Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nineteenth Century Internet

The “nineteenth century internet” might not impress middle-grade students today, but it provided the first means of transmitting messages around the world in virtually real-time. This marvelous invention, which eventually evolved into the present-day internet, was the telegraph. Between these two mass-communication methods came the telephone, radio, television, computers, and satellites. When I was a middle-grade student and an active member of the Boy Scouts of America, one of the skills we strove to learn was Morse Code. Even after I went into the US Army in 1960, telegraphic systems were used to send messages around the world. The story of the evolution of communications is told nicely by Janice Parker in Messengers, Morse Code, and Modems.

In the early 1800s, several inventors, most notably in England, were experimenting with harnessing the power of electricity in order to send a signal over a wire. But the generally accepted “inventor” of a successful telegraph system is American painter Samuel F. B. Morse. He had been fascinated with the study of electricity as a youth, but it was not until he reached middle age that he embarked seriously on the idea of creating the telegraph. At the age of 41, after studying art in France, Morse sailed back home in 1832. Conversations with fellow passengers about the possible ways of using electricity to aid communications stimulated his interest. He immediately went to work on the endeavor that resulted in successfully demonstrating his invention at the United States Supreme Court in 1844. The message he tapped out to prove the telegraph could work is well known to American school children: “What hath God wrought?” A good biography of Morse’s life and work is contained in The Invention of the Telegraph and Telephone in American History by Anita Louise McCormick.

The Morse Code system of dots and dashes fascinated politicians, newspaper reporters, and railroad operators, who quickly took advantage of this speedy way of communicating. During the Civil War both the Union and the Confederate armies used the telegraph to control movements of troops and supplies. President Abraham Lincoln was a strong advocate of the new electric system of communication. He spent hours in the telegraph office of the War Department, across the street from the White House, receiving reports from the battlefields and sending orders to his commanders. President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine by Marty Rhodes Figley tells the story of the youngest telegraph operator in the War Department.

When the threat of a Civil War increased in 1860, the only means of communication between the contiguous states on the east coast and the new states of Oregon and California on the west coast was via mail delivered cross-county by stagecoach or sent onboard ships around Cape Horn, South America. From April 1860 to October 1861 the Pony Express shortened the delivery time of mail from weeks to less than ten days. But all the time the Pony Express was operating between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, workers hurried to stretch a telegraph line across the intervening prairies and mountains. With the transmission of the first telegram from California’s Chief Justice to President Lincoln in October 1861, the Pony Express died. Now, a message could travel in a matter of minutes almost anywhere in the country.

The original cross-country telegraph line followed the route of the overland stagecoach. When President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 on July 1 of that year, the construction program included a telegraph line to parallel the railroad. When the Union Pacific joined with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, cross-country stagecoach travel ended, and telegraph traffic switched to the new lines adjacent to the iron rails. One of the most famous transmissions via the telegraph to reach all points around the country, and even points in Europe via the recently completed undersea cable, was “Done.” That simple message signaled the driving of the golden spike and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Andrew J. Russell's famous photograph shows a spectator standing on the crossbeam of the telegraph pole above the ceremony.

I write about this historic telegraphic event in Golden Spike, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book Three. This book is yet to be published, but the first two books in my trilogy (Eagle Talons and Bear Claws) contain numerous scenes depicting the important use of the first “internet” as work progressed to extend the railroad from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, in the late 1860s.

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