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.


| November 2013



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.

Photo By Fotolia/tamifreed

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.’

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