Telegraphy transformed communication in the nineteenth century, allowing information to travel nearly instantly across the nation and the world. Developing alongside railroad transportation, the telegraph bridged the distance between Philadelphia and cities across the globe.

Photograph of device for sending code.
This telegraph key, made in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1844, is believed to be from the first Baltimore-Washington telegraph line. (Western Union Telegraph Co., Smithsonian Open Access)

The earliest telegraph systems were devised in the 1790s in France and consisted of a line of towers on which an operator could broadcast signals, similar to flag semaphore. The short range and great expense of constructing and operating these optical telegraphs limited their application to major government projects. Many people worked on the development of the electric telegraph, but the cumbersome systems found little support until Samuel Morse (1791-1872) devised a “bi-signal” system of long and short current bursts to represent individual characters, along with a receiver that recorded the transmission automatically on paper tape to allow translation. Morse Code became the de facto cypher used in telegraphic communications. Morse and a partner, Alfred Vail (1807-59), built their first experimental telegraph device at the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey. On February 8, 1838, the pair demonstrated the system to a scientific committee at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

The First Connection

Building flanked by tall poles carrying telegraph wires.
Important for carrying business communications, poles for telegraph wires flank the Merchant’s Exchange Building at Third and Walnut Streets in this photograph taken by James Cremer c. 1870. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Philadelphia’s location between other major cities on the Eastern Seaboard made it a prime location for an early telegraph system. Service began in June 1846, when the Magnetic Telegraph Company connected the city to New York City and later to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Publisher William M. Swain (1809-68) of the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the Baltimore Sun, realizing the utility of the device for transmitting news quickly, raised over a third of the $10,000 capital required for the southern line. This line allowed the Ledger and the Sun to report dispatches from the Mexican-American War. During the American Civil War, Philadelphia newspapers used the telegraph to provide same-day updates on the Battle of Gettysburg. The technology also proved invaluable for emergency services. By 1856, Philadelphia had installed a municipal services telegraph system connecting police and fire stations across the city to create a rapid response network.

Telegraph lines often paralleled new railroad lines, which expanded rapidly during the same period. The two services allowed both people and information to be transported rapidly across the vast expanses of the nation. When the transcontinental railroad connected the West to the existing rail network in the East in 1869, a telegraph line was built along it. A Transatlantic line—the third attempt at connecting Europe and North America—began operation in 1866, allowing news and messages to be transmitted across the western world. Consolidation followed as small regional networks were purchased by large companies like Western Union, which held a near-monopoly in the United States by the turn of the twentieth century.

Arrival of Wireless

Boy standing next to a bicycle.
Telegraph companies employed children as messengers. Harvey Buchanan, age 14, is depicted at work in Wilmington, Delaware, in this 1908 photograph by Lewis Hine. (Library of Congress)

Wireless telegraphy eliminated the need for expensive cables by transmitting messages using radio waves. The first wireless telegraphy company in the nation, the American Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company, transmitted its first message in 1900 between Camden, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. As proof of the technology’s ability to traverse much greater distances, the DeForest Wireless Telegraph Company built a wireless telegraphy station within the headquarters of the Philadelphia-based North American at 121 S. Broad Street. The newspaper almost instantly received and published the March 1905 inaugural address of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Wireless telegraphy became an invaluable tool during World War I by allowing instantaneous communication with troops in the field, the air, and the sea, but its use declined soon after.

The introduction of the telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition heralded the end of telegraphy, as the new technology gradually replaced text-based messaging for many daily uses. During World War II, the military used telegraphs to inform next-of-kin of war deaths. Telegraphy remained in limited use due to the high cost of long-distance telephone calls until the internet and satellite communications rendered the format obsolete in the late 1990s. Although amateur radio operators kept wireless telegraphy alive into the twenty-first century, the communication medium otherwise came to an end in 2006, when Western Union carried the last telegram in the United States.

Lucy Davis is an independent public history consultant in South Jersey. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2024, Rutgers University.


The Key to Telegraphy

Smithsonian Open Access

Sending messages by electric wire became practical with the invention of telegraph instruments like this key, made at the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey, in 1844. The machinist who made this telegraph key, Alfred Vail, became regarded as the co-inventor of the telegraph after he formed a partnership with Samuel Morse in 1837. Together, they demonstrated the system in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute in 1838. This key is believed to have been used on the first Baltimore-Washington telegraph line. (Western Union Telegraph Co.)

Wired for Business

Library Company of Philadelphia

With the advent of telegraphy, poles carrying telegraph wires became a commonplace sight across the country. In this photograph taken around 1870 by James Cremer, telegraph poles conspicuously flank the Merchant’s Exchange Building at Third and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. The Merchant’s Exchange, designed by architect William Strickland in 1831, served as an important center of Philadelphia commerce during the nineteenth century. The building later became the headquarters for Independence National Historical Park.

News from Philadelphia

National Archives at Philadelphia

In 1899, the acting commissioner of immigration in Philadelphia, J. S. Hughes, wrote this text for a telegram to be delivered to Milwaukee by Western Union. The commissioner wired the message to alert Josef Nowak of a new arrival from Europe, saying: “Teresia Bielska and her child are detained here. Claims you are father of child and going to marry her. It will be necessary for you to come to Philadelphia and marry her otherwise she will be returned to Europe.”

Delivering the Message

Library of Congress

Between 1908 and 1924, photographer Lewis Hine documented the conditions of child labor for the National Child Labor Committee, a reform group. In 1910, his subjects included this messenger at work in Wilmington, Delaware, for the Postal Telegraph Co. An investigator’s notes accompanying the photograph recorded that Harvey Buchanan, age 14, “Works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. $4 weekly. Visits houses of prostitution. Smokes.”

Related Topics

Time Periods



Related Reading

Blondheim, Menahem. News Over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in  America, 1844-1897. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s Online Pioneers. New York: Walker and Co. Publishing, 1998.

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