Daily use of the Telegraph…in the Nineteenth Century.

Imagine if you will that we are back in the nineteenth century, yes I know it is hard to imagine a world without video games and computers but bear with me on this one. The telegraph was how you communicated long distance with people in far off lands that would take months to travel to. Originally developed by the military as a way of communicating orders over long distances, by 1937 William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone had developed the first commercial Telegraph for the public to use. (Bowers, 2002)

Communication was rapidly changing for the world, with the introduction of the telegraph it gave hope that communicating between England and Germany would become faster than sending a note with someone as they travelled between the distances. While adaption of this new and scary technology was slow, it didn’t stop the likes of Cooke and Wheatstone as they installed their first Telegraph system on the Great Western Railway.  While the line was considered a successful install, the parts did eventually begin to deteriorate. However, as the rail system continued to expand, do did the Telegraph system. By 1845 Cooke went on to form the Electric Telegraph Company with financier John Lewis Riccardo. The Electric Telegraph Company led to a rapid expansion of telegraphs to the point where all the post offices in England were connected via the Telegraph. (Bowers,2002)

So, now that the history lesson is out of the way; what was it like to use the telegraph in the 19th century?

Suddenly the public of the 19th century had a new technology that would provide a quicker delivery of their messages. What once took days or even weeks could be done in mere minutes. While the public were so excited with this possibility of communication that there had to be the naysayers and people who called it heresy and witchcraft (they still did that in the 19th century right?) At their fingertips they had the start of the digital revolution. It begs to ask who actually used the telegraph. Well according to Jill Hills in her document Back to the Future: Britain’s 19th century telecommunications policy, it is stated that 50% of the telegraph traffic came from London while a further 25% came from 15 other towns. The majority of telecommunications traffic was being generated in a place with a higher standard of living compared to the rural areas and even other major metropolitan towns. One can assume from this that sending a telegraph wasn’t the cheapest thing in the world.

This is just a look at one part of the daily uses of the telegraph in the 19th century. This really focused heavily on England rather than America because everyone talks about the telecommunications race in America and how Samuel Morse invented Morse code. So that is something else you can look up if this sort of research interests you.


1. Hills, J, 1993, ‘Back to the Future: Britain’s 19th century telecommunications policy’, Telecommunications policy, Vol. 17, no.3, pp 186-199

2. Bowers B, 2002, ‘Inventors of the Telegraph’, Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 90 no.3, pp. 436-439

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