A steamship now could cut the Atlantic crossing time by one-half. In steam-powered factories, vast quantities of goods were produced in a small fraction of the time it once took to fabricate them by hand. Beginning in the middle forties as a railroading device, the electric telegraph sent messages across hundred of miles in a few seconds. Newspapers [such as London's Daily Telegraph, founded by Colonel Arthur B. Sleigh in June 1855], with their up-to-the-minute coverage of events made possible by the telegraph and, later, the submarine cable, and by steam presses turning out tens of thousands of copies within a single hour, contributed still more to the feeling of immediacy. [Altick 97]

Thus, although it was hardly the Victorian equivalent of the twenty-first century internet — despite Tom Standage's compelling argument that the telegraph, the first true communications technology, provided instant messaging for the masses all around the globe — the telegraph certainly contributed to "The silent social revolution" of the nineteenth century by creating a new sense of time and space. As the fastest mail-coach's record-setting time at twelve miles per hour on the London-to-Glasgow route was eclipsed at mid-century by the Flying Scotsman's forty miles per hour, so the electric telegraph, through hundreds of thousands of miles of cable traversing continents and oceans, created the world's first instant messaging system.

As the title of J. P. Kinsella's The Moccasin Telegraph (1994) suggests, not all telegraph is electric. Although French researcher Claude Chappe (1763-1805) had experimented with communicating over distance via a system of sounds, he eventually settled on visual communication between towers, utilizing line of sight, a telescope, and

a pivoting wooden panel, five feet tall, painted black on one side and white on the other. By flipping it from one colour to the other as the second hand passed over a particular number, Chappe could translate that number. [Standage 9]

The Chappe brothers, Claude and René (1769-1854), believed that they had created a viable system for rapidly transmitting data of commercial and military value over hundreds of miles through a system of towers. On 2 March 1791, they used this system to send the message "If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory" from their home in Brūlon, in northern France, to a house some fourteen kilometres (ten miles) away, in Parcé. They had decided to call their invention the "tachygraphe" or "speed writer," but their friend Miot de Mélito, a classical scholar, proposed the "far writer" ("telegraph") instead. By 12 July 1793, they had constructed the necessary system of towers and at 4:26 P. M. sent a message through three towers over eleven minutes between Belleville, Ecouen, and Saint-Martin-du-Tertre, a distance of roughly twenty miles. The system now proven, the French government agreed to finance the construction of "a 15-station line from Paris to Lille, about 130 miles to the north" (Standage 14); having begun operation in May 1794, the system proved its worth to the National Convention when on 15 August that year it reported "the recapture of a town from the Austrians and Prussians within an hour of the battle's end" (14). In spite of the costs involved, the French government initiated a second line in 1798 from Paris to Strasbourg. The next year, having seized power, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered another line built from Paris to Boulogne as part of his scheme to invade England, and in 1804 a line from Paris to Milan.

Left to right: Two views of Watson's Telegraphic Device from the Illustrated London News: (a) Outside the tower. (b) Inside the tower — an early Victorian telegraph office. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Not be beaten by the French in this new technology, the British Admiralty ordered a similar line of towers constructed between London and the Channel ports with a telegraph board of six wooden shutters capable of 64 combinations, a system designed by the Rev. George Murray. Now the challenge was to make the system cheaper to construct and run, and to accelerate the transmission of messages. Among the hundreds of suggestions received by the Admiralty were sixty. One suggestion among the hundreds of suggestions received by the Admiralty were sixty for various designs of electrical telegraphs. One such design, realised as a working model, was proposed by a young English inventor, Francis Ronalds, which, like Chappe's, utilised synchronised clocks. At last here was a telegraph that would work in the dark and in cloudy English weather. The stage was set for the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph by the independent experimentation of British mathematician Peter Barlow in 1824, American painter Samuel F. B. Morse in 1832, William Fothergill Cooke in 1836, and Professor Charles Wheatstone in 1837. In 1838, Morse demonstrated a model of his apparatus to American officials in Washington, DC, but failed to impress with his system of dots and dashes, and so travelled to England to secure British patents. Only then did he become aware of the pioneering work of Cooke and Wheatstone. Morse discovered that European governments were no more interested in his invention and code system than his own.

Left to right: (a) Shipping the Mediterranean Electric Telegraphic Cable, at Mordern Wharf, East Greenwich. (b) The Atlantic-Telegraph Paying-out Machine [on shipboard]. (c) The Ship that laid the Transatlantic Cable — all from the Illustrated London News [Please click on the thumbnails for larger pictures].

Cooke and Wheatstone, having discovered that Ronalds' device had been similarly rejected by the Admiralty a few years earlier, were inspired to approach one of the leading firms in the new transportation technology, the London & Birmingham Railway. In 1837, the same year that marks the opening of the Victorian era, the pair linked Euston and Camden Town railway stations — admittedly a distance of just a mile and a quarter &mdash but the railway directors were, like the Admiralty, not sufficiently impressed to adopt the scheme. Turning to the Great Western Railway Company, Cooke constructed a 13-mile telegraphic connection between Paddington and West Drayton Stations. With the viability of their five-needle device admirably established here and on the Docklands Railway in London, the rivalry between Cooke and Wheatstone broke out afresh, but impartial arbitration failed to resolve their dispute over who had actually invented the electromagnetic telegraph.

Meanwhile in the United States, Morse had conducted a successful demonstration of his apparatus for Congress and, by a narrow vote (89 to 93) had received a federal grant of $30,000 to establish a line of forty miles between the nation's capital and its principal port, Baltimore, Maryland, utilizing the right of way of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. On 24 May 1844 Morse inaugurated the telegraph age by successfully sending the message "What hath God wrought" from the chamber of the Supreme Court to his agent Alfred Vail in Baltimore. Simultaneously in England Cooke had a commercial model operating on the Slough- Paddington railway line, the value of which was sensationally demonstrated when the system transmitted news of the birth of Prince Alfred Ernest, Queen Victoria's second son, at Windsor on 6 August 1844. Within just 40 minutes, the Times had the news on the streets of London. For the subsequent banquet at Windsor, the Duke of Wellington, the British Prime Minister, forgot his formal attire, but had it in time for the banquet thanks to a telegraph message asking for it to be sent on the following train.

However, like a plot out of a Wilkie Collins Sensation Novel, the metropolitan police's apprehension of murderer John Tawell at Paddington on 3 January 1845 as the result of the telegraphic transmission of his description from Sligh caught not merely the popular imagination (which styled the wires of the Slough-Paddington line as "the cords that hung John Tawell") but also the attention of financier and Member of Parliament John Lewis Ricardo. On the strength of Tawell's arrest, Ricardo bought a share of Cooke and Wheatstone's parent rights, and with them in September 1845 established the Electrical Telegraph Company, which subsequently bought out the inventors' rights entirely. Within three years more than half of the railway lines in Great Britain had accompanying telegraph lines; within five years more than 2,215 miles of line had been strung. But the end of the domination in the the new field of technology by the Electric Telegraph was signalled by the Great Exhibition's displaying no fewer than thirteen telegraphic devices in 1851. Soon other countries acquired vast systems of telegraph wire: Prussia, 1,493 miles of wire; Austria, 1.053 miles; Canada, 983 miles; and France, 750 miles. The stage was now set to connect these national systems into one great, international network, both through treaties, commercial agreements, and submarine cables.

Related Material


Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas. London and New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.

Laurenzo, Frederick E. "Telegraph and Telephone." Victorian Britain, An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland, 1988. 788.

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's Online Pioneers. London: Phoenix, 1998.

Last modified 10 May 2011