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 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.