decorative scroll graphic

The Telegraph -- Then and Now

The word “telegraph” is derived from the Greek language and means “to write far”; so it is a very exact word, for to write far is exactly what the telegraph did. It was a revolutionary mode of communication, and one which had considerable effect on the speed of conveying information. The non-electric telegraph was invented by Claude Chappe in 1794, a visual system which used semaphore, a flag-based alphabet, and depended on a line of sight for communication; but it is Samuel Morse who is credited with the invention of the modern telegraph.

Born in 1791, Morse developed the code by which messages could be transmitted in the form of dots and dashes produced on a simple keyboard. No longer was the message dependent on the movement of a messenger or written message carried by the fastest available transportation system of horse, train or steamboat. This technological advance in communications allowed messages to be transmitted almost instantaneously between two inland points and proved to be particularly useful to war correspondents for transmitting to their newspapers blow-by-blow descriptions of actions on the battlefield (i.e. the Crimean War, Oct 1853-Feb 1856).

In 1847 the first telegraph lines in Canada were run between Montreal, PQ, Toronto, Hamilton and London, ON. Over the next few years most of the major centres including Ottawa, Perth and Peterborough were connected into the system which spanned continental North America. The same news received by ship at Montreal, Quebec City or New York could now be telegraphed across the continent; no longer were news correspondents dependent on the physical exchange of newspapers to obtain information regarding current events in some other region or city.

In the 1860s the presence of telegraph lines could be identified by the appearance of rows of telegraph poles with a single wire strung between them with the poles usually being placed beside the main roads. The railways set up their own lines along the tracks so that railway officials could detect trouble along the track more quickly.

In 1866 the S.S. Great Eastern achieved success in laying a trans-Atlantic cable, 2,113 miles long, making up for the failure of the cable laid in 1858 which had snapped. The cable extended from Foilhommerun Bay, Ireland to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland and now tied North America to Europe.

At the height of its use, telegraph technology involved a worldwide system of wires with stations, operators and messengers, that carried messages and news by electricity faster than any other invention before it. During the late 1860s to the early 1870s the tariff for telegraph messages was 25 cents for the first 10 words and one cent for each additional word. With the invention of the telephone in 1877, the telegraph system gradually faded away, for today’s modern computer technology transmits not only text, but photographs as well, whether by pc, laptop or cellphone from almost anywhere on the planet.

In the Ottawa Valley the railway telegraph lines have now become a part of our history, for most telegraph poles that once lined Hwy 17 now lie defunct by the train tracks awaiting their removal to the “invention graveyard of the past”.

Written By: 
Dianne MacKinnon
2011-12