The Electric Telegraph
Reprinted from "INSULATORS - Crown Jewels of the Wire", August 1969, page 3
The following information was sent to us by Chris Buys of
Boulder, Colorado who is doing research into old telegraph lines
in the Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah area and came across this
article written about the progress of telegraph lines in many
different countries. The book was dated 1852 and was printed
THE ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH
What an age of wonders is this!
When one considers the state of Science a century ago, and
compares the light of the past with that of the present day--how
great is the change! how marvelous the advance! Discovery
has followed discovery in rapid succession- -invention has
superseded invention--till it would seem to the superficial
observer that little now remains to be discovered, and that
further improvement is next to an impossibility.
But who shall set a limit to the inventive genius of man? and
say, Hitherto shall it go, but no further, and here all discovery
and invention shall cease.
Telegraphs invented prior to any of those which have been patented.
It has been thought well, before describing the plans of telegraph which have
from 1837 to the present time formed the subject of patents in this kingdom, to
notice briefly the principal features of the many telegraphs which preceded
those for which patents were granted.
All these first telegraphs were freely given to the world by their respective
inventors, and have furnished the materials employed by late patentees for their
It is clearly very difficult, now that so many years have elapsed since these
first telegraphs were invented, to fix the precise date at which the inventions
were publicly known in this and other kingdoms.
The invention of the electric telegraph has, in different countries, been
attributed to different individuals. Nothing, however, can be more incorrect
than to attribute to any one man the invention of the electric telegraph, as so
many eminent men have lent a helping hand in adapting the wonderful discoveries
in electricity to the purpose of conveying intelligence. If to any single person
the honour of having "invented the electric telegraph" is to be
attributed, it surely ought to be either to the first person who proposed the
employment of electricity for telegraphic purposes, or to the first person who
did practically convey intelligence to a distant point by means of electricity.
If so, then no patentee can claim the honour of inventing The Electric
But to proceed with a short summary of the peculiar features in the
telegraphs invented prior to the grant of the first patent.
BRIEF SUMMARY OF TELEGRAPHS PRIOR TO THE YEAR OF 1838
Lesarge, in 1774, employed 24 wires and a pith-ball electrometer.
Lomond, in 1787, employed one wire and a pith-ball electrometer.
Betancourt, in 1787, used one wire and a battery of Leyden jars.
Reizen, in 1794, had 26 wires: the letters of the alphabet were cut
out in pieces of tinfoil, and rendered visible by sparks of electricity.
Cavallo, in 1795, used one wire; the number of sparks was made to
designate the various signals, and the explosion of gas was used for an alarum.
Salva, in 1796, --The exact particulars of this telegraph are
In all the above plans, high-tension electricity was to be employed.
Soemmering's telegraph, of 1809 or 1811. - -In this telegraph galvanic
electricity was used, and as many wires were employed as there were letters or
signals to be denoted. The letters were designated by the decomposition of
water: an alarum was also added. Schwieger employed the principal of
Soemmering's telegraph, but reduced the number of wires to two. He also proposed
the printing of letters.
Coxe's telegraph, in 1810. --Coxe proposed the use of both the
decomposition of water and also of metallic salts.
Ronalds', in 1816. --In Ronalds' telegraph high-tension electricity
was employed. The wires used were laid underground as well as suspended in the
air. A pith-ball electrometer, hung before a clock movement enabled the letters
on a dial to be read off. The sounding of an alarum by exploding gas, etc. , was
Ampere, in 1820. --Ampere employed the magnetic needle, the coil of
wire, and the galvanic battery, and proposed the use of as many wires as letters
or signals to be indicated.
Tribaoillet, in 1828. --Tribaoillet's telegraph required but one wire,
and this was buried in the earth. A galvanic battery and a galvanoscope were
Schilling's telegraph, in 1832. --Schilling employed five magnetic
needles and had also a mechanical alarum. In another telegraph of Schilling's
one needle and one wire only were used.
Gauss and Weber, 1833. --In the telegraph of Gauss and Weber one wire
and one needle only were needed. The power employed was magneto-electricity.
Taquin and Ettieyhausen, in 1836. --The particulars of the telegraph
of these parties are presently uncertain.
Steinheil's telegraph, 1837. --This telegraph required only one wire
and one or two magnetic needles. The power used was magneto-electricity.
Steinheil had a printing telegraph as well as a means of telegraphing by sounds
produced by electric apparatus striking bells.
Masson's telegraph, 1837 and 1838. --In this telegraph
magneto-electricity was employed in conjunction with magnetic needles.
Morse's telegraph, 1837. --Morse's telegraph was a printing or
recording telegraph. It required only one wire, and galvanic electricity was
used. An electromagnet of iron was used for attracting an armature, to which was
attached a pricker or pen to mark paper, which was made to pass underneath it.
Vail's telegraph, 1837. --This was a telegraph for printing the
letters of the alphabet. One wire only was used. Clockwork mechanism regulated
by pendulums, was also added.
Davy's telegraph, 1837. --In this telegraph magnetic needles and coils
of wire were used. The needles removed screens which previously rendered the
Alexander's telegraph, 1837. --Thirty magnetic needles and thirty
wires were required in this plan. Each needle removed a screen which obscured a
letter painted behind it.
Previous to 1837 we have, therefore, no less than fifteen telegraphs, and in
1837 no less than six new arrangements of telegraphs, exclusive of the one of
Messrs. Cooke and Wheatstone, which was patented in June, 1837.
In 1816 and the following years Mr. Ronalds devoted much time to the
investigation of the electric telegraph. He erected eight miles of insulated
wire on his lawn: he also buried a considerable length of insulated wire in the
earth. The wires in the air were insulated by silk and dry wood, and those in
the earth by enclosing the wire in glass tubes. surrounded by a wooden trough
filled with pitch.
In the construction of an electric telegraph the greatest possible care and
attention should be paid to the insulation of the wires.
It is impossible to insulate the wires too well. Defective insulation is a
source of the greatest annoyance and disappointment. However accurately in
mechanical detail the telegraph instruments at the stations are made it is
impossible that they can work well if the insulation is imperfect.
Much, it is true, may be done by increasing the power of the galvanic
batteries, but all this additional power is in itself an utter waste if it is
required to supply the defect of imperfect insulation.
In such case the instrument nearest to the battery will work powerfully,
while the distant instrument, if it works at all, will only do so with great
To obtain perfect insulation is impossible, as no substance has yet been
discovered which is an absolutely perfect insulator. And again, when wires are
suspended in the air, the occurrence of fogs, damp weather, rain, and showers of
sleet deprive the wires of a great part of the insulation which they possess in
The mode therefore of insulation employed should possess the best antidotes
to all the variations of weather.
Where many wires are suspended on the same posts, defects arising from these
causes are greatly multiplied.
In America, where only one wire is used, injury arising from the above causes
is not so detrimental; but in England, where occasionally as many as 20 or more
wires are placed on the same post, the action is most detrimental and
electricity, when intended to be transmitted along one wire only, often finds
its way more or less into all the wires, and thus not only lessens the quantity
intended to be transmitted to the distant instrument, but disarranges the
instruments connected with all these other wires.
Owing to this result of imperfect insulation it has been found impossible for
weeks together to telegraph direct even between London and Liverpool, although
the insulation has been changed several times in the course of the last few
years. The only way in which the communication could be carried on was by means
of sending the message to an intermediate station, and then by repeating it at
such intermediate station, to forward it thence to Liverpool.
The author hopes in the telegraphs he is now erecting to render any
repetition unnecessary, by adopting the following plan:
Where many wires are required to be suspended on the same post or support, he
proposes, first, to conduct the insulation to a considerable distance from the
post, and secondly, to place between wire and wire a direct communication with
the earth, so that any of the electricity transmitted, as it escapes from the
wire, may be intercepted by this communication with the earth, and so
transmitted direct to the earth without the possibility of its entering an
In such case it will only be necessary in very great lengths of wire and in
very adverse weather to increase the quantity of electricity transmitted, in
order to make due allowance for the quantity that escapes at the points of
insulation. However great such amount of electricity required may be no portion
thereof can reach the adjoining wire and thereby disarrange the telegraphic
instruments connected with such other wires.
EXTENT OF ELECTRIC TELEGRAPHS IN USE IN GREAT BRITAIN
According to official returns, there were in April, 1850, 5447 miles of
railway open and at work, 1784 miles in course of construction, and 4795 in
abeyance; making a total of 7231 miles of railway opened or opening, and 4795
miles of railway in suspense.
According to the published returns of the Old Electric Telegraph Company,
wires were erected over only 2215 miles of railway, leaving at that period
thousands of miles of railway without any telegraph at all, besides thousands of
miles of railway for which Acts of Parliament had been obtained, but on which no
work had commenced.
Since that period, considerable progress has taken place in the construction
of Electric Telegraphs, but even now many portions of the Kingdom are wholly
deprived of the benefits resulting from telegraphic communication. The exact
length of telegraphs constructed from the above period up to the present time
has not been published.
Again with respect to Ireland, upwards of 500 miles of railway are in
operation, but not five miles of telegraph are in use. A contract, however, has
lately been entered into for the construction of a telegraph on one line in
Ireland, viz. between Dublin and Galway.
TELEGRAPHS IN AMERICA
In America three kinds of telegraph are in use, viz. Morse's, Bain's, and
House's. Morse's telegraph, which has already been described, is at present the
most generally employed. Bain's chemically marking telegraph comes next; and
lastly, Professor House's which is on the step by step movement principle, and
which prints in ordinary letters the intelligence transmitted. This telegraph is
at present used only to a very limited extent in the United States, and is known
in England as the telegraph of Mr. Jacob Brett.
In point of rapidity, Bain's telegraph would come first, Morse's next, and
lastly, House's, which must be slow as compared with either of the other two.
Considerable improvements, however, have been made lately in the telegraphs of
Messrs. House and Brett.
It will be observed that the general system of telegraph used in America
differs entirely from the oscillating telegraphs employed in Great Britain, the
telegraphs in America being all on the permanently recording principle. The
wires in America are erected entirely on posts, except at a few crossings of
large rivers, and there wires covered with gutta percha are laid under the
Extent of Electric Telegraphs in America
It is notorious how far in advance of Great Britain America has long been in
the means of telegraphic communications, as compared with its commercial
There were, in the beginning of 1850, in the United States, no less than
12,000 miles of telegraph in practical operation, and 3,000 miles of telegraph
In America the telegraph is used to an enormous extent. This is partly owing
to the low charges made for its use and the rivalry resulting from competing
On the first of January, 1848, there were only 2,311 miles of telegraph in
operation, whereas on the first of January, 1850, there were 12,000 miles
completed and at work. These 12, 000 miles of telegraph were the property of no
less than twenty telegraph companies. At the present time there are nearly
30,000 miles of telegraph in operation and under construction in America.
Many of these telegraphs are erected by the sides of roads, and others pass
along railways, or are extended over private property.
The American Government considering that the use of the electric telegraph
was a great national question, had an Act passed enabling telegraph companies to
construct their apparatus over the lands of public companies or private
individuals on the payment of an adequate compensation, which, in case of
disagreement between the parties, was to be settled by a jury selected for the
Little or no opposition has been shown against the construction of telegraphs
over private property in America. It has been a rule in many cases to allow
parties through whose lands the wires pass, and on condition of their repairing
the wires when broken, to have their communications sent at a reduced rate.
ELECTRIC TELEGRAPHS IN AMERICA IN CONNECTION WITH FIRE ESTABLISHMENTS
In some of the principal towns in America a system of electric telegraphs has
been constructed, by means of which notice of the breaking out of a fire is
instantly telegraphed to all the fire-engine stations.
A town is divided into certain districts. In each district one or more
electric telegraphs are placed, communicating with a central station. From this
central station wires diverge to all the principal establishments where
fire-engines are kept.
As soon as a fire breaks out, information is sent to the central police
station. From this central station communications are instantly dispatched by
telegraph to all the fire-engine stations. The engines start immediately to the
scene of the fire. Assistance is thus dispatched forthwith, and no delay arises
from the uncertainty as to the exact locality of the fire.
It is evident that if such a system were adopted in London a large amount of
property might be saved annually, and the loss of many lives prevented.
It is hoped, therefore, that the inhabitants of this great metropolis will not
suffer themselves to long remain behind their enterprising brothers on the other
side of the Atlantic, in a matter so clearly affecting not only their property,
but even their own lives.