In the days of traveling by horse and sailing ships, it could take months to get a message to someone.  You’d send a letter, and it may or may not arrive due to bandits and shipwrecks and other perils, and if it did arrive then whatever had been fresh information was now very old news.  People would find out their loved ones died long after the funeral, which must have been terrible — you think your parent or child or spouse is alive, and then you get a letter saying they’ve been in the ground for six months.  Awful.  And doing business over distances made commercial interests hard to manage.

With the advent of the railroads and steamships, news traveled a little faster.  Communication took weeks instead of months.  The speed of life increased faster than ever before, and not just because of transporting goods and people.  The faster we can communicate, the faster change happens.  Decisions can be made.  Troops can be mustered.  Ideas can spread.

And then the telegraph was invented.  It was one of those inventions that was in the air — frequently several people will hit on the same idea at the same time, and it’s a race to see who gets the credit.  Samuel Morse won this one.  It took a little while for humanity to realize how useful telegraphy was, but when they did, it changed the world.

The British Empire would have never been as large as it was without the telegraph.  The sun never set on the Empire because you could send a message to the other side of the world and get an answer back within a day.  Everyone from the military to industry to your average citizen could use telegraph services, if they had the money.  And the world sped up, faster than ever.  It wasn’t just long distances, either.  Successful large businesses would have private telegraphs to talk to offices across the city, the state, the country.  The robber barons would have never existed without the telegraph.  It changed the world in a way nothing else would except the telephone and then our modern Internet.

Two final small random facts for you:

Telegraph operators frequently had a good deal of free time between messages. Like modern-day online romances, some operators would fall in love with each other over long distances just from chatting regularly in Morse code.  The Victorian Internet, indeed.

The cables that spanned oceans were coated in a substance called gutta percha.  It was waterproof and stood up to the deeps of cold seas.  It was used for lots of things before rubber became commonplace. And currently one of its uses is to temporarily fill teeth after root canals.  Tell your dentist this next time you get one, although hopefully my readers will be spared the procedure. I’ve had three of them, and they sucked.  Your dentist is guaranteed to look at you strangely when you tell them about the telegraph cables.  Mine did.

All this came from the book The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage.  It covers the development of telegraphy, the technology created to facilitate it, and the impact it had on culture and politics.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Pick it up if you like obscure histories.

Categories: History


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