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Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee,
Here we are?”
Job 38:35

Before the electric telegraph made its popular appearance in the 1840’s the written letter was the sole means for individuals to communicate with each other over distance. From Roman times, for over eighteen hundred years, the letter generally travelled at its best speed overland at that of the waggon-horse.

It is difficult to imagine an age when an inky pen and a sheet of paper were the only way messages could be sent; when even these were rare, expensive items to many in town and country; and that days might pass before a thought, an order or a piece of news could travel from a distant place, or even weeks or months if that place were overseas.

But then, in a period of just four years, by 1850 anyone in a large town, with the price, could write a message, albeit a short message, on a piece of paper and have a copy of it sent to arrive within minutes to a distance of over five hundred miles.

If it was arranged properly two people could (and often did) sit in an office in a railway station or a city street and “converse” over hundreds of miles by giving questions and answers across a counter to clerks.

In the following five years that message would flow under the seas, cross continents and be one thousand miles distant within the hour.

This was a revolution. It affected business, it affected government, it affected news. It was a revolution that even affected time itself. But it was oddly peripheral to the individual. It was an invisible revolution, with little or no disruption to most people’s environment or even to their purse.

And it just happened. In Britain there was no central guiding force, no political will, no tax, no regulation or overweening administration. Instead there was a veritable jungle of inventors and scientists who competed for capital to implement their ideas for something that only they understood.

The electric telegraph was part of a long process of discovery and development dating at least from the turn of the century driven by academics. Scholars such as Volta, Ampere, Oersted, Schweigger, Gauss, Weber, Steinheil, Schilling, Ohm, Wheatstone, Daniell, Faraday and Henry (and others in many countries) all contributed elements to understanding the magical, and, so far, unimagined, power of electricity.

Using these discoveries a number of inventors or rather ‘adapters’ appeared, taking this new knowledge, transforming it into useful ideas with commercial utility; the first of these ‘products’ was the use of electricity to transmit information between distant points, the electric telegraph.

However, the grasp of even these earliest, primitive theories relating to electricity by the inventors was slender; only gradually did they evolve into a separate recognised technical discipline. None of them “invented” the electric telegraph, they adopted and applied combinations of several of the academic discoveries and patented them for their own use and profit.

The early adaptors of the new technology, it must be said from the outset, were a “rum lot” . With few exceptions they squabbled and litigated with each other incessantly during the 1840s, making claims of invention based on the flimsiest of evidence, as well as shamelessly parading their ignorance of science. As regards their several claims, this work relies solely on their patent specifications and news reports of the instance, rather than on any partisan recollection of distant thoughts and apparent slights by contemporaries.

In Britain the primary academic influence was Professor Charles Wheatstone; the original inventor/adaptor in electric telegraphy was William Fothergill Cooke.

On June 10, 1837 W F Cooke and Charles Wheatstone obtained their first patent for the electric telegraph, a comprehensive set of claims that left few loop-holes for any challengers. Just over thirty years later, by the Telegraph Act, 1868, the British parliament acquired for the General Post Office a national network comprising 16,879 miles of telegraph line and 2,155 telegraph stations, with the services of the 5,339 people employed in the telegraph industry.

This work deals with the introduction, development and operation of the electric telegraph in Britain in those intervening thirty years. It deals briefly with the initial stage, between 1838 and 1846, when the two partners, Cooke and Wheatstone, attempted - with very limited success - to introduce telegraphy to the public. Then follows a précis of the much-neglected period between 1846, when organised capital was first applied, creating a dozen or so competitive companies that soon consolidated into three national networks, covering the entire country with electric communication, and 1868 when the Government of the day finally appropriated the entire domestic telegraph system.

This is therefore primarily a summary history of the several joint-stock companies that constructed the original British telegraph system without cost or risk to the general public, their remarkable innovations, their systems and working practices, and their technology. To create this nationwide system the companies expended £2,500,000 – to acquire it the Government eventually spent £12,000,000.

For the fourteen years between 1837 and 1851 the comprehensive master patent of Messrs Cooke and Wheatstone prevented others entering the public telegraphic business in Britain. However, several patents for improved telegraphic instruments and materials were granted to inventive individuals in that time that were subsequently acquired by or used to create several new telegraph companies.

W F Cooke and Charles Wheatstone did not invent the electric telegraph, and they did not claim to; however it might also be added gratuitously here that the United States Patent acquired by Cooke and Wheatstone was dated June 10, 1840 and that of S F B Morse was dated June 20, 1840. The owners of the Morse patent never challenged this priority. 

An Electric Telegraph Office in London 1852

Telegraph, from the Greek “tele”, distant, and “graphos”, writing

© Copyright - Steven Roberts 2012