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150 years ago, a primitive Internet united the USA

By John Rogers
Associated Press / October 23, 2011

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LOS ANGELES—Long before there was an Internet or an iPad, before people were social networking and instant messaging, Americans had already gotten wired.

Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental telegraph. From sea to sea, it electronically knitted together a nation that was simultaneously tearing itself apart, North and South, in the Civil War.

Americans soon saw that a breakthrough in the spread of technology could enhance national identity and, just as today, that it could vastly change lives.

"It was huge," says Amy Fischer, archivist for Western Union, which strung the line across mountains, canyons and tribal lands to make the final connection. "... With the Civil War just a few months old, the idea that California, the growing cities of California, could talk to Washington and the East Coast in real time was huge. It's hard to overstate the impact of that."

On Oct. 24, 1861, with the push of a button, California's chief justice, Stephen J. Field, wired a message from San Francisco to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, congratulating him on the transcontinental telegraph's completion that day. He added the wish that it would be a "means of strengthening the attachment which binds both the East and the West to the Union."

A rudimentary version of the Internet -- not much more advanced than two tin cans and a string -- had been born. But it worked, and it grew.

Just a few years after the nation was wired, telegraph technology would be extended to the rest of North America, and soon cylindrical wires from Mexico to Canada would jangle with little bursts of electromagnetic juice, sending messages of every kind and redefining how communication can mean business.

As the United States rebuilt itself following the devastating Civil War, it did so in no small part with money wired from Washington. In 1869, when the final piece of track connecting the transcontinental railroad was laid in Promontory, Utah, a young news organization called The Associated Press sent a story about it out on the wire.

"I really see the telegraph as the original technology, the grandfather of all these other technologies that came out of it: the telephone, the teletype, the fax, the Internet," said telegraph historian Thomas Jepsen, author of "My Sisters Telegraphic: Women In Telegraph Office 1846-1950."

In its time, the telegraph was in some ways an even greater influence on the way people communicate than the Internet is today.

"The transcontinental telegraph put the Pony Express out of business in the literal click of a telegrapher's key. That's not an exaggeration," says Christopher Corbett, author of "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express."

Indeed, the Pony Express, which boasted it could deliver a letter from Sacramento to St. Joseph, Mo., in the unheard of time of 10 days when it began operations on April 3, 1860, shut down 19 months later -- on the same day the transcontinental telegraph went live.

Though dramatic, that was a short-term effect. "But the longer-term effect was we connected the nation in real time. ...," says Fischer. "For the first time, businesses could do business nationally. The government could communicate nationally in almost real time."

Just as the iPad, the iPod and the personal computer had a visionary genius behind them in Steve Jobs, the telegraph had one in Samuel F.B. Morse.

A painter and part-time inventor who twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York, Morse was in his early 40s in 1831 when he came up with the idea for the telegraph. He said in his papers at the Library of Congress that it was inspired by a discussion about electromagnetics with a fellow passenger on an ocean liner.

By the mid-1830s he'd developed Morse Code, the series of dots and dashes that telegraph key operators would tap out on their little contraptions. The result would flash across the country, and later around the world, where it would be translated back into words on the other end.

Morse obtained a patent for his telegraph in 1840, and four years later he sent his famous first message -- "What hath God wrought?" -- over a line he'd strung from Washington to Baltimore with $30,000 in federal money.

The technology took off. In 1845, more than a century before the TV show "America's Most Wanted," a man named John Tawell was arrested in England for the murder of his mistress after police received a telegraphed tip, telling them where he was.

A year later, the AP was formed and began relaying news of the Mexican-American War through a combination of telegraph wires and horseback riders, which demonstrated a limitation in the new technology.

"The early days of the telegraph were a lot like the early days of the Internet," says Fischer. "There were a lot of little one-off companies that would connect one or maybe two cities, but no big networks."

Thus the need for the guys on horseback, to get the information to the next telegraph station.

By 1860, the telegraph was a lot like an early cell-phone system. Only instead of losing the connection when you stepped behind a big building, you lost it if you traveled west of Omaha, Neb. From the West coast, a message could be sent only as far east as Nevada.

The Pacific Telegraph Act would change that, becoming one of the first instances of the federal government setting telecommunications policy. Passed in 1860, it called for the government to hire a company that would extend the line across Nebraska, through Utah and Nevada, linking the West with the rest of the country.

With subsidiaries of Western Union building the system from both directions, they would meet in Salt Lake City.

To get there, the construction crews had to reassure wary Indian tribes whose land they were trespassing on. They did so by giving some gifts and by hiring others to build the thing.

They needed lumber, especially in the treeless desert terrain of Nevada, and it took more than 200 oxen more than a month to haul it across the Sierra Nevada, according to an account by James Gamble, who was in charge on the western end of the project.

Once they got the lumber in place, work crews hired guards, sometimes Indians, specifically to keep it from being stolen, just as at modern construction sites. There were homesteaders heading West, needing materials to build houses.

Along the eastern flank, there was a different problem, Jepsen noted. Crews initially fashioned some of the telegraph poles so small that buffalo, using them as scratching posts, knocked them over. Despite the obstacles, the line was completed in a matter of months.

"It's a very American story," said Corbett, adding that not only was the project brought in with amazing speed but that it "completely changed everything in a flash," from the introduction of groundbreaking technology to the country's own self-image.

"California was almost like a satellite, if you think about it," he said. "It was almost 2,000 miles between the Missouri River and the California slope. But something like the telegraph made it seem closer."

Completing the project so quickly also infused the country with a kind of can-do spirit that he and other historians say it may not have had in quite as much abundance when the project was initiated.

Telegraphers, hired by the thousands to relay every kind of information, created a new language, one of strange abbreviations that only they, and perhaps some wire service journalists, understood. Seventy-three, for example, meant goodbye; 30 was the number placed at the end of a news story to signify the end.

"It had a Twitter-like feel to it," said historian Bill Deverell, director of the USC-Huntington Institute on California and the West.

But unlike terms like LOL and BTW that cell-phone users created to save wear and tear on their thumbs, and later adapted to Twitter to stay under its 140-character count, telegraph abbreviations were done to keep from jamming up and slowing down the wire with needless words.

"Time was money," Deverell noted.

These days, telegrapher talk and even Morse Code, once used to keep track of ships at sea and prevent trains that shared main lines from running into each other, have been all but abandoned, made obsolete by the technological revolution the telegraph created.

The telephone was invented in 1876. In time, cell phones and personal computers came along, and in 2006, Western Union, the company that had made a name for itself by charging sweethearts to wire singing telegrams and chocolates to one another, stopped sending telegrams all together. (Wiring money remains a main business for the Denver-based company.)

Historian Jepsen sees value in reflecting on a milestone for Morse's invention.

"It really gives one a good understanding of how we got where we are and how the Internet evolved," he said. "The telegraph is really where it all started."

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