Before the telegraph was invented, messages could travel as fast as the fastest mode of transport available. Today, however, advanced communication technologies have changed the scenario to a great extent. Messages now travel at the speed of light through cables and optical fibers, and are delivered in the least time possible. Mobile phones have made communication an on-the-go process. Messages, emails, news, videos, status updates, tweets are all just a click away.

For quite a few days now I have been wondering how different life would have been before the invention of the mobile phone, the Internet, the telephone, or even further back in time – before the telegraph.

Many inventors and scientists have worked tirelessly for years to develop systems that would make long-distance communications easier and quicker. We all have, in some time or the other in our lives, heard or read stories of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and many more. The study of the history of telecommunications is, however, incomplete without due consideration to the perspectives of people other than those working in those fields.

Soon after its invention, the electric telegraph had become a subject of awe, since the public had never seen or heard of a faster way to send messages from one city to another. In 1846, the fact that a message could be sent from Buffalo to Baltimore and replied to Buffalo within two hours was a matter worth being published in science magazines.

Page 18 of the October 10, 1846 edition of the Scientific American, published in New York, carried a news snippet titled ‘Quick Work’.

The Baltimore Sun says – ‘A communication was made from Buffalo to Baltimore last week, and an answer was received at the telegraph office in the former city in about two hours!’

Another article, titled ‘News by Telegraph’, in the same edition of the Scientific American praises the fact that a piece of news by the ‘Great Western’ on a certain day was published within four hours in several other American cities.

The news by the Great Western which arrived on Wednesday week, was published within four hours in Boston, New Haven, Springfield, Albany, Utica, Rochester,Buffalo, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The following beautiful extract we find in a recent number of the New York Sun. It is from the pen of Mr. C. D. Stuart, the able correspondent of that paper, now in London.[1]

Another issue with new technologies is that they, mainly, take some time getting used to and being widely accepted and understood by the general public. The electric telegraph was no different. In 1870, a Prussian woman went to a telegraph office with a dish of sour cabbage (a kind of pickle) to have it telegraphed to her son who was a soldier fighting for Prussia against France. The operator tried his best to convince her that the telegraph could not send objects. The woman was, however, adamant, insisting that if soldiers could be called to war in France by telegraph, her dish could be sent too.[2]

The field of telecommunications has seen the most drastic development within the last hundred years. The telegraph has faded into oblivion, only to be superseded by mobile phones and computer networks. We now live in what we call the information age, but stories of human curiosity and amazement during the heydays of the electric telegraph are mere examples of the nineteenth century age of information.

[1]The “beautiful extract’ being discussed is not given here for the sake of conciseness.

[2]Tom Standage– The Victorian Internet