luxury goods could bear the costs of long-distance transportation over land. Information from the outside world was a precious luxury.
But 50 years later the United States had experienced a revolution in communications, typified by Morse’s dramatic action. The invention of the steam-powered press, reinforced by radical improvements in papermaking, drove an enormous expansion of the printed media. Improvements in transportation, such as the Erie Canal, the steamboat, and the railroad, facilitated the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines, and books. The printed media affected every aspect of life.
Two of the largest and most widely diffused institutions of 19th-century America worked to foster the communications revolution. Public education provided a literate audience for the printed media. The Post Office Department, the largest activity of the federal government in peacetime, efficiently distributed the ever-increasing number of newspapers and magazines that fed the curiosity of the public and stoked the fires of partisan political debate.
Improvements in transportation and communication liberated people from isolation—economic, intellectual, and political—and brought Americans progressively deeper into a global economy. Meanwhile the United States was extending westward until it reached the Pacific, creating a transcontinental empire that was integrated by these very innovations in transportation and communication.
The telegraph probably lowered the cost of business transactions even more than the Internet has so far today; it certainly seemed to contemporaries an even more dramatic innovation. Commercial applications of Morse’s invention followed quickly. Farmers and planters increasingly produced food and fiber for far-off markets. Their merchants and bankers welcomed news of distant prices and credit. The newly invented railroads telegraphed train movements to avoid collisions on the single tracks of the time. The telegraph solved commercial problems and at the same time had huge political consequences.
When Morse tapped out those four words on his electric telegraph 165 years ago, he was not only decoupling communication from travel and enabling and speeding up commerce, but also fostering globalization and encouraging democratic participation.