The History of the Electric Telegraph

Communication as we now know it is a distant reminder of humble beginnings. The history of the electric telegraph is a twisted tale, and this is just the beginning.

Red train at depot

Of all the physical agents discovered by modern scientific research, the most fertile in its subserviency to the arts of life is incontestably electricity.

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In The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable (Oneworld Publications, 2013) author Carol Baxter details the saga of John Tawell. Convicted of forgery, he was transported to Sydney where he opened Australia’s first retail pharmacy and made a fortune. But after retuning home he was shunned by his community, causing him both financial and emotional struggles. Accused of poisoning a young single mother, he fled by way of freight train and was stopped with the help of a new technology. This excerpt from the prologue details the history of the electric telegraph and its invention, which leads to Tawell’s infamous capture.

Prologue

Of all the physical agents discovered by modern scientific research, the most fertile in its subserviency to the arts of life is incontestably electricity, and of all the applications of this subtle agent, that which is transcendently the most admirable in its effects, the most astonishing in its results, and the most important in its influence upon the social relations of mankind and upon the spread of civilization and the diffusion of knowledge, is the Electric Telegraph.

The History of The Electric Telegraph (1867)

Every Night, as the clock strikes midnight, a new date emerges from the wings, initially blind to the events that will transpire as the next twenty-four hours unfold, the events that will mark its place in history. Most days pass by unnoticed or are soon forgotten—in a particular locality, at least. Yet pluck any date from the historical calendar and somewhere on the world’s stage something momentous happened. Perhaps it had long been marked for glory. Perhaps it exploded cataclysmically into view. Often, though, while seeming inconsequential at the time, its importance is recognized only when history’s binoculars are refocused on that particular stage.

Tuesday, 25 July 1837 was a date that Britain’s Professor Charles Wheatstone was hoping would in time be celebrated in the history books. It was late in the evening when he entered the carriage shed at Euston Station, the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway then under construction. Hammering had ceased in time for the station’s ceremonious opening five days earlier, an occasion already marked for posterity. Yet, despite the current lack of ceremony and the dingy surroundings, Wheatstone believed that this date would be of far greater importance—if all went according to plan.

Small and slight, curly-headed, bespectacled and excruciatingly shy: the mold of the eccentric scientist might have been fashioned with Wheatstone in mind. He had long been fascinated by the workings of the musical instruments and by acoustics, optics and electricity, and his inquisitive mind had led him to experiment with the possibilities of a communication system driven by electricity—a so-called ‘electric telegraph.’

By the flickering light of a tallow candle, Wheatstone could see his recently patented electric telegraph machine squatting on the table in front of him. The model had a simple four-needle display that allowed only twelve letters to be indicated. Its ‘clock face’ was a diamond-shaped grid, with lines heading north-east and north-west from each of the four needle bases that were positioned across a central horizontal axis. When two needles were simultaneously tilted towards each other at a forty-five degree angle from the vertical, they pointed along these lines towards a junction at which a letter was inscribed. To each needle was attached a single wire along which the electric current would pass. The wires trailed from the machine and became part of a thirteen-mile circuit wrapped around a frame sitting in the carriage shed, before heading out the door and disappearing into the shadows.

Wheatstone made a last-minute check—all the wires were securely fastened to needles, all the needles moving freely—like a teacher anxious for his prize student to shine. He then lifted his hands to the machine’s controls and deflected the two needles that would signal the first letter. Obligingly, the machine began transmitting his message.

A mile-and-a-half away in the winding-engine house at Camden Town sat his partner, William Fothergill Cooke, facing an identical instrument. An impecunious ex-military officer, Cooke was desperate to make money—lots of money—and had seen the commercial potential of an electric telegraph machine. Energetic and resourceful, he had the personality necessary to attract business but lacked the scientific know-how to construct a telegraph efficient enough to appeal to customers. He had approached the celebrated Professor Wheatstone for assistance.

Cooke’s passion and practicality galvanized Wheatstone. Although foresighted enough to have taken out patents for some of his inventions, Wheatstone had always prided himself on being a man of science rather than an entrepreneur—until this visionary gilbert encountered his pragmatic Sullivan. The pair imagined wires crisscrossing the countryside, with vast distances conquered in a fraction of a second but, thus far, the electric telegraph had been dismissed as just another ‘newfangled thing.’ Cooke, however, had identified an ideal customer for their instrument: the railways. Not only would the telegraph allow speedy inter-station communication, it could be constructed to run beside the railway tracks—an exquisitely efficient coupling.

The railways were suffering their own teething problems. Railway mania had gripped the nation after the Liverpool and Manchester line opened in 1830, but serious safety issues had yet to be resolved. A speeding train had little warning of trouble ahead. Departures were scheduled using a simple time-interval system. Train drivers had to rely upon vigilance and the occasional railway policeman stationed along the route to run the tracks safely. Even greater vigilance was required when both the up-and-down trains used a single, meandering track. In darkness, storms or fog, the lack of an adequate warning system had proved deadly.

It was a business problem in need of an enterprising solution and Wheatstone and Cooke were keen to display their system. Cooke was not alone when he waited at Camden Town on the evening of 25 July. The Railway’s chief engineers, Robert ‘the Rocket’ Stephenson and Charles Fox, were standing by his side. Stephenson was the son of George Stephenson, also known as the Father of the Railways, while Charles Fox would go on to construct the majestic Crystal Palace. They were accustomed to scrutinizing rough prototypes and seeing the future in all its glory.

All of a sudden, two of the needles on Cooke’s machine clicked and tilted. A message was coming through. Cooke read out the letter and an assistant jotted it down. Again the needles clicked and tilted, and again. When the message was completed, Cooke clicked out a reply which travelled back along the nineteen miles of wires to Euston where Wheatstone was awaiting his response.

Stephenson was delighted. ‘Bravo!’ he cried. ‘Bravo!’ he asked Cooke to send his message of exaltation down the wires—not once but twice. Backwards and forwards the messages zipped until Stephenson asked Cooke to invite his partner to join them at Camden Town.

‘I will do myself the honor,’ Wheatstone messaged back. Later he would write: ‘Never did I feel such a tumultuous sensation before as when all alone in the still room I heard the needles click. As I spelled the words I felt all the magnitude of the invention now proved to be practicable beyond cavil or dispute.’

The world’s first patented electric telegraph machine had just passed its first long-distance test. Not only had Wheatstone and Cooke proved that words could be communicated along a nineteen-mile stretch of wire at astounding speed, they had harnessed as their energy source the power of ‘god’s lightning’, as ‘electricity’ was known in their day. In doing so, they had also proved that electricity could be mobilized at will and had a practical, commercial use. It was an historic moment.

But these four men were ahead of their time. Convincing the remaining London and Birmingham Railway directors would not prove so easy—indeed, the wires would later be abandoned because the directors deemed the system a flight of fancy and too costly to install across the entire network. Convincing the public would prove even harder. Until one fateful day seven-and-a-half years later …

A steam-driven passenger train? An electric telegraph? Spare a moment to reflect upon these wonders of human achievement. With blithe smugness, we tend to dismiss the feats of the past. What’s a track-hugging steam train when spacecraft blast through the universe? What’s a mile-long stretch of telegraph wires when radio waves whisper to a billion computers around the globe and beyond?

Yet it wasn’t so long ago that trains and telegraphs were themselves merely the dreams of glazed-eyed seers and woolly bearded prophets, as unrealistic as discovering the elixir of life. Of course, humans have long employed transportation of one form or another, and communication systems beyond the spoken word: drums that hypnotically enticed men into battle, fire and smoke signals that heralded danger, flashing shields and mirrors, colored flags, simple pieces of inscribed parchment carried by the fleet of foot or by messengers on horseback. For millennia, however, little changed. No new pathways were forged.

The first inkling of progress came in the 1740s when, among others, the French abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet tested a recent invention known as the Leyden jar—a primitive condenser that stored static electricity, the type of electricity generated by scuffing feet along carpet. After positioning two hundred Carthusian monks in a huge circle and threading a mile-long piece of iron-wire between their outstretched hands, he discharged his Leyden jar into one end of the wire. As the monks grunted and jerked, their neat circle disintegrating, he proved that electricity could travel almost instantly along a lengthy wire. In 1753 a writer to the Scots Magazine proposed a communication system powered by such static electricity. Later that century, the French Chappe brothers built an experimental apparatus but found static electricity too volatile: like a deadly snake it was difficult to control and, when released, discharged its fury in one explosive surge. Instead, they introduced the word telegraphe or ‘distant writer’ into the lexicon through their invention of a semaphore—an optical telegraph. In a short while, it was adopted by British and European military forces, however, it too had significant limitations, particularly in darkness and inclement weather.

The problems inherent in the use of static electricity were solved around the turn of the century when Alessandro Volta invented the voltaic cell battery (similar to batteries still used today), which provided steady and controllable low voltage currents of electricity. In the decades that followed, scientists learned more about electricity and then electro-magnetism. Each discovery pushed science along the inexorable path towards the invention of a practical and commercial use for electricity: an ‘electric telegraph.’

With communication still limited by transportation systems, terrain, visibility and the weather, life had continued to amble along as it had for millennia. News traveled slowly; decisions were made leisurely. Patience was not only a virtue but a necessity. Then, in the 1830s, the world began beating to a different, faster drum.

Initially, the quickening was infinitesimally slow, frustratingly slow for those who foresaw social metamorphosis. Yet none could have imagined that the unexpected events of one day would prove pivotal in a paradigm shift, and that these events would kick-start what we now call the Communication Revolution.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison & Pursuit by Carol Baxter, published by Oneworld Publications, 2013.