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Civil War Encyclopedia >> Technology
September 2, 1837 Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrates a crude version of the telegraph.
May 24, 1844 Samuel F. B. Morse taps the message "What hath God wrought?" into his telegraph, sending it from Washington to Baltimore over wires.
  Washington D. C.
August 4, 1858 First trans-Atlantic telegraph cable completed by USS Niagara and British ship Agamemnon
October 24, 1861 Western Union completes the final segment of the transcontinental telegraph from Denver to Sacramento


Advances in electrical sciences at the start of the 19th century made the invention of the commercially successful telegraph system by Samuel F. B. Morse a forgone conclusion. Although others tried to perfect the idea of a telegraph based on electromagnetism, it would be Samuel Morse who solved a myriad of problems with transmission of the electronic signals.

Portrait artist Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the first commercially successful telegraph
Samuel F. B. Morse
The year was 1836 and inventors around the world were independently working on a system to transmit information over wires. Morse and two Englishmen, Cooke and Wheatstone, were working on such systems. Although Morse first demonstrated his concept that year, on June 10, 1837 the Englishmen beat Morse by patenting a "five-needle" telegraph (the needles were used to translate the electronic signal into words). On September 2, 1837, Charles Daubeny (from Oxford University), Joseph Torrey and Alfred Vail attend a demonstration of Morse's telegraph at New York University. It had many advantages over Cooke and Wheatstone's telegraph. For example, the "needles" on the earlier model pointed to 20 different letters. They quickly wore out. Morse developed a "code" based on short or long taps on his device.

Morse, a portrait artist by profession, began pushing his new invention not to commercial outlets but to Congress as he worked on improving his machine. He developed insulation (hemp soaked in tar) for the telegraph wires; he perfected the Morse code; but most importantly, he created and perfected the concept of transmission relay stations to combat the long-distance signal fade problem. When he tapped "What hath God wrought" into his keypad on May 20, 1844, it was to win a $30,000 award to transmit a message between Washington and Baltimore.

Now you will read that the first wholesale exploitation of the telegraph came by the railroads, but it was not the railroads that were building the infrastructure. Just as Eli Whitney and Alexander Graham Bell did, Morse kept a tight financial reign on his invention. He leased the technology to "express companies." They built the telegraph poles, normally in railroad right-of-way and "express stations," normally in the local depot. Larger towns would also have others in downtown area.

Railroads quickly came to depend on the signaling device. With it, essential information could be relayed to the station master about trains (or lack thereof). For example, without the telegraph a delayed train could close down a track until it cleared. Now when a train was delayed, station masters could continue with other trains until the delayed train reached their section of track.

The impact of the telegraph combined with railroads on business in the 1840's was truly dramatic. For a New England company to order goods from Cincinnati and have them delivered would take up to three months. "Express companies." which were an industry before the telegraph, could cut that time to six weeks. With the addition of railroads and the telegraph the time was cut to three days.

In 1850 technology had advanced to the point where it was thought feasible to lay a telegraph cable under the Atlantic Ocean between London and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Many attempts failed, but in 1858 communication between the United States and London was possible for one month. During an attempt to increase the speed of the communication, the cable ceased operating. It would not be until after The Civil War that a transatlantic cable worked again.

Transcontinental telegraphy became a reality in October, 1861, courtesy of Western Union and an amalgam of California-based companies known as the Overland Telegraph Company. At the time, the eastern terminus of the telegraph was in Omaha, Nebraska and the western terminus was in Carson City, Nevada Territory. The route closely followed the route of the Pony Express, which it antiquated on the day it began transmission. One of the the first messages transmitted over the transcontinental telegraph announced the death of Oregon Senator Ned Baker at the Battle of Ball's Bluff:

Colonel Baker was killed in battle on the 21st, while in the act of cheering on his command. Intense excitement and mourning in Philadelphia over his death.

For more information on the transcontinental telegraph see Wiring A Continent

Telegraph lines in Ohio and South Carolina in 1853
Telegraph Infrastructure in the United States
At the start of the Civil War, telegraphy had been employed as a strategic communication but not a tactical one. While Confederates did use existing trunk line telegraphs to communicate with Richmond, on the battlefield they relied on written or verbal orders, normally delivered on horseback. The Union Army set out to change that with the introduction of a tactical telegraph, commonly called a field telegraph. Control of the field telegraphs fell upon the Signal Corps, who used it in combination with flags and flares to transmit messages around battlefields. A second group, the USMT (United States Military Telegraph) was a quasi-government group formed to provide medium to long-range trunk service. Needless to say they frequently overlapped assignments.

In November, 1863, the situation boiled over. The Signal Corps had been using Beardslee machines so its men didn't have to understand Morse code. When they decided to ditch the unreliable Beardslees, they began to offer jobs to the USMT's telegraphers. Edwin Stanton assigned the Signal Corps to handling visual signaling only and telegraphic communication was given to USMT.

The USMT had been working on the field telegraph (sometimes called the "flying telegraph") to allow communication between commanding officers. Essentially, this consisted of team of three or four men, a battery wagon that also held supplies, horses and/or mules. A mule would follow the staff wagon train to a battlefield spooling out wire as it advanced. Once a headquarters was established, the telegraph was the second piece of equipment made operational (artillery was the first). It would be near the headquarters tent (or building) and a small garrison would be assigned to protect the wagon. All that was required to hook the field telegraph up was attaching the wires to the instrument. Rudimentary batteries supplied power from the wagon and a magneto (along the same lines as a hand-crank on a telephone) stood near in case of a problem with the batteries.

At first, telegraphs were used to communicate at division level, but by the end of the war the Union Army was using them at the brigade level. It is estimated that more than 6 million messages were transmitted for the Army at a cost of roughly 40 cents per message.

Probably the most famous incident involving the telegraph came near the end of the war. Robert E. Lee withdrew from Petersburg and wired his supply depot in Lynchburg to foward supplies to the depot at Appomattox Station. Phil Sheridan intercepted the telegram then forwarded it to Lynchburg. He dispatched George Armstrong Custer to intercept the train and keep the supplies from the Army of Northern Virginia. Custer arrived minutes before the Confederates and successfully turned back Lee's small advanced force. Out of food and low on ammunition, Lee tried to retake the trains the next morning, but failed. Sheridan had been reinforced by General Edward O. C. Ord during the night. About 1:30 pm on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant

Links appearing on this page:

April 9
April, 1865
Army of Northern Virginia
Battle of Ball's Bluff
Edward O. C. Ord
Edwin Stanton
George Armstrong Custer
June 10
May 20
October, 1861
Phil Sheridan
Robert E. Lee
September 2
The Civil War

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Technology

Telegraph was last changed on - October 28, 2007
Telegraph was added on - March 1, 2007

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