America’s Long Journey: Long-distance telegraph

Long-distance telegraph

The speed at which news could now be transmitted from point to point was nothing short of revolutionary. For example, the Pony Express from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, was a sensation when in 1860 it cut delivery time between the two points from weeks (over the Rockies) or months (by sea to Panama, across Panama and by sea to California) to about ten days. Eighteen months after the Pony Express opened, the final link of the transcontinental telegraph was installed, and the time was reduced from ten days to a few minutes. From weeks, or months, to a few minutes, within two years time. That’s what the 19th century was like. The 20th century, revolutionary as it was, was only more of the same.

The next barrier was water. Rivers could be bridged, and the telegraph cables strung across them, but what about oceans? It was only a matter of ingenuity, and (from a historical perspective) it didn’t take all that long. They learned to use the adhesive juice of the Palaquium gutta tree to make a substance called Gutta-percha, which turned out to be an excellent insulator for underwater cables. An Englishman laid the first undersea cable between England and France in 1850, across the English Channel. A cable under the North Atlantic followed in 1857, but soon failed, perhaps providentially. Had there been instant communications between the United States and Great Britain in late 1861, the Trent crisis might well have resulted in war between the two countries, which would have allowed the Confederacy to succeed, breaking up the country. As it was, the first successful cable didn’t come into operation until July, 1866, a year after the close of the American Civil War.

It has been pointed out that the telegraph in its day was something like the Internet in ours, what with message routing, instant messaging, slang, wire fraud, and other points of comparisons. Perhaps we should think of it as the Victorian Internet.


One thought on “America’s Long Journey: Long-distance telegraph

  1. Good Morning Frank & All, and thank you very much for all the good materials.

    Frank? Witty – it is a VERY LONG TIME since to recall using the word GUTTA PERCHA ! MY long gone Father(half canadian – half norwegian) used to call the folks who made a MIXTURE oft doing foolish things – and what in his opinion, meant to become “far out of the common sense”( when making up his own opinion of course). And often, when us kids doing a mixture or stupid things (also called doing “a chicken soup” out of the mixture of all the things) – and my father shaking his head in despair over us kids when us(in his opinion) “doing the Gutta-Percha.” He was sometimes telling us three children when doing disputes/argumentations; “You are coming from Timbuktu.” Obviously the wordings meant to be understood as “coming from far away places.”

    I have not “heard” the particular word pronunced in years! A Very Funny remembrance indeed, thank you again Frank.
    B & B, Inger Lise.

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