Kieve, Jeffrey. The Electric Telegraph: A Social and Economic History. David & Charles, 1973.
…and Professor Charles Wheatstone, but the stimulus necessary for its development was not provided until the expan- sion of the railway network in Britain and the United States in the 183os; the electric telegraph and the railways were to ex- pand together.
In April 1746 Abbe Nollet transmitted the shock of a jar through a number of Carthusian monks joined together by iron wires in a circle 5,400ft in circum- ference. The contortions of the monks, when the circuit was closed, were accepted as sufficient evidence of the shock having been felt throughout the whole circuit. That these contortions took place simultaneously showed that the time occupied by electricity in traversing the circuit was too small to be per- ceptible.1 Appreciating that electricity would travel almost in- stantaneously along a wire from one point to another, no matter how widely separated, several men attempted to use it for the transmission of information.
Some of these early systems used an alphabetical basis in- dicating every letter by a separate movement or light at the receiver.
In 1816 Francis Ronalds, twenty- eight years old and intrigued by electricity, built what was prob- ably the first electric telegraph capable of practical use. In his garden at Upper Mall, Hammersmith, he erected two wooden structures facing each other zoyd apart. With an elaborate arrangement of bars, hooks and silken cords he succeeded in stringing, in one continuous length, 8 miles of insulated iron wire backwards and forwards between the frames. He then suc- ceeded in showing that, at least in dry weather, the transmission of electric signals was instantaneous.
' In 1823 he wrote Descriptions of an Electric Telegraph and other electrical apparatus, the first work on electric telegraphs ever published.
By the 183os two types of electromagnetic telegraphs had made their appearance—the needle system and the armature system.
Charles Wheatstone was born in Gloucester in 18oz, the son of a musician."
In 1823 he discovered that sound can be transmitted through solid wire and rods and so produced in distant places.
He had also devised, before he met Cooke, an instrument with a magnetic dial and letters upon it, later described as a 'permeating keyboard'; the indication of the characters was by convergence of the needle. This instrument, in which a few wires could be converted into a great number of circuits, was to become the first practical commercial telegraph in Britain and probably in the world, but its development was at first confined to the lecture room.
He intended to lay a brief statement of this before the government, envisaging a 'complete electro-galvanic civic, milito- police system'.
Five-needle instruments were installed at the two terminal stations, and at Hanwell for use in emergency.9 Apparently the apparatus worked effectively in notifying the passing of trains and in sending messages." Cooke wrote: 'The telegraph on the Great Western Railway has given great confidence and satisfaction.'11 It was the first working telegraph in daily use over a fairly long dis- tance and its success brought in applications from foreign countries to put up telegraph systems…
child who could read would be enabled to do so.' The two-needle instruments, with their more elaborate codes, now required a more specialist skill.
Cooke was at Gosport when the line was opened and the Queen's Speech received. Two printers at his elbow set the type of alternate sen- tences, and Cooke, armed with copies of the speech, returned by the next train to London. The old semaphore system was, at last, nearly superseded.
In August 1844 came the first application of the telegraph to police work, on the GWR.
Its suitability was effectively shown on 3 January 1845 when John Tawell, dressed as a Quaker in a great brown coat reaching nearly down to his feet, was arrested at a lodging house in London after murdering his mistress at Slough.
The Tawell arrest publicised the telegraph and alerted public opinion to the new device, 'the cords that hung John Tawell'.
He asserted in his petition that he had invented both an electric clock and an electric printing telegraph, and had communicated his inventions confidentially to Wheatstone.
By 1846 the pioneering phase in the new industry was ended, and the foundations laid for a telegraph network. The telegraph had proved its worth for police purposes; it was essential for all remote-powered railway systems and atmospherics, and it had increased efficiency on the Paddington—Slough run, the only part of the system where non-railway messages could be sent by the general public; on single-line systems and through tunnels it was indispensable. The block system had been successfully introduced…
On the continent, almost from the beginning, the telegraph system was run as a state monopoly. It was considered of military and political importance, and no important lines were constructed by private enterprise.2 In France the first electric telegraph li…
Contracts with railway companies for the construction and maintenance of railway telegraphs were the chief sources of revenue.
Provincial newspapers were being increasingly supplied with parliamentary and general news, and contracts with the press and stock exchanges were becoming significant sources of revenue.
The possibilities of the new device in times of national emer- gency had been obviously appreciated from the outset.
The year 1851 was a significant one. Thirteen telegraph instru- ments were displayed at the Great Exhibition and, moreover, for the railways the heavy additional traffic resulting from the exhibi- tion provided a severe test of the value of the telegraph.
By this date, telegraphs were in common use at docks.
They arranged their posts on house tops, stretch- ing their wire high up across the street. A similar system existed in Paris, Brussels and New York, for local purposes.24 Clearly the
Nearly 4,000 calls were made to get the consent of some 1,900 persons, and this for 16o miles of wire. The remaining 1 zo miles required 3,000 more visits. Landlords of all house property, as well as tenants, had to be consulted, doubling the work of the company's representatives…
By 186o the District had opened 5z stations of its intended 100, providing 335 miles of line. In i86o--1 messages transmitted in- creased by 93 per cent from 74,583 to 144,oz z, and there were 77 stations opened. By i86z zy o,000 messages were transmitted, even though the company raised its tariff to 6d for 15 words in 1861.
The intention of the UKTC was to introduce a system of electrical communication based on the principle of the penny post to convey messages at an overall uniform rate of is per message of zo words, irrespective of distance, over major trunk lines. Initially it pro- posed to place London in direct circuit with Birmingham, Man- chester and Liverpool.
The urrc used a type-printing telegraph devised by Professor David Hughes of Kentucky. This was the first significant instru- ment in which the message was directly printed in ordinary type,
just as -if it had been typewritten.
Each letter was registered by a single current of short duration which brought a strip of paper, carried underneath the type-wheel, in contact with a key wheel; at the edge of this were placed the letters of the alphabet, so that the required letter was printed upon the strip as the type-wheel was made to revolve. The messages were sent by depressing a series of piano-like keys marked with the different letters and numerals. When a key was depressed it raised a pin which caught the key wheel, which in turn rotated the type-wheel, and sent a current to the distant station, causing the paper at both stations to be pressed up against the type-wheel at the same moment. Thus the instrument was mainly mechanical, the electrical action being confined to the sending of a short, single current when the type-wheel was in position. The Electric also tried the Hughes Type Printer in 1858 but did not use it. It was later widely used on the continent by the French, Italian, Austrian and Prussian governments, and also by journalists transmitting foreign news.
In 1866 the Atlantic cable was successfully laid after earlier abortive attempts.
British India was connected to England by February 1865. There was no tele- graph station in the world with which it was not possible to communicate through the lines and cables of the two major companies, a considerable achievement by private enterprise in little more than twenty years.
There was initially only limited exten- sion of the needle telegraph as a means of private communication, because instruments required great skill and proficiency on the part of the operator, both in manipulation and translation-`the language was as difficult to acquire as shorthand'. This difficulty was overcome by a series of inventions by Wheatstone, culminat- ing in his patent of June 1858 for 'Improvements in Electro…
Magnetic Telegraphs and Apparatus', which became known as Wheatstone's universal or ABC telegraph. The instrument was so simple that anyone who could read could work it. All that was required was to press a knob opposite the letter required to form the word.
For an annual charge of approximately £200 the Glasgow Herald, the Manchester Guardian and the Belfast Newsletter could buy a news ration averaging 6,000 words a day when Parliament was in session and 4,000 words daily at other times of the year.
The impact of the telegraph on the provincial press was sub- stantial, since it was now better able to compete with the London newspapers. Within newspaper offices editors now had to make up their minds quickly and be ready to rethink in the course of a single night, as news no longer came all at one time, when the coach or train arrived, but continuously.
By 1868 the public telegraph network of the UK consisted of over 91,000 miles of wire and 21,751 miles of line, operated by railway and telegraph companies. There were 3,381 stations open to the public, transmitting annually over 6 million inland mes- sages.
The major capital outlay was the erection of the telegraph lines which were generally supported on wooden poles fixed in the ground; usually native larch, or pine imported from Sweden or Norway, was used. The poles were originally coated with tar to prevent the absorption of moisture and lasted approximately seven years; the application of creosote or sulphate of copper lengthened life.
In the early days double-needle instru- ments were used on the principal circuits of the Electric. On every needle instrument, set in a mahogany case, was a dial on which was: inscribed the names of the six or eight stations the instrument usually communicated. with. When the superintendent brought a message to be transmitted, the attendant, usually an 'intelligent looking' boy of about fifteen, would sound a bell by means of an electric current, which would simultaneously alarm all stations on the line. Although the attention of all operators on the line was alerted, the bell would then subside in all stations except that to which the boy caused his index needle to point—a signal by which the clerk at that station knew the message was intended solely for him. He, by a corresponding signal, indicated that he was ready to
receive it. With both hands on the brass handles fixed to the dial, the message-sender would rapidly spell off the information by twists of his wrists, each of which imparted to the needle of his dials as well as the dials of the distant station, a convulsive move- ment designating a particular letter of the telegraphic alphabet.
1 ' Basically the earliest needle instruments were ill-adapted for working long distances, and their use became confined to train signalling over short sections of line.
By the early 185 os the Bain 'pointer', a chemically printing telegraph, was in use. Chemically prepared paper in a long narrow strip was unwound from a roller, driven by clockwork and a weight. A needle or pen, generally a piece of thin steel wire, was so adjusted as to press on the paper in a slanting direction. As currents of electricity were sent from a distant station by depress- ing a key or lever in connection with the battery, blue marks of long or short duration were produced on the strip of paper. There was no mechanical action as in the needle instrument, or indeed in later forms of printing and acoustic telegraphs. By the mid-185 os
the Morse recorder was in use, with its system of dots and dashes —the first international alphabet. The original form of Morse instrument embossed the marks or signs on a strip of paper by means of a pointer or stylus. Later forms had ink writing, which was superior to the needle telegraph in that it gave a permanent record.
Between 1863 and 1868 the Electric experimented with the taselli facsimile telegraph', which proved slow and difficult to operate, and two other type-printing instruments.
From 1867 it experimented with the Wheatstone automatic apparatus, which was successfully tested between London and Manchester, New- castle, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The great advantage of the automatic was its greatly increased speed. It transmitted at izo words or boo letters a minute compared with the 3o-4o words per minute of other instruments, and had great potential on very busy lines. It consisted basically of three dis- tinct parts: a perforator, which prepared the message by punching holes in a paper ribbon, a transmitter, which sent the message by automatic machinery controlled by the holes in the paper pressing through it, and a receiver, which was basically a delicate Morse ink-writer, to record the message.
The Electric introduced the 'pneumatic despatch' in 1854, between its central office and the Stock Exchange; messages were transmitted through pipes under the street by means of atmos- pheric pressure.
Maintenance of the system was a major item involving expendi- ture upon materials and additional staff, particularly engineers and linesmen. Unless the lines were kept in good order traffic would fall off at once. Renewals were necessary within quite short periods in towns, where there was relatively rapid deterioration. Wires needed to be renewed within 4 to 5 years; posts were con- sidered likely to last 7-12 years, before clear symptoms of decay occurred.
The telegraph industry was a new area of female employment. The Electric employed women from 185 5 and by 1868 there were zoo employed at the central office of the company in Telegraph Street, Moorgate. They were often the daughters of clergymen, tradesmen and government clerks, and were mostly between 18 and 3o years old and unmarried. Under the careful supervision of a 'matron', Mrs Craig, they were employed to transmit and receive messages, and earned between los (sop), and 3os (Li .5o) weekly.
All the companies employed women; they were 'admirable mani- pulators of instruments', had less inducement to change jobs, and not being organised in any combination for higher wages, could be paid less than men. The work was light although the hours were long, generally a nine or ten-hour day, six days a week.
…3os weekly, earned by an experienced telegraphist in a large town, working Morse at 27 words a minute, was very attractive, when a needlewoman work- ing at home earned no more than 3d (Ip) per day and the top wage for a male was 35s (Li.75)—for a 63-hour week by a print com- positor.
The life of a cable was probably no more than fifteen years; no cable to 1868 had lasted so long and most had failed well before.
The uneven profitability and high-risk factor were reflected in the investment rating of the telegraph companies. Even when the Electric was an established company, paying a well covered dividend, the investment rating was comparatively low.
The feasibility of submarine telegraphy had been suggested by Salva in a paper at the Barcelona Academy of Sciences in 1793.1 However, before it could be achieved it was essential to overcome the difficult problem of providing, adequate insulation for the conducting wire.
At one time rubber was thought to be suitable but it was found to break down when submerged for any length of time in sea water and in consequence little progress was made. Then the introduction of gutta percha, the coagulated latex of certain trees from the Malay Peninsula, enabled work to proceed with greater promise.
…in 1846 they registered the General Oceanic & Subterranean Electric Printing Telegraph Company 'to establish a telegraphic communication from the British Isles across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia and Canada. . .'. The company would adapt Professor Royal House's printing telegraph, later widely used in America, for cable telegraphy…
The feasibility of uniting the two vast systems of Europe and North America began to excite entrepreneurs and scientists. It had been proved that cables could be laid in comparatively deep water but between Ireland and Newfoundland were nearly z,000 miles of ocean up to 3 miles deep. In addition to these difficulties it was still not known whether electric currents could be conveyed through so long an unbroken circuit, and at such a speed that messages could be passed quickly enough in succession to be remunerative.
The idea was to `tap' steamers from London at St John's and pass messages from there to Cape Breton, on the other side of the gulf, by carrier pigeons.
In 1857 Lionel Gisborne, having obtained powers from the Turkish Government to carry a telegraph line across Egypt and to lay a cable in the Red Sea, promoted the Red Sea & India Telegraph Company, to establish communications between England and her East Indian possessions.
The TCM carried out major work for the British Indian Extension & China Submarine Telegraph Company, linking Tonking, Hong Kong, Singapore and Madras, and in 1872 a cable was laid from Madras to Australia, for the British-Australian Telegraph Company, via the Straits Settlement:
By 188o the production of gutta percha was virtually mono- polised by the India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Works Company, part of TCM, whose principal works were at Silvertown,; covering an area of about I5 acres and employing z,800 people.
The late forties were relatively prolific of legislation of a regu- latory character, especially towards public utilities. Gasworks, waterworks and railway companies all had imposed upon them maximum dividends of Io per cent.
In 1863 the Telegraph Act14 was passed, applying to all future as well as existing telegraphic companies. It regulated powers under special Acts, and specified generally the works which a telegraph company might execute subject to the restrictions of the Act.
In considering the acquisition of the telegraphs by the Post Office two broad questions arise. First, was the transfer desirable from the point of view of public policy and of overall benefit to the community? Secondly, were the terms appropriate or were they too generous, becoming ultimately both a burden to the department and the public purse?
The average annual wage in the seven largest cities of the country in 1868 was approximately Ls3 los for male staff, including supervisors, and £38 los for women. The companies highest rates were in London —£91 per annum for men, £46 16s for women. This compared to the average manual wage in 187o of £43 4s for men."
Some early telegraph instruments. Baron Schilling's Needle Telegraph, 18z5, the prototype of the needle telegraph; Cooke's 3- needle telegraph, 1836; Cooke and Wheatstone's 5-needle telegraph, 1837 and double-needle telegraph in final form circa 1842; Henley's z-needle Magnetic Telegraph, 1848; (above right) Soemmering's water telegraph, 1809; Francis Ronalds' Pithball and Dial Telegraph, 1816. In 1870, Ronalds received a belated knighthood in recognition of his services to telegraphy (below) St Martins-le-Grand, London, in 1819 and in 1937 with the Central Telegraph Office, destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1940
The result of the low tariff was a large expansion of press work. Whereas the companies transmitted a daily.average of 6,000 words during the parliamentary session, by 1871 the Post Office sent zo,000 words.5 A very large proportion of the news of every leading provincial newspaper was received by telegraph.
The Wheatstone automatic and the Morse sounder remained to the end of the century the most common instruments in the system. The sounder was acoustic rather than visual. It was based on an electromagnet formed of an upright rod of soft iron, sur- rounded by a coil of silk-covered wire with an outer covering, usually of gutta percha, to protect it. The ends of the coil were connected through a pair of terminals on the wooden base, to the line wire and earth respectively. The armature of the electro- magnet consisted of a bar of soft iron, which moved on a hori- zontal axis between two stops. The sounds were made by the armature striking against the stops. The letters of the alphabet
were denoted by various combinations of long and short signals, respectively known as dots and dashes. The dots, were formed by giving a short stroke to the key, the dashes by depressing it more slowly. One dash equalled three dots. Considerable experience was necessary before an operator was able to transmit or read off signals satisfactorily.
In 187o a speed of 6o-8o words a minute was the highest obtain- able; by the end of the century Goo words per minute was standard. Increasing use was made of pneumatic tubes, as auxiliary to the telegraph. Useful to carry large numbers of messages over short distances, systems were built in London and other large cities, and one connected the House of Commons to the Central Telegraph Office. By 188o there were over z1 miles of tube in London compared with only z# in 1870.
The period when the telegraph was in widespread use was brief. It declined rapidly when the telephone became available, especially after 1911, and even when increased facilities and lower charges resulted in vast increase in use between 187o and 1914, it was still very much the ancillary of the penny post. Even in business the telegraph was probably not used habitually by the smaller trades- man. The variations in gross telegraph revenue were an index of the state of trade. In the USA and certain continental countries, for example Germany, the telegraph maintained its importance. Possibly there the post was neither so efficient nor so cheap as the British penny post, while distances were greater.
Yet, as with other improvements in communications, the tele- graph made its contribution to Britain's economic growth in the nineteenth century. Local trade was increasingly affected by re- gional, national and international factors. The increased scale of operations, ;which the telegraph made possible, was a significant factor in the development of big business and the rise of large financial organisations. The telegraph broke down the isolation of the country as did the canal and the railway. It unified the com- mercial community and stimulated changes in the methods and organisation of distributive businesses both wholesale and retail.
Paper manufacture and printing were among the more rapidly expanding industries
after 185o, stimulated both directly and indirectly by the telegraph industry.
At the battle of Tofrek in 1885, in the Sudan, the electric telegraph was first used in the front line."
It was Sir William Preece, far-sighted engineer-in-chief of the Post Office and Fellow of the Royal Society, who in 1884 dis- covered that wireless messages could be sent by induction. He found telegraph wires 8oft above the Grays Inn Road carrying messages which should not have been there; they were coming from underground circuits. Preece argued that what could travel 8oft by accident, might travel further by design.
In 1910 Captain Kendall of the liner Montrose noticed that one of his passengers resembled Dr Henry Crippen, a warrant for whose arrest had been issued on 16 July. The result of the ship's wireless transmission, telling Scotland Yard and the world that Crippen was on board, was the arrest of the murderer. Thus it was not the wonder of technical achievement but a brutal murder in a London basement which brought the power of wireless to the public imagination.
The use of the telegraph fundamentally changed methods of fire-fighting.
The police also made use of the telegraph, Scotland Yard having a private line running from Charing Cross Station by 185o.
In retrospect, the process was inexorable, since both business and private user turned progressively to the telephone, as the most speedy means of communication for much of what had been traditional telegraph business.
In 1915 E. E. Kleinschmidt and Markum in the USA developed the tele- printer; in 1921 a similar machine was evolved by Messrs Creed & Co in the UK, and tried by the Post Office the following year. Its advantages over Morse were largely in simplicity of operation. The transmitting operator merely typed on an ordinary typewriter and the receiving operator had only to gum the typed slip, or detach the typed message, from a continuous roll of paper.
These type- writer-keyboards perforated the signals on to paper tape, which passed through an automatic transmitter. The receivers generally printed the telegrams on tape which was pasted on forms.
The greatest days of the telegraph however were between 185o and 1914; in that relatively short space of time it encompassed the world, preceded by British capital, labour and enterprise. Lines of cable reached out from the world's great commercial and diplo- matic centres. It fostered the growth of nationalism within countries as well as closer international relations and better understanding between them. The peculiarity of the telegraph was 'its great cosmopolitan character uniting all nations by one language'.