Timeline of North American telegraphy

Last updated
January 22, 1848 map in New York Herald showing extent of existing and planned North American telegraph lines. At this time, the service area for the United States reached Petersburg, Virginia in the south, Portland, Maine in the northeast, Cleveland, Ohio in the northwest, and as far west as East St. Louis, Illinois. In Canada, lines reached from Hamilton, Ontario to Quebec City, and linked to the United States via Buffalo, New York. 1848 Jan telegraph map.jpg
January 22, 1848 map in New York Herald showing extent of existing and planned North American telegraph lines. At this time, the service area for the United States reached Petersburg, Virginia in the south, Portland, Maine in the northeast, Cleveland, Ohio in the northwest, and as far west as East St. Louis, Illinois. In Canada, lines reached from Hamilton, Ontario to Quebec City, and linked to the United States via Buffalo, New York.

The timeline of North American telegraphy is a chronology of notable events in the history of the electric telegraphy in the United States and Canada, including the rapid spread of telegraphic communications starting from 1844 and completion of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.



Early events

The Speedwell Ironworks, site of Morse's 1838 telegraph demonstration. Speedwell Ironworks factory building.jpg
The Speedwell Ironworks, site of Morse's 1838 telegraph demonstration.
Samuel Morse in 1845. Samuel Morse 1845.jpg
Samuel Morse in 1845.
  • 3 March 1843: The United States Congress appropriates funds for Samuel Morse to lay a telegraph line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. [3]
  • 21 October 1843: Originally Morse decided to lay his wire underground, and asked Ezra Cornell to lay the line using a special cable-laying plow that Cornell had developed. Wire began to be laid in Baltimore on October 21, 1843, but the project was stopped after 15 km of wire was laid because the line was failing. Morse learned that Cooke and Wheatstone in England were now using poles for their lines, and he decided to follow that lead. [4]
  • 1 April 1844: Work begins in Washington on laying the line to Baltimore using poles. They used chestnut poles of seven meters in height, and 60 meters apart. Two wires were laid, Number 16 copper wire, covered by cotton thread with shellac, and a covering mixture of "beeswax, resin, linseed oil, and asphalt.". [4]
  • 1 May 1844: Test of line conveys news of the Whig Party's nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. President from the party's convention in Baltimore to the Capitol Building in Washington.
  • 24 May 1844: Morse's first message over the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line, "What hath God wrought!" is transmitted, chosen from the Bible for Morse by Annie G. Ellsworth, because she knew Morse was religious. [4]
  • Summer 1844: To generate interest in building a line from New York to Boston, Cornell strings short exhibition line in Boston, from School Street and over Old City Hall to Sudbury Street, which generates public interest, but no investors. Cornell then sets up a similar exhibition in New York. [5]

Spread of telegraphic lines


The first telegraph office Samuel Morse plaque.jpg
The first telegraph office
November 14, 1845 report in New York Herald on telegraph lines coming into operation. 1845-Nov-14 Operation of the Magnetic Telegraph - New York Herald p 2.png
November 14, 1845 report in New York Herald on telegraph lines coming into operation.
  • 1 April 1845: First public telegraph office opens in Washington, D.C., under the control of the Postmaster-General. [4] The public now had to pay for messages, which were no longer free. [5]
  • 15 May 1845: Morse forms the Magnetic Telegraph Company with Amos Kendall, Francis O.J. Smith, Ezra Cornell, and Orrin S. Wood, with a goal to extend the Washington-Baltimore line to New York. [4]
  • 16-18 September 1845: Orrin S. Wood builds a short telegraph line of about one mile from Utica, New York to the city fairgrounds (the site of that year's New York State Fair), for public demonstration. [6] [7]
  • September 1845: Henry O'Reilly commences building line intended to extend from Philadelphia to St. Louis. Work on first segment begins in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, heading east to Philadelphia. [8]
  • October 1845: Samuel Colt partners with William Robinson (a New York book dealer) to form the New York and Offing Electric Telegraph Association. A line is laid from an observation tower built on Coney Island to Manhattan to get news from shipping traffic to the New York Mercantile Exchange more quickly. The first line laid across the East River from Brooklyn by Colt on October 23 or 24 quickly fails. The northern terminus of the line becomes the Fulton Ferry in Brooklyn, with news then ferried across the river. A second line across the East River at Hell Gate was operational by March 1846. [5] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17]
  • 7 November 1845: Wood builds a line from Buffalo, New York to Lockport, New York (about 30 miles) that goes into operation on November 7 - the first line opened for regular commercial business. The first message announced the electoral victory of the Whigs in Niagara County. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [6] [23]
  • November 1845: November 14, 1845 New York Herald notes another short planned line, the "Boston Marine Line", which, similar to the New York Offing Line would be a line from Nantasket outside Boston to inner Boston to transmit news from incoming ships. [24] In a letter to the Herald dated February 23, 1846, Ezra Cornell noted that the Boston line had not yet been put into operation. [25]
  • 24 November 1845: Line from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (about 35 miles) is completed, but not operational until January 8, 1846. [26] [27]
  • November 1845: In the fall of 1845, the Magnetic Telegraph Company commences building a line from Philadelphia to New York. By early November, a 14 mile segment from Philadelphia to Norristown, Pennsylvania had been laid, and opened due to great public interest in the work. [5]
Map shows extent of operational lines by the end of 1846. At the start of the year, there were only four short lines in operation: the original Baltimore-D.C. line, the Buffalo-Lockport line, a short stretch in Philadelphia, and the New York-Coney Island line. By year's end, lines ran from Washington to Boston, west to Pittsburgh, and north from New York City to Albany and west to Buffalo. Rapid expansion was continuing. Extent of North American telegraph lines at end of 1846.jpg
Map shows extent of operational lines by the end of 1846. At the start of the year, there were only four short lines in operation: the original Baltimore-D.C. line, the Buffalo-Lockport line, a short stretch in Philadelphia, and the New York-Coney Island line. By year's end, lines ran from Washington to Boston, west to Pittsburgh, and north from New York City to Albany and west to Buffalo. Rapid expansion was continuing.






Spread to continental and intercontinental service

Depiction of the construction of the first Transcontinental Telegraph, with a Pony Express rider passing below. The Overland Pony Express.jpg
Depiction of the construction of the first Transcontinental Telegraph, with a Pony Express rider passing below.
  • March 1861: The Pony Express reduces it route from Salt Lake City, Utah to Sacramento, California.
  • 4 July 1861: Work to complete the first transcontinental telegraph begins, with James Gamble in charges of the western crew starting in Nevada, and Edward Creighton heading the eastern crew.
  • 20 July 1861: In the west, a California newspaper reports that line has now reached fifty miles east of Fort Churchill (in Nevada). The State Telegraph Company was sending one of their best operators to the eastern end so that news from the Pony Express could be immediately transmitted, and this plan would continue as the line advanced east. The portion of the line to be constructed west from Salt Lake City was starting to haul poles along the route and waiting arrival of wire from the East. In the East, the paper reported that wire should be up to Julesburg (now far northeast Colorado), two hundred miles west of Kearney, Nebraska by August 1. [101]
  • 25 July 1861: In west, transcontinental line reaches Middle Gate Station on the Pony Express line, 75 miles east of Fort Churchill. [102]
  • 5 August 1861: A team laying wire reaches Fort Laramie from the east. [103]
  • 21 August 1861: California newspaper reports that its latest news from the Pony Express came from the Willow telegraph station 50 miles west of Fort Kearney, and then traveled by horse to the Dry Creek station, 168 miles east of Fort Churchill. The total gap between ends of the line was now about 1,159 miles, not counting the unconnected section under construction from Salt Lake. [104]
  • 17 September 1861: In west, telegraph line is operational to Diamond Springs (Nevada) station on Pony Express. Messages from San Francisco can now reach New York in six days. [105]
  • 20 September 1861: Eastern line operational to a point 120 miles west of Fort Kearney. [106]
  • 28 September 1861: California newspaper reports that line from Fort Kearney, Nebraska has reached about 200 miles west to Julesburg. Another eastern work team has reached 300 miles east from Salt Lake City, only about 200 miles west of Julesburg. In the west, the line has been completed to Ruby Valley (now Nevada, then Utah Territory), somewhat over 200 miles to reach Salt Lake. (The distances reported in the article are not exact.) The total gap in telegraphic connection between west and east is now about 550 miles, which the Pony Express can normally cover in less than four days. [107]
  • 2 October 1861: Newspaper report shows eastern line now operating through Sweetwater Station (near Independence Rock in Wyoming). [108]
  • 17 October 1861: A link between line headed east from Salt Lake City is joined to the eastern line at Fort Bridger. Creighton telegraphs his wife "in a few days the two oceans will be united." [109]
  • 18 October 1861: Brigham Young sends first official telegraph message from Salt Lake City to the eastern United States. It is sent to Jeptha Wade, the president of the Pacific Telegraph Company. On the same day, Frank Fuller, acting governor of Utah, sent a message to President Lincoln. [110]
  • 24 October 1861: The first transcontinental telegraph across the United States is completed at Salt Lake City, Utah, causing the Pony Express to close two days later.

End of telegraph era

See also

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