1969 >> August >> The Electric Telegraph  

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 in London.



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 Discovery has followed discovery in rapid succession- -invention has superseded invention--till it would seem to the superficial observer that little now remains to be discovered, and that further improvement is next to an impossibility.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 telegraphs.

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 Telegraph.

But to proceed with a short summary of the peculiar features in the telegraphs invented prior to the grant of the first patent.


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 doubtful.

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 also added.

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 employed.

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 letters invisible.

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 sluggishness.

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 dry weather.

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 adjoining wire.

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.


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.


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 water.

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 position.

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 under construction.

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 companies.

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 purpose.

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.


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.

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