The telegraph changed society by giving Americans the ability to communicate long distances. The telegraph became important because it gave Americans the chance to send and receive messages at unprecedented speed and volume.
Professor Samuel Morse, an instructor at New York University, created the first version of the telegraph in the 1830s. Although it was relatively well-planned, the device required significant revisions before revolutionizing communications worldwide. The telegraph's invention fueled people's desire to send and receive information and news from far distances in order to understand what was going on in the world.
The Evolution of the First Electric Telegraph
Morse devised a plan for the telegraph in the late 1700s. However, he did not construct a working device until the 1830s. Although many others proposed similar concepts, Morse secured federal funding to continue exploring the field of communication through the telegraph. After spending nearly a decade working on transmissions and ironing out technical kinks, Morse introduced a working telegraph in 1843. That telegraph allowed users on two ends to send and receive messages. However, it only operated over short distances. By 1844, Morse was able to transmit his first message from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. Twenty years later, a telegraph line was laid from the United States to Europe under the Atlantic Ocean.
Why Samuel Morse Invented the Telegraph
British inventors Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir William Cooke developed a rudimentary telegraph system using magnetic needles that moved by electric current to point out letters and numbers. The system was used in Britain for railroad signals. Back in the U.S., Morse was fascinated by the concept of electromagnetism, a term he learned while overseas. He decided to take his interests and produce a single-circuit telegraph that worked with a battery. Morse worked with researchers Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail to push forward to perfect the telegraph, receiving funding from Congress in 1943 to test their system. The first message from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore was sent May 24, 1844 and said, "What hath God wrought!"
How the Telegraph Worked
The later electric telegraph worked by transmitting electrical signals over wires between stations. The electrical signals developed by Morse were named after him as Morse code. The code used a set of dashes and dots to represent each letter of the alphabet that made it simple to transmit longer messages through the lines. For example, the internationally recognized distress signal, SOS, was fast and easy to remember and transmit, according to History. An S was three dots and an O was three dashes.
Common Uses for Telegraphs
The electric telegraph helped the military communicate tactically in war zones and let journalists and newspapers send and receive news fast and efficiently, which made information timely. Soon, money could be "wired" long-distance. The railroad lines relied on telegraphy, making it possible to know departures and arrivals of trains.
Modern Forms of Long-distance Communications
Seeing the potential for faster communications, others joined the race to improve the telegraph. Western Union staked claim to the first telegraph, allowing successful communications between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in 1861, while rapid improvements in technology allowed delivery and receipt of international messages in the early 20th century.
The telegraph succeeded mail, which took days and weeks to arrive, before being replaced by radio and television. The beginning of the 21st century witnessed the replacement of the telegraph by the telephone, then later the fax machine. The Internet and cellular technology have since taken over long-distance communications.