Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Telegraph: The World Wide Web of the Wild West?

By Christopher Robinson, WMD Senior Editor

More than any other technological advancement, the electric telegraph dramatically altered the course of history in the American West of the 19th Century. The instant messaging of its day, it was the means by which printed information was transmitted for over 100 years.

Prior to 1861, telegraphy existed in primitive versions that relied on visual relays such as flags and smoke signals. These early methods led to a widely used optical system developed in France at the end of the 18th Century.

Around this time, electrical power was generally achieved using static electricity with low currents and high voltages. Reliable long distance transmission required the employment of new developments in electromagnetism.

Through discoveries by figures such as British engineer William Sturgeon, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, British physicist Michael Faraday and American physicist Joseph Henry, electrical currents began to be successfully transmitted with batteries and magnetic needles across wires which were then received by an electromagnet at its end.

In 1837, inventor Samuel Morse developed an electric recording telegraph which we now call the Morse Telegraph. Even more integral was Morse’s code which enabled messages to efficiently transmit across long distances. With Morse Code, the alphabet’s letters were represented by a series of dashes and dots.

The characters representing the alphabet’s letters were designated by dents on a tape of paper. When the current reached the receiver, the electromagnet forced the dents onto the paper with a stylus. A break in the current would retract the stylus which would create a space on the paper. The trained operators would know the code and properly interpret the indentations.

The paper tape eventually became obsolete when operators could translate the code by the sound of the clicks. The introduction of the teletypewriter was also beneficial to the speed and efficiency of sending and encoding messages.

Alternatively, the heliograph was a system which used Morse Code while reflecting the sun’s light with mirrors in the absence of electrical telegraph lines. This system was utilized extensively during the Apache wars and was still in use as late as the Second World War.

In 1837, English inventors William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the first commercial telegraph which was soon employed for the London and Birmingham Railway.

Transcontinental telegraph lines (eventually, wires), were established in the United States for the expediency of their railroad lines. Prior to that point, one couldn’t be precisely sure when a train could expect to arrive at its destination.

The U.S. Army was particularly instrumental in digging, distributing and erecting 75-pound wooden poles and stringing telegraph wire across the land, often working in opposite directions before meeting their fellow troops at its completion. The commands would similarly affix insulators and lightning rods at every fifth pole.

Westward expansion was thereby increased as train travel became increasingly manageable. Instantaneous information greatly improved the country’s economic matters and revolutionized world finance as well as the newspaper industry. One casualty of the telegraph’s proliferation would, incidentally, be the Pony Express.

In 1861 the Western Union Telegraph Company officially connected the eastern and western coasts as they completed the line in Salt Lake City, Utah. This coincided with the Civil War which depleted men from the telegraph’s work force leading to a mass hiring of women in its continuing development.

Even Britain would thereafter be connected to the states by way of an underwater wire by 1866. Austrian physicist Julius Wilhelm Gintl developed the ‘duplex transmission system’ in Germany whereby two separate messages could be sent with single lines.

By 1871, French engineer Jean-Maurice Émile Baudot improved on the concept again with multiplexing which allowed for multiple senders and receivers.

All the while, Alexander Graham Bell had been developing the telephone and patented his invention by 1876. It was soon believed, however, that the two technologies could advantageously coexist. Often the same lines would be used for simultaneous transmission of both systems. By the late 19th Century, the Western Electric Company had been bought out by American Bell Telephone.

Telegraphy featured prominently in the plots of many western literary works and films. In the 1933 John Wayne film, The Telegraph Trail from Warner Brothers, Wayne comes to the aid of a telegraph company when a band of Indians is coaxed by a ruthless land grabber into attacking them. According to IMDb, Western Union loaned genuine period telegraph equipment to the film’s production.

Tim Holt gets involved with the telegraph lines in 1951’s Overland Telegraph as he investigates the destruction of a telegraph operation by masked bandits.

In Conclusion 
Unlike some aspects of the West’s numerous myths and clichés, the telegraph’s impact on the frontier and the world, in general, was far more considerable in reality than in our Hollywood-generated imaginations. Its technical resourcefulness and sheer practicality interferes with the more romantic aspects of the western legend. As a telegraph operator of old might have exclaimed, When the legend becomes fact, wire the legend.” 

About the Author

Western Magazine Digest Senior Editor Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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