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A Web Around the World, Part 5: Selling the Telephone

Our history textbooks tell us that Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas A. Watson built and tested the world’s first working telephone on March 10, 1876. This statement is, broadly speaking, correct. Yet it can obscure what a crude instrument that first telephone really was, with its one end terminating in a tuning fork dunked in a bowl of pungent liquid, its other in a metal reed that functioned as the most rudimentary imaginable form of speaker. The device was unidirectional, which made holding an actual conversation over it an impossibility. If you breathed in when you leaned down to talk into the transmitting diaphragm, you would be rewarded with a lungful of fumes and a coughing fit. And as you used the telephone an ugly black deposit on the exposed wire in the bowl gradually ruined the connection, unless and until you scraped the toxic gunk away with a knife. The whole contraption looked and acted more like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory than a tool of modern communications.

Certainly Gardiner Greene Hubbard was thoroughly unimpressed with what he saw when he visited his protege’s workshop on March 13: he “seemed rather skeptical,” according to Bell’s laconic diary entry. Even now the telephone continued to strike him as a pointless distraction from the lucrative field of telegraphy. Seeing that they had probably lost the race to create a viable multiplex telegraph that improved on Joseph B. Stearns’s duplex design, Hubbard and Bell had recently agreed to pivot to what they called an “autograph” telegraph, which smacks of nothing so much as the fax machines of our own recent past. In an inadvertent echo of Samuel Morse’s original conception of the telegraph as a sort of electronic printing press, the autograph telegraph would allow an entire document to be “typeset” electronically and sent down the wire, using multiplexing to increase the transmission speed. To be sure, the idea was visionary in its way, but it was also most likely unachievable in the context of 1876, especially by one of Bell’s modest technical skills. At any rate, progress on it had been painfully slow. Yet Hubbard’s heart remained set on it.

Hubbard wrote to Bell shortly after his visit that he should devote himself exclusively to the autograph telegraph: “If you would work steadily on one thing [emphasis original] until you had perfected it, you would soon make it a success. While you are flying from one thing to another you may accidentally accomplish something, but you probably will never perfect anything.” Then he brought out his big gun: he persuaded his daughter Mabel to write to the lovelorn Bell that she could never think of marrying him until he had honored his agreement with her father to create the autograph telegraph. Bell was devastated. “I want to marry you, darling, because I love you,” he wrote in reply. “I wish to feel that you would marry me for the same reason.”

The ruthless pressure Hubbard was applying wasn’t quite enough to get Bell to abandon telephony altogether. But, not knowing how to package up his variable-resistance transmitter in some way that didn’t involve a lung-scalding bowl of acidulated water, he did lose faith on that front, returning to his older researches into the possibilities of unpowered magnetic-induction transmission. Within weeks, he and Watson had built a magnetic-induction telephone that could also transmit intelligible speech. Continuing with this method, which required no messy bowls of acidulated water and easily permitted a bi-directional conversation over a single wire, struck him as the most reasonable way forward. Bell would spend the rest of his fairly brief-lived career as an inventor in the fields of telegraphy and telephony chasing down the blind alleys of the autograph telegraph and the magnetic-induction telephone, never returning to his stroke of genius of March 10, 1876.

Much of the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair was devoted to the wonders of technology. Here we see the Machinery Hall, where a colossal Corliss steam engine dwarfs the full-size locomotives lined up in front of it. The telephone, the most important of all the technologies to make their debut at the fair, was seen only by a select few and attracted little press attention at the time.

The period between the American Civil War and World War II was the heyday of the World’s Fairs, international exhibitions of science, invention, and industry on a lavish scale. The very first World’s Fair to be held in the United States took place from May 10 to November 10 of 1876. It was presented in honor of the nation’s centennial in Philadelphia, the city where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Hubbard used his connections to secure Bell a slot at a by-invitation-only demonstration of the latest techniques in telegraphy, which was to take place on June 25.

The day in question proved a brutally hot one; the air inside the temporary auditorium that had been erected on the fairgrounds was stifling. With no commercial record and no name recognition, the Bell Patent Association was relegated to the very last presentation of a long program of them. By the time Alexander Graham Bell took the stage, following such men of distinction as Elisha Gray, the audience of scientific, business, and political luminaries — among them was none other than William Thomson, the principal technical architect of the first transatlantic telegraph cable — was positively lethargic. While 2000 miles to the west Lieutenant Colonel George Custer was launching his ill-fated attack at Little Big Horn, Bell droned on about multiplex telegraphy and the autograph telegraph to a bored audience who had already heard enough of that sort of thing on this day. Then, just before he finished, he said that he would like to demonstrate another invention that was still “in embryo.”

Showing a flair for showmanship which his presentation to this point had never so much as hinted at, Bell invited Thomson to join him onstage, seating him before a table on which lay something that looked for all the world like a useless lump of iron. He told his august guinea pig to press the lump to his ear, then ran to a room behind the stage where its twin lay hidden. He began to declaim into it the famous soliloquy from Hamlet — “To be or not to be, that is the question” — in his dulcet Scottish brogue, itself a tribute to his family’s tradition of research in elocution. Onstage, Thomson’s face lit up in astonishment. Forgetting himself completely in the moment, the distinguished scientist jumped up and ran off like a schoolboy in search of Bell, leaving the audience perplexed as to what was going on here.

Bell’s next guinea pig made it clear to everyone. Emperor Pedro II of Brazil was something of a celebrity throughout the Americas, a portly, jolly man who looked and acted rather like Santa Claus, whose down-to-earth humanity belied his majestic station. “Dom Pedro,” as he was known, pushed the lump ever tighter to his ear and screwed up his face in concentration. Then he leaped up from his seat. “I hear! I hear!” he shouted in his broken English. Then, in Portuguese: “My God! It talks!” The room erupted in pandemonium. Forgetting about the heat and the long day stretching up to this point, the audience detained Bell for hours; every single one of them insisted on having his own chance to try out Bell’s magical telephone. The reaction finally convinced Hubbard that it was the telephone rather than Bell’s experiments in telegraphy that could make them both a fortune. He forgot everything he had ever said about his protege’s misplaced priorities. From this day forward, it would be full speed ahead on the telephone alone.

When he returned home to Britain, William Thomson said that the telephone had been the “most wonderful thing” he had seen at the Centennial Exhibition. Still not grasping that Bell’s invention was so revolutionary as to deserve a name of its own, he called it “the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the electric telegraph,” noting as well that it had been “obtained by appliances of quite a homespun and rudimentary character.” (“I have never quite forgiven Sir William for that last sentence,” Thomas Watson would later remark with a wink.) But the public at large was slower to catch on, largely because not a single member of the mainstream press had attended the telephone’s coming-out party; journalists had all assumed that the day would contain nothing but incremental, fairly plebeian improvements on the existing technologies of telegraphy, interesting for those in the trade no doubt but hardly riveting for the general reader.

Still, word that something kind of amazing was afoot did slowly begin to spread. On August 3, Hubbard arranged to borrow a five-mile stretch of existing telegraph line connecting the towns of Mount Pleasant and Brantford in Ontario, and Bell conducted the first demonstration of his telephone to use outdoor wires that crossed a non-trivial distance. On October 9, again using a borrowed telegraph line, Bell and Watson had the first two-way conversation at a distance, speaking across the Charles River that separates Boston from Cambridge. On November 27, they communicated over the sixteen miles that separate Boston from Salem; they were able to extend the range this far by shifting from electromagnetic transmitters, relying upon a residual electrical charge from a battery, to more powerful permanent magnets that had no need at all for a battery.

On January 30, 1877, Bell was awarded a second telephony patent, one that much more fully described his design for a magnetic-induction telephone than had the previous one. By now the press was well and truly onto the story. “Professor Bell,” wrote the Boston Herald after the November 27 test, “doubts not that he will ultimately be able to chat pleasantly with friends in Europe while sitting comfortably in his Boston home.”

But such accommodating journalism was rare. Taking their lead from Western Union and the other established powers in the telegraph industry, most reporters treated the telephone as a novel curiosity rather than a supplement to — much less a threat to — the extant telegraph network. And there was in truth ample reason for skepticism. Even with the best permanent magnets Bell and Watson could find, the voices that came down their wires were whisper-faint. Ironically given Bell’s lifelong dedication to helping the deaf participate in the society around them, they were audible and decipherable only by people like him with excellent hearing. A comparison with that first transatlantic telegraph cable of 1858 is apt: these first telephones worked after a fashion, but they didn’t work all that well. In practice, most people tended to spend most of their time screaming “What did you say?” into them; the wonder the telephone initially provoked tended to shade with disarming speed into rank frustration. In his personal journal, Thomas Watson didn’t shy away from acknowledging the magnetic-induction telephone’s infelicities: it “would talk moderately well over a short line, but the apparatus was delicate and complicated and didn’t talk distinctly enough for practical use.”

Hubbard too showed signs of losing heart. At one point in late 1876, he reportedly asked Western Union whether they would be interested in buying Bell’s telephone lock, stock, and barrel for $100,000. He was turned down flat.

Bell lacked the requisite patience for the sort of slow, plodding laboratory work that might have improved his telephone, but he still needed to bring some money in for himself and Hubbard if he was to win the hand of the fair Mabel. So, he found an alternative to which his personality was more naturally suited: he hit the traveling-exhibition circuit with Watson in tow, crisscrossing the Northeast through much of the first half of 1877 like a boffinish P.T. Barnum. After his magic-lantern slideshow — the nineteenth century’s equivalent to Microsoft PowerPoint — he would present telephonic performances by brass bands, string quartets, opera singers, or church organs — the louder the racket they could make, the better — while his audience strained their ears to make sense of what they were hearing, or thought they heard. The disembodied human voices especially were fraught with sinister implications for many of those who assembled. In fact, the delicious thrill they provoked was doubtless a big part of the reason that audiences paid good money for a ticket; the seances of Spiritualism were becoming all the rage in the broader culture at the time. The Providence Star noted that it was “difficult, hearing the sounds out of the mysterious box, to wholly resist the notion that the powers of darkness are somehow in league with it.” “Had the hall been darkened,” wrote the Manchester Union, “we really believe some [from the audience] would have left unceremoniously.” The Boston Advertiser called the demonstration “weird”; the New York Herald declared it “almost supernatural.”

A Bell magnetic-induction “box” telephone from 1877. The cone mounted on the end served as both transmitter and receiver, necessitating some dexterous juggling on the part of the user.

The proprietors of the telephone are now prepared to furnish telephones for the transmission of articulate speech through instruments not more than twenty miles apart. Conversation can easily be carried on after slight practice and with occasional repetition of a word or sentence. On first listening to the telephone, though the sound is perfectly audible, the articulation seems to be indistinct. But after a few trials the ear becomes accustomed to the peculiar sound.

— The first advertisement for the Bell telephone, May 1877

By the late spring of 1877, Bell and Watson’s roadshow showed signs of running out of steam. It seemed they had to put up or shut up: the partners needed either to make a serious attempt to commercialize the telephone or just move on with their lives. After much debate, they chose the former course. That May, they signed their first customer, an enterprising banker named Roswell C. Downer, who paid for a telephone line connecting his home with his office. This harbinger of the modern condition was followed by no fewer than 600 more of his ilk by August 1. All of the connections were point-to-point setups linking one telephone to exactly one other telephone. But one decision the partners made would prove crucial to the eventual development of a more flexible telephone network: they leased telephones rather than sold them to their customers, and retained ownership and control of the cables binding them together as well. To state the case in modern terms, the telephone industry was to be a service rather than a hardware provider.

Each of these early telephones looked like a block of wood with a hole on one end and some wire sticking out the other. After shouting into the hole, one then had to shift it quickly to one’s ear to catch the response. “When replying to communication from another, do not speak too promptly,” pleaded the instruction manual. “Much trouble is caused from both parties speaking at the same time. When you are not speaking, you should be listening.” Being completely unpowered, these first telephones had no ability to ring; if someone didn’t happen to be standing at the other end when you shouted down the line, you were just out of luck. They were so heavy that using them was a veritable workout; Thomas Watson described the experience as akin to holding a suitcase up to one’s ear for minutes at a time. And yet there was a reasonably substantial group of people willing to pay for the dream of being in instant voice communication with others a considerable distance away, however circumscribed the reality of the telephone in service might have been.

The summer of 1877 was an exciting one for Alexander Graham Bell. On July 9, the Bell Telephone Company was formed, superseding the old Bell Patent Association. Two days later, he was finally allowed to marry Mabel. And on August 1, the Bell Telephone Company issued its first 5000 shares: 1497 of them to the mostly silent partner Thomas Sanders; 1497 to the young woman who was now known as Mabel Bell; 1387 to Gardiner Hubbard; 499 to Thomas A. Watson; 100 to Hubbard’s wife; ten to Hubbard’s brother; and all of ten shares to Bell himself, who in the throes of his newlywed bliss had signed all of the rest that he had coming over to his wife.

Shortly thereafter, Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell sailed for Britain, both to enjoy an extended honeymoon — it was Bell’s first return to his homeland since his emigration seven years before — and to act as ambassadors for the telephone on the other side of the Atlantic. In the latter capacity, they demonstrated it to Queen Victoria on January 14, 1878. There were some problems getting the connection going over the borrowed telegraph wire, and the queen’s attention began to wander. But suddenly Bell heard through the gadget the voice of a woman he had hired to sing “Kathleen Mavourneen,” one of the queen’s favorite ballads. In his excitement, he reached out and grabbed her by the arm. Everyone in the room gasped — but Queen Victoria didn’t even seem to notice, merely pressed the box to her ear and listened with a rapt expression. She wrote in her diary that night that Bell’s telephone was “most extraordinary.”

The audience with the queen created a widespread frisson of excitement over the telephone in Britain the likes of which had ironically not yet been seen in its birth country, where its thunder had recently been stolen by the announcement of Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Toy telephones became popular on Britain’s high streets. “Wherever you go,” wrote Mabel Bell in a letter back home to her mother, “on newspaper stands, at news stores, stationers, photographers, toy shops, fancy-goods shops, you see the eternal little black box with red face, and the word ‘Telephone’ in large black letters. Advertisements say that 700,000 have been sold in a few weeks.” If Bell Telephone could have leased anywhere near as many of the real thing back in the United States, everyone involved would have been thrilled.

But the harsh truth was that, even as the Bells were doing their public relations overseas, the company that bore their name was floundering in the domestic market. Many or most of the customers who had initially signed up in such gratifying numbers were dissatisfied by the underwhelming reality of their telephones, and no amount of patiently pedantic instruction manuals were going to get them to love a device that just didn’t work all that well. Worst of all, there was now a formidable competitor about to enter the field with a telephone much better than the one being peddled by Bell, thanks to the inventive genius of one Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison at about age 30, when he was active in telegraphy and telephony and also in the process of inventing the phonograph.

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio on February 11, 1847, the seventh and last child of parents who had just been driven out of British Canada for backing an insurrection against the provincial government there. When his father wasn’t rebelling, he was an odd-jobber and striver whose schemes never quite seemed to pan out. His mother was a former schoolteacher; almost all of the limited education Edison received came from her in the family home. Already at age twelve, he started riding the rails, working as a newsboy on trains. Showing the same entrepreneurial streak as his father but demonstrating more ability to turn his schemes into profits, he soon became a full-fledged mobile shopkeeper, buying snacks, books, and magazines cheap and selling them at a mark-up to passengers. He even published his own newspaper for a time from a compartment on the train with the help of an old printing press he had acquired. But it was the telegraph houses that stood everywhere the trains traveled that really captured the teenage Edison’s interest.

He happened to be sitting on a station platform one day when he saw a young boy wander onto the tracks in front of an approaching locomotive. Edison leaped to the rescue, successfully. The boy’s father happened to be the telegraph master at the station. The grateful man agreed to teach Edison some of the basics of telegraphy, and also lent him a number of books on the subject. Edison studied the description of Morse Code found therein with fanatical dedication — “about eighteen hours a day” was his own claim later in life — and got his first paying gig as a telegraph operator in Stratford Junction, Ontario, at the age of sixteen.

He quickly became a star among the telegraph fraternity. The speed with which he could decode messages coming down the wire became legendary; if one of his colleagues was sick, he could do this other’s job as well as his own, decoding two separate messages from two skilled senders simultaneously. And, because even brainy boys will be boys, he became equally legendary for his practical jokes. One of his favorites combined a wet floor with an induction coil to give his fellow operators a very unpleasant electrical shock as soon as they sat down in front of their Morse keys.

As that anecdote would indicate, Edison was fast becoming more than just a skilled end-user of the telegraph. He was fascinated by electrical technology in the abstract in a way that Alexander Graham Bell would never be; he lived and breathed it, experimenting and tinkering endlessly whenever he wasn’t on duty in a telegraph house. He applied for his first patent at age 21, for an automated vote recorder that he imagined would be used by the United States Congress; each representative need only push either the aye or the nay button installed at his seat, and the results would be automatically tabulated and displayed on a big dial mounted on the wall. But no one in the capital proved to be interested in it — because, as it was belatedly explained to Edison, the slow, inefficient method of voting that was currently used was actually an essential part of the legislative process, providing as it did ample opportunities to lobby, whip, and negotiate for votes. He took away from the experience a lesson that would never leave him: an inventor who wishes to be successful must ask what the people want, and invent that thing instead of the thing that makes him feel clever. With this lesson in hand, Edison would go on to become history’s archetype of the commercially successful inventor.

Though he was rough-hewn in demeanor and largely uneducated in anything other than the vagaries of mechanisms and circuits, Edison nonetheless displayed a peculiar ability to talk to moneyed men of business and win their support. In 1869, he retired from his career as a telegraph operator and became a sort of telegraphy consultant, helping his clients to improve their systems and processes. In 1874, he scored his first major triumph as an inventor of things that people really wanted, and crushed the first telegraphy dream of Alexander Graham Bell in the process: he patented a quadriplex telegraph with the ability to double again the throughput of Joseph B. Stearns’s recently introduced duplex system. Unlike Bell’s design, which stamped each of its signals with a unique frequency on the sending end and used these as a way to sort them out again on the receiving end, Edison’s system combined Stearns’s innovations with differing electrical polarities that served as another way of separating signals from one another. Most importantly, his system consistently worked, which was more than could ever be said for Bell’s.

The quadriplex telegraph catapulted him into the next stage of his career. In the spring of 1876, Edison moved into his soon-to-be-famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, from which he would invent so many of the trappings of our modern world. Later that year, as we’ve seen, press notices about Bell’s magnetic-induction telephone began to appear. Edison had been very hard of hearing since boyhood, which meant that Bell’s invention as currently constituted was useless to him. So, he decided to make a better telephone, one that even he would be able to use without difficulty.

There no longer remained any mystery about the best theoretical approach to such a goal. Clearly the key to a louder telephone was the use of a variable-resistance transmitter instead of one that relied on magnetic induction; this Bell himself had demonstrated before losing heart. Bell had given up because he didn’t know of any substances other than acidulated water whose resistance could be made to vary in tandem with the vibrations of a diaphragm that was being struck by sound waves issuing from a human mouth. But Edison was possessed of both a much wider range of electrical knowledge and a methodical patience which eluded the high-strung Bell.

Edison made his own experimental telephone, and throughout most of 1877 used it to test many solid or semi-solid materials, keeping careful notes on the results. He tried paper, lead, copper, graphite, felt, and platinum among other substances, all of them in countless forms, combinations, and configurations, conducting over 2000 separate trials in all. In the end, he wound up back at the very first material he had tested: carbon, in the form of lampblack — i.e., residual soot scraped from a lamp or chimney. Lampblack was, he judged, as close as a solid could come to the properties of acidulated water.

Edison’s final design for a variable-resistance transmitter used a cone with a thin metal diaphragm installed at its base, much like Bell’s extant telephones. But instead of a magnet, his diaphragm rested atop a sealed container of lampblack, through which a powered electrical circuit flowed. As the diaphragm vibrated in rhythm with the user’s words, its movements varied the resistance of this circuit to create a facsimile of the sound wave in electrical current — just as had the acidulated water in Bell’s experiment of the previous year, but in a far more practical and reliable way. An electromagnet and diaphragm, designed by a prolific telegraph engineer and occasional associate of Edison named George Phelps, served as a receiver at the other end of the line in lieu of Bell’s metal reed, giving much better fidelity. Edison’s telephone did have the disadvantage of being unidirectional; a two-way conversation required two wires, each fitted with its own transmitter and receiver. Then again, such a setup meant that the user no longer needed to keep moving the telephone between mouth and ear; she could speak and listen at the same time, and do the latter without straining her ears.

All told, it was a tremendous breakthrough, one with the potential to increase not only the volume but also the range of the telephone. Edison applied for a patent on his variable-resistance transmitter already on April 27, 1877, when he was still very much in the process of inventing it. After much back and forth, the patent was finally granted in February of 1878. By the time it was, Edison himself had become famous, thanks not to the telephone but the phonograph, which he had been working on concurrently with his experiments in telephony.

An early Western Union telephone. The user spoke into the round piece on the left, whilst holding the star-shaped receiver on the right up to her ear.

Already two months before the final patent on Edison’s transmitter was issued, Western Union cut a deal with the inventor for the right to use it, forming a new subsidiary called the American Speaking Telephone Company to put it into service. A David-and-Goliath fight was now in the offing between Bell Telephone and Western Union. The latter corporation was in many ways a model for the other great trusts in this emerging Gilded Age of American business; for all intents and purposes it owned telegraphy writ large in the United States, as it seemed it now intended to own telephony. To make that happen, it had a market capitalization of $41 million (the equivalent of $1.4 billion in 2022 currency), net annual profits of more than $3 million, and established rights-of-way for its wires in every corner of the nation. And now it had a telephone that was by any objective standard vastly superior to the one being peddled by its puny rival.

The telephones which Western Union began leasing to customers in 1878 were the first in commercial service to be recognizable as such things to modern eyes, having separate attachments for talking and listening. A variable-resistance telephone of course required a powered circuit; in lieu of expensive and maintenance-heavy batteries, the end-users provided this power via elbow grease, by cranking from time to time a magneto attached to the telephones. It was a small price to pay for a device that was ergonomically superior and, most importantly of all, louder than anything that Bell Telephone could offer. For the first time, it was possible to have something resembling an ordinary conversation using these telephones.

Justifiably unnerved by these developments, Gardiner Hubbard asked a businessman named Theodore N. Vail to take over as head of Bell Telephone. Only 32 years old at the time he agreed to do so, Vail had, like Thomas Edison, gotten his start as an ordinary telegraph operator. But his genius ran in the direction of finance and management rather than the nuts and bolts of technology itself. He left his prestigious and well-paid post as head of the Railway Mail Service largely because he was bored with it and wanted a challenge. Whatever else one could say about it, Bell Telephone certainly qualified on that front.

After arriving at the company’s recently opened headquarters in New York City, Vail sat down to consider what he had gotten himself into. He realized that victory in the war with Western Union would have to come through the courts; as matters currently stood, Bell Telephone had no chance of winning via the free market alone. The patent situation was confusing to say the least. Alexander Graham Bell had patented the first working telephone, but had mentioned the principle of variable resistance that could make the telephone truly usable only in an addendum hand-scrawled in the margin of that patent. And now Thomas Edison instead of Bell had patented the carbon transmitter that was the key to a practical variable-resistance telephone, suitable for mass production and deployment. It seemed that Bell Telephone and Western Union each owned half of the telephone. This clearly wouldn’t do it at all.

So, Vail had Thomas Watson troll through the records at the patent office, looking for some way out of this impasse. In an incredible stroke of luck, he found just what they needed. On April 14, 1877 — thirteen days before Edison had filed a patent application for his variable-resistance transmitter — a German immigrant, janitor, and amateur inventor named Emile Berliner had filed for a patent caveat on a variable-resistance transmitter of his own. It used a different approach than Edison’s design: a wire inside it was only loosely screwed onto its terminal, which allowed the point of contact to vibrate in tandem with the diaphragm mounted above the wire, thus varying the resistance of the circuit. Berliner’s design was, everyone could agree, nowhere near as effective as Edison’s finalized carbon transmitter — but it had come first, and that was the important thing. Vail tracked down Berliner, who was still pushing a broom for a living, and hired him at a generous salary in return for the rights to his patent caveat. Vail’s intention was never to put Berliner’s transmitter into production, but rather to create a plausible legal argument that the principle of the variable transmitter, like all of the other aspects of a practical telephone, was now the sole intellectual property of the Bell Telephone Company. The new variable-resistance telephones which Bell began sending to its customers as soon as it had acquired the rights to Berliner’s transmitter actually cloned Edison’s carbon-transmitter design.

On September 12, 1878, the Bell Telephone Company filed for an injunction against Western Union’s telephones in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Massachusetts. Following some preliminary skirmishing, Western Union, whose telegraphy business still dwarfed that of telephony, decided on November 10, 1879, that the telephony sideshow just wasn’t worth the trouble. It agreed to give up all of its claims to telephone technology and to get out of the telephone business altogether in return for 20 percent of all of its rival’s earnings from telephony for the lifetime of the patents around which the whole conflict had revolved. It was the Gilded Age in a nutshell: one established monopolist politely made space for another, would-be monopolist in a related but separate field.

But it wasn’t the end of the disputes over the origins of the telephone. Far from it: over the course of the following decade, Bell Telephone beat back some 600 separate legal challenges to its monopoly — including one from Elisha Gray, striking out on his own from Western Union, the company he had co-founded. The record of court filings came to fill 149 thick volumes. One of the cases went as far as the Supreme Court in March of 1888, where it was won by Bell Telephone by the thinnest of possible margins: the vote was four to three in favor of the validity of the Bell patents. By this point, however, the point verged on becoming moot: Bell Telephone now had a well-nigh unassailable head start over any potential competition, and the patents were due to expire in a few years anyway.

Alexander Graham Bell himself regarded the realities of the telephone business with ever-increasing distaste, and felt himself ever more estranged from the enterprise that bore his name. And to a large extent, the feeling was mutual: he had disappointed and angered his ostensible partners in Bell Telephone by, as they saw it, deserting them in their time of greatest need. He had been entirely absent from the American scene from August of 1877 until September of 1878, when he grudgingly agreed to return from Britain to act as a witness in court. “Business is hateful to me at all times,” he wrote to Gardiner Hubbard on one occasion. “I am sick of the telephone and [wish to] have done with it altogether, excepting as a plaything to amuse my leisure moments,” he wrote on another. “Why should it matter to the world who invented the telephone, so long as the world gets the benefit of it?” he wrote on yet a third occasion. “I have not kept up with the literature of telephonic research,” he remarked dismissively when he did finally turn up in person for the legal proceedings. These were not the messages which the men behind a company girding for the battle for its life — a company with the petulant messenger’s name on the marque — wished to hear.

Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell gradually cashed out of said company between 1879 and 1883. They were left wealthy, but not extraordinarily so. Ditto Sanders, Hubbard, and Watson, all of whom likewise sold most of their shares in Bell Telephone before the company was ten years old. “No mighty, self-perpetuating fortunes came out of telephony in America,” noted the historian John Brooks in 1975. “No counterpart to a Ford, Rockefeller, or Duke now survives as a ‘telephone heir.'” But this shouldn’t be construed to imply that the telephone didn’t make an enormous amount of money for Bell Telephone and others in the decades after its founders left the scene.

Alexander Graham Bell continued for the rest of his life to split his time between invention — he dabbled with somewhat mixed results in everything from medical technology to aviation, nautical transport to cinema — and his passion for improving the lot of the deaf. Mabel Bell provided a suitable epitaph when he died in 1922 at the age of 75: “He is big enough to stand as he is, very imperfect, lacking in things that are lovely in other men, but a good big man all the same…” It is true that, in a juster or at least more painstakingly accurate world, we might all agree to call the telephone a joint triumph, to be credited not only to Bell but to Edison, Gray, and perhaps some worthy others whose names have appeared not at all or only in passing in these articles. But history in the world we do have doesn’t like to become muddied with so many equivocations. Thus it has chosen to credit the telephone to Alexander Graham Bell alone. And, if one man must be chosen, he is as good a choice as any.

(Sources: the books Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude by Robert V. Bruce, Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone by Edwin S. Grosvenor, Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention by Charlotte Gray, Telephone: The First Hundred Years by John Brooks, and The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World by Randall E. Stross. Online sources include Bob’s Old Phones by Bob Estreich and “George M. Phelps” by John Casale on his website Telegraph History.)



A Web Around the World, Part 4: From Telegraphy to Telephony

For ten very odd days during the late summer of 1866, the entire world directed its attention toward the tiny Newfoundland fishing village of Heart’s Content, population about 100 souls. Then the Great Eastern sailed again, and the telegraph house there became just another unnoticed part of the world’s communications infrastructure, one of those thousands upon thousands of installations that no one thinks about until they stop working. The once wondrous Atlantic telegraph cable itself joined the same category not long after, almost as soon as the Great Eastern completed the final part of its assignment for the year: that of fishing the broken cable from the previous year up out of the ocean’s depths and completing its run to Newfoundland. Thus well before the end of 1866, there were two Atlantic cables in service, the second providing additional bandwidth and, just as importantly, redundancy in the case of a break in the first. Never since has the link between the two continents been severed.

The Anglo-American Telegraph Company’s final bill for this permanent remaking of the time scale of international diplomacy, business, and journalism came to £2.5 million, equivalent to about £320 million or $430 million in 2022 currency; this total includes all of the earlier failed attempts to lay the cable, but ignores the costs to American and British taxpayers entailed by the loaning of the Niagara and the Agamemnon and many other forms of government support. Thanks more to Cyrus Field’s stubbornness than any grand design, the transatlantic cable had become an international infrastructure project more expensive than any yet undertaken in the history of the world. And yet in the long term the cost of the cable was paltry in comparison to how much it did to change the way all of the people of the world viewed themselves in relation to the rest of their planet.

In the shorter term, however, this latest, working transatlantic cable was greeted with fewer ecstatic poems and joyful jubilees than the sadly muddled one of 1858 had enjoyed. The reaction was especially muted in the United States. Perhaps the long years of war that separated the two events had made those old dreams of a new epoch of international harmony seem hopelessly quaint, or perhaps the impatient Americans just thought it was high time already that this cable they’d been hearing about for so long started working properly. One of the few eloquent exceptions to the rule of blasé acceptance was provided by a prominent New York attorney named William Maxwell Evans. He noted the inscription on the base of a statue of Christopher Columbus in Madrid: “There was one world. He said, ‘Let there be two.’ And there were two.” Now, said Evans, Field had dared to reverse Columbus: “There were two worlds. He said, ‘Let there be one.’ And there was one.”

In lieu of more windy speeches, the working transatlantic telegraph prompted “a commercial revolution in America,” as Henry Field puts it — prompted a whole new era of globalized trade which has changed more in magnitude than in character in all the years since:

Every morning, as [Cyrus] Field went to his office [in New York City], he found laid on his desk at nine o’clock the quotations on the Royal Exchange at twelve! Lombard Street and Wall Street talked with each other as two neighbors across the way. This soon made an end of the tribe of speculators who calculated on the fact that nobody knew at a particular moment the state of the market on the other side of the sea, a universal ignorance by which they profited by getting advances. Now everybody got them as soon as they, for the news came with the rising of each day’s sun, and the occupation of a class that did much to demoralize trade on both sides of the ocean was gone.

The same restoration of order was seen in the business of importations, which had been hitherto almost a matter of guess-work. A merchant who wished to buy silks in Lyons sent his orders months in advance, and of course somewhat at random, not knowing how the market might turn, so that when the costly fabrics arrived he might find that he had ordered too many or too few. A China merchant sent his ship round the world for a cargo of tea, which returned after a year’s absence bringing not enough to supply the public demand, leaving him in vexation at the thought of what he might have made “if he had known,” or, what was still worse, bringing twice too much, in which case the unsold half remained on his hands. This was a risk against which he had to be insured, as much as against fire or shipwreck. And the only insurance he could have was to take reprisals by an increased charge on his unfortunate customers.

This double risk was now greatly reduced if not entirely removed. The merchant need no longer send out orders a year beforehand, nor order a whole shipload of tea when he needed only a hundred chests, since he could telegraph his agent for what he wanted and no more. With this opportunity for getting the latest intelligence, the element of uncertainty was eliminated and the importer no longer did business at a venture. Buying from time to time, so as to take advantage of low markets, he was able to buy cheaper, and of course to sell cheaper. It would be a curious study to trace the effect of the cable upon the prices of all foreign goods. A New York merchant who has been himself an importer for forty years tells me that the saving to the American people cannot be less than many millions every year.

That said, it was the well-heeled who most directly benefited from the Atlantic cables in their early months and years. For all of William Thomson’s work, the bandwidth of each of them was still limited to little more than twelve words per minute, making them a precious resource indeed. The initial going rate for sending a message between continents was a rather staggering £1 or $7.50 per word, at a time when a skilled craftsman’s weekly wage might be around $10.

But that was merely the curse of the early adopter, something with which a technology-mad world would become all too familiar over the century and a half to come. In time, the pressure of competition combined with ever-improving cables and systems brought the price down dramatically. The Anglo-American Telegraph Company’s first competitor entered the ring already in 1869, when a French cooperative laid a cable of its own from Brest to Newfoundland and then on to Boston. By 1875, a transatlantic telegram cost a slightly more manageable $1 per word; by 1892, the price was down to 25¢ per word — still a stretch for the average American or European to use for private correspondence, but cheap enough for markets, businesses, governments, and news organizations to use very profitably, given their economies of scale. Soon “the wire” was synonymous with news itself.

By 1893, no fewer than ten transatlantic telegraph cables were in service, all of them transmitting at several times the speed of the cables of 1866; just seven years later, the total was fifteen. Other undersea cables pulled India, Australia, China, and Japan into this first worldwide web. It was now possible to send a message from any reasonably sized city in the world all the way around the world, until it made it back to its starting point from the opposite direction just a few hours later.

Henry Field again, writing in 1893:

The morning news comes after a night’s repose, and we are wakened gently to the new day which has dawned upon the world. That which serves to such an end, which is a connecting link between countries and races of men, is not a mere material thing, an iron chain, lying cold and dead in the icy depths of the Atlantic. It is a living, fleshly bond between severed portions of the human family, thrilling with life, along which every human impulse runs swift as the current in human veins, and will run forever. Free intercourse between nations, as between individuals, leads to mutual kindly offices that make those who at once give and receive feel that they are not only neighbors but friends. Hence the “mission” of submarine telegraphy is to be the minister of peace.

Sentiments like these had once again become commonplace even in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century, as the memories of civil war faded. It was now widely believed that the developed world at least had become too intimately intertwined, thanks largely to the telegraph, to ever seriously contemplate war again. The bloody twentieth century to come would prove such sentiments sadly naïve, but it was a nice thought while it lasted. (Internet idealists would of course be slowly and painfully disabused of much the same sentiments a century later; human technology, it seems, cannot so easily overcome human nature.)

By the time the century turned, the machines and men who had created this revolution in communications were mostly gone.

The Great Eastern, that colossal white elephant that had finally found a purpose with the laying of the first transatlantic cables, continued in its new role for some time thereafter, laying three further cables across the Atlantic and still more of them in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean. But its new career was ended by the completion of the CS Faraday, the first ship designed from the hull up for the purpose, in 1874; this vessel could lay cables far cheaper and more efficiently. Cast adrift on the waters of life once more with no clear purpose, the Great Eastern spent some time as a floating concert hall and tourist attraction, even at one point became a mobile billboard sailing up and down the Mersey River. Its glory days now a distant memory, the rusting hulk was sold for scrap in 1888.

The Great Eastern near the end of its days, when it was reduced to serving as a floating billboard for Lewis’s department stores.

Charles Bright died the same year at age 55, after a high-profile public career as a proponent of electrical technology in all its forms and a three-year stint in the House of Commons.

William Thomson was blessed with a longer, even more spectacular career that encompassed a diverse variety of achievements in the theoretical and applied sciences, from atomic physics to geology, as well as five years spent as the president of the Royal Society. In 1891, Queen Victoria ennobled him, making him Lord Kelvin, after the river that flowed through the University of Glasgow where he taught and researched. He didn’t die until 1907 at age 83, whereupon he was given a funeral in Westminster Abbey commensurate with his status as the grand old man of British science. A system for measuring temperature on an absolute thermodynamic scale, which he had first begun working on well before the transatlantic cable, became known after his death as “the kelvin scale” by the universal consensus of the international scientific community.

His erstwhile arch-rival Wildman Whitehouse, on the other hand, shrank from public life after it became clear to everyone that he had been wrong and Thomson had been right about the best design for the first Atlantic cable. When Whitehouse died in 1890 at age 73, the event went entirely unremarked.

Cyrus Field was made richer than ever for a while by the transatlantic telegraph. He splashed his millions around Wall Street both in the hope of making more millions and out of that spirit of idealism that was such an indelible part of the man’s character. For example, he funded much of the construction of New York City’s “El” lines of elevated trains, the precursor to its current subway system, by all indications out of a simple conviction that the people of the city deserved better than “crowded to suffocation” streetcars. Prone as he was to prioritize his ideals over his pocketbook, he gradually fell back out of the first rank of Gilded Age money men. He died in 1892 at age 72, whereupon he was buried behind the family church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His unremarkable gravestone bears an epitaph that is as straightforward as the man himself:

Cyrus West Field, to whose courage, energy, and perseverance the world owes the Atlantic telegraph.

Samuel Morse, that brilliant but deeply flawed original motivating force behind the telegraph, left behind a more mixed legacy. Even as Field had been struggling to make the transatlantic telegraph a reality, Morse had taken to occupying himself mostly with litigation of one form or another; cases brought by him reached the Supreme Court on no fewer than fifteen separate occasions. When Morse died in 1872 at the age of 80, his private reputation inside a telegraph industry that publicly eulogized him wasn’t much better than that of the typical patent troll of today, thanks to his meanness about payments and credit. Thankfully, his telegraph patents had expired eleven years earlier, which had served to draw the worst of his venom. Morse’s design for the telegraph itself as well as for the Morse key and Morse Code had thus been freed to take on a life of their own independent of their inventor, as all important inventions eventually must.

In addition to changing the world in the here and now, those same inventions paved the way for the next stage in the evolution of the global village. What that stage might entail had begun to show itself already one day in May of 1846, when the telegraph in service was still a curiosity and the idea of a transatlantic telegraph still a pipe dream. On the day in question, Joseph Henry — the most respected American theoretical scientist of telegraphy, whose advocacy had been so crucial for winning support for Morse’s design — happened to be visiting Philadelphia, where he was invited to witness a mechanical “speaking figure” created by a German immigrant named Joseph Faber. The automaton could, it was claimed, literally speak in recognizable English. Henry always took a certain ironic pleasure in revealing the fraud behind inventions that seemed too good to be true, a species to which he surely must have suspected Faber’s speaking figure to belong. But what he saw and heard that day instead thrilled him in a different way.

The astute German’s contraption took the physical form of a Turkish-looking boy sitting crossed-legged on a table. Faber made it “talk” by forcing air through a mechanical replica of the human mouth, tongue, glottis, and larynx, which could be reconfigured on the fly to produce any of sixteen elementary sounds. By “playing” it on a repurposed organ keyboard, Faber could indeed bring his puppet to produce labored but basically comprehensible English speech. Joseph Henry was entranced — not so much by the puppet itself, which he rightly judged to be no more nor less than a clever parlor trick, but by the potential of combining mechanical speech with telegraphy. “The keys,” he noted, “could be worked by means of electromagnets, and with a little contrivance, not difficult to execute, words might be spoken at one end of the telegraph line which had their origin at the other.” It was the world’s first documented inkling of the possibility of a telephone — a tool for “distant speaking,” as opposed to the “distant writing” of the telegraph. That tool, when it came, would transmit the speech of real humans rather than a synthetic version of it, but Henry’s words were nonetheless prescient.

Many of the others who saw Faber’s automaton were less thrilled. The very idea of the human voice being reproduced mechanically had an occult aura about it in the mid-nineteenth century. It thus comes as little surprise that the legendary showman and conman P.T. Barnum, who specialized in all things uncanny and disturbing, recruited Faber and his artificial boy for one of his traveling exhibitions. In this capacity, the two made their way across the Atlantic to London’s Egyptian Hall. The description provided by one witness who saw them there sounds almost like an extract from a macabre tale by Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft:

The exhibitor, Professor Faber, was a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery. The room looked like a laboratory and workshop, which it was. The professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber. I had no doubt that he slept in the same room as the figure — his scientific Frankenstein monster — and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together. The professor, with a slight German accent, put his wonderful toy in motion. He explained its action: it was not necessary to prove the absence of deception. The keyboard, touched by the professor, produced words which slowly and deliberately in a hoarse sepulchral voice came from the mouth of the figure, as if from the depths of a tomb. It wanted little imagination to make the very few visitors believe that the figure contained an imprisoned human — or half human — being, bound to speak slowly when tormented by the unseen power outside.

As a crowning display, the head sang a sepulchral version of “God Save the Queen,” which suggested inevitably God save the inventor. This extraordinary effect was achieved by the professor working two keyboards — one for the words and one for the music. Never probably before or since has the national anthem been so sung. Sadder and wiser, I and the few visitors crept slowly from the place, leaving the professor with his one and only treasure — his child of infinite labour and unmeasurable sorrow.

Joseph Faber with his “Euphonia,” or speaking machine.

Alas, Joseph Faber met a fate worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe protagonist. Exploited and underpaid like all of P.T. Barnum’s entourage of curiosities, he committed suicide in 1850 on the squalid streets of London’s East End.

Before he did so, however, there came to his room in the Egyptian Hall one open-minded visitor who was more fascinated than appalled by the performance: a Scottish phonetician named Alexander Melville Bell, who had spent most of his life studying the mechanisms of speech in the cause of teaching the deaf to communicate with the hearing. This man’s son, who was still in the womb when his father saw Faber’s automation, would go on to create a different form of mechanical speech, making his family name virtually synonymous with the telephone.

The young Alexander Graham Bell.

Alec is a good fellow and, I have no doubt, will make an excellent husband. He is hot-headed but warm-hearted — sentimental, dreamy, and self-absorbed, but sincere and unselfish. He is ambitious to a fault, and is apt to let enthusiasm run away with judgment. I have told you all the faults I know in him, and this catalogue is wonderfully short.

— Gardiner Greene Hubbard, writing to his daughter Mabel on the subject of Alexander Graham Bell

When a 23-year-old Alexander Graham Bell fetched up on North American shores from his hometown of Edinburgh on August 1, 1870, he resembled a sullen, lovesick adolescent more than a brilliant inventor. Earlier that year, his elder brother had died of tuberculosis. Devastated by grief, disappointed at the cool reception his techniques for teaching the deaf to read lips and to enunciate understandable speech in return had garnered in Britain, his father Alexander Melville had opted for a fresh start in Canada. The younger Alexander had initially agreed to join his father, mother, and widowed sister-in-law in the adventure, but almost immediately regretted it, thanks not least to a girl in Edinburgh whom he hoped to marry. But his pointed hints about his change of heart availed him nothing; his father didn’t let him off from his promise. On the passage over, young Alexander filled his journal with petulant musings about how “a man’s own judgment should be the final appeal in all that relates to himself. Many men do this or that because someone else has thought it right.”

But he wasn’t a malcontent by nature, and he soon made the best of things in the New World. Like his father, he would always consider his true life’s calling to be improving the plight of the deaf. Their dedication had a common source: Eliza Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s mother, was herself so hard of hearing as to be effectively deaf. In April of 1871, her son became a teacher at the School for Deaf Mutes in Boston. A kindly, generous man at bottom, he approached his work there with an altruistic zeal. “My feelings and sympathies are every day more and more aroused,” he wrote home to his family. “It makes my very heart ache to see the difficulties the little children have to contend with.”

He wasn’t just empathetic; he was also effective. By combining instruction in elocution and lip-reading with sign language, he did wonders for many of his students’ ability to engage with the hearing world around them. He wrote articles for prestigious journals, and earned the reputation of something of a miracle worker among the wealthy families of New England, who clamored to employ him as a private tutor for their hearing-impaired children.

Worthy though Bell’s work as a teacher of the deaf was, it would seem to be far removed from the telegraph and other marvels of the burgeoning new Age of Electricity. But there was another side to Alexander Graham Bell. His interest in elocution in the abstract had led from an early age to an interest in the biological mechanisms of human speech, and possible ways of artificially reproducing them. When he was just sixteen, he and his now-deceased brother had made a crude duplicate of a human soft palate and tongue out of wood, rubber, and cotton; by manipulating it in just the right way whilst blowing through an attached tube, they could get it to say a few simple words like “Mama.” One day when they were playing with it on the stairwell outside the family apartment, a neighbor poked her head out to see “what was wrong with the baby”; they viewed this as a triumph. Now the boys’ focus shifted to the family dog. They trained it to growl on cue while they manipulated the poor, patient animal’s mouth and throat — and out came some semi-recognizable facsimile of, “How are you, grandmama?”

Needless to say, the young Alexander had listened to his father’s stories of Joseph Faber’s talking automaton with rapt attention. Another phonetician told him that another German scientist and inventor by the name of Hermann von Helmholtz had recently written a book on the possibility of synthetic speech. It explained how vowel sounds could be generated by passing electrical currents through different combinations of tuning forks. The operator sat behind a keyboard not dissimilar to the one used by Faber, and like him pressed different combinations of keys to make different sounds; the big difference was that, while Faber’s puppet was powered by compressed air, Helmholtz’s gadget was entirely electrical. But Bell didn’t read German, and so could do little more than look at the diagrams of Helmholtz’s device that were included in the book. This led to an important misunderstanding: whereas in reality each tuning fork was connected to the master keyboard via its own wire, Bell thought that one wire passed through all of the forks, and that it was the characteristics of the current on that wire — more specifically, its frequency — that caused some of them to ring out while others remained silent. “The notion was entirely mistaken,” writes the historian of telephony John Brooks, “but the mistake was an accident of destiny.”

Bell’s destiny became manifest on October 18, 1872, when he opened a Boston newspaper to see an article about the “duplex telegraphy” system of a local man named Joseph B. Stearns. An important advance in the state of the art of electrical communication in its own right, duplex telegraphy allowed one to send separate messages simultaneously in opposite directions along a single telegraph wire. In a world where telegraph congestion was becoming a major issue, this was a more than significant gain in efficiency. Being quite fast and cheap to retro-fit onto existing telegraph lines in busy areas, Stearns’s system would soon become commonplace. But already other inventors were beginning to think about how to go even farther, how to send even more messages simultaneously down a single wire. Oddly enough, Alexander Graham Bell, teacher of the deaf, became one of these.

Joseph Stearns’s ingenious system for duplex telegraphy, which inspired Alexander Graham Bell’s initial investigations in the field. B in the diagram above is an iron bar. The wire running from the local battery (b) is split in two. Both of these wires are wound around the bar, but only wire 1 goes on to connect with the station at the other end of the line; wire 2 runs directly to ground. An electromagnetic switch is connected to the bar at N, and to the other side of this switch is connected the receiving apparatus. Because a locally generated signal passes evenly through the bar, the bar does not become magnetically unbalanced, and thus does not activate this switch. But a signal originating from the other station passes through only half of the bar, magnetizing it and tripping the switch, which allows the signal to go on to the receiving apparatus.

Bell’s idea was to pass the signal from each of several Morse keys attached to a single wire through a device known as a rheotome, which interrupted the flow of an electrical current at a user-adjustable speed, causing it to “vibrate” at a distinct frequency — akin to a distinct pitch when thought of in acoustic terms, as Bell most assuredly did. At the far end of the line would be a set of steel reeds attuned to each of these frequencies via tension screws, so that they would resonate and become magnetized only when their matching frequency reached them. These reeds, in combination with electromagnetic switches which they would trigger, would serve to sort out all of the different frequencies coming down the same wire, matching each Morse key at the sending end with the appropriate receiver by means of its unique electro-acoustic thumbprint. By the end of 1873, however, Bell had gotten only as far as being able to produce audible, simultaneous tones on his receiving reeds by pressing different Morse keys; he had done little more than duplicate the functionality of Hermann von Helmholtz’s vowel-speaking machine, albeit by wiring his reeds serially rather than in parallel like Helmholtz’s tuning forks.

Nevertheless, in January of 1874 Bell, still a loyal Briton despite his residency in the United States, wrote to the British Superintendent of Telegraphs explaining that he believed himself to be on the verge of an important breakthrough in the emerging field of multiplex telegraphy, one which he wished to offer to Her Majesty’s government free of charge. The reply was coldly impersonal, not to say disinterested: “If you will submit your invention it will be considered, on the understanding, however, that the department is not bound to secrecy in the matter, nor to indemnify you for any loss or expense you may incur in the furtherance of your object, and that in the event of your method of telegraphy appearing to be both original and useful, all questions of remuneration shall rest entirely with the postmaster-general.” Bell understandably took this as “almost a personal affront,” and decided to turn to private industry in the United States instead. The whole incident thus became another of those hidden, fateful linchpins of history. In so rudely rejecting its citizen inventor, the British government ensured that the telephone, like the telegraph before it, would go down in history as a product of the American can-do spirit.

Then again, the British government’s skepticism about this amateur inventor working so far outside of his usual field would scarcely have been questioned by any reasonable person at the time. Bell was not deeply versed in the vagaries of electricity, and his progress always seemed to be a matter of two steps forward, one step back — or the inverse.

Still, his experiments were intriguing enough that he attracted a pair of patrons, both of whose deaf children he had taught. Thomas Sanders was a wealthy leather merchant, while Gardiner Greene Hubbard was a prominent lawyer and public-spirited scion of old Boston wealth. Of the two, Hubbard would take the more active role, becoming at some times a vital source of moral support for Bell and at others a vexing micromanager. Their relationship was further complicated by the fact that Bell was desperately in love with Hubbard’s deaf daughter — and his own former student — Mabel.

Sanders and Hubbard joined their charge in forming the Bell Patent Association. They provided him with his first proper workshop and hired a part-time assistant to join him, a young machinist named Thomas A. Watson. Bell and Watson became fast friends despite their differences in socioeconomic status, their rapport taking on something of the flavor of another famous pairing which involves the name of Watson; instead of “Elementary, my dear Watson,” Bell’s catchphrase became, “Watson, we are on the verge of a great discovery!” And yet their demonstrable progress remained damnably slow. Even with the help of his assistant, who had many of the practical skills he lacked, Bell just couldn’t seem to get his “harmonic telegraph” to work reliably.

Everyone involved was keenly aware that Bell was not the only person in hot pursuit of further advances in multiplex telegraphy. Among his competition were the distinguished electrical engineer Elisha Gray, co-founder of a company known as Western Union that had come to dominate virtually all American telegraphy, and a young whiz kid named Thomas Edison. Bell was in a race, one that he felt himself to be losing to these men of vastly greater experimental know-how, who lived and breathed electric current in a way that he never would. Trying to keep up nearly killed him; he was still spending his days teaching the deaf students he couldn’t bear to abandon, even as he spent every evening in his laboratory.

From the perspective of today, it may seem that Bell was missing the forest for the trees as he continued to fashion ever more baroque devices for combining and then separating signals of different frequencies running down the same wire. He understood well that an electrical waveform could theoretically be made into an exact duplicate of a sound wave; all of his work was contingent on the similarities between the two. Yet it took him a long time to fully embrace a goal which seems obvious to us: that of transmitting sound electronically as a purpose unto itself, a revolutionary advance to which any potential incremental advances in multiplex telegraphy couldn’t hold a candle.

There was one central problem which prevented Bell from making that leap: he knew how to create an electronic waveform that captured only half of the data encoded by a sound wave in the real world. His circuits were all powered by an external battery, providing direct current at a fixed amplitude. He could vary the frequency of this current using a rheotome, but he had no way of changing its amplitude. In other words, he could transmit a sound’s pitch (or frequency) but not its volume (or amplitude). This meant that he could mimic uniform tones in electric current, but not the complexities of, say, human speech.

Using a rheotone, Bell could transmit uniform sounds of low (left) or high (right) pitch.

He couldn’t, however, transmit a more complex waveform like the one above.

June 2, 1875, was a miserably hot day in Boston. Bell and Watson were working in a rather desultory fashion on their harmonic telegraph in their cramped laboratory; their progress of late had been as slow as ever. Bell was on the sending end in one room, Watson on the receiving end in the other, and, as usual, the thing wasn’t working correctly; one reed on the receiving end stubbornly refused to sound. So, they shut down the battery, and Watson started plucking the recalcitrant reed to make sure it was free to move as it should.

Because the system would need to be able to send messages in both directions, it was equipped with both rheotomes and receiving reeds on each of its ends. But, because they weren’t in use at the moment, the reeds on Bell’s end had been left untuned. And it was these latter that now gave Alexander Graham Bell one of the shocks of his life: he found that he could see and faintly hear the reeds on his side vibrate in time with Watson’s plucking, even with no power flowing through the circuit. He realized that a residual magnetism in Watson’s reed must be creating a faint electrical signal of its own on the wire. And, crucially, this signal varied not just in pitch but in amplitude. It seemed that one counterintuitive trick to sending sound down a wire was to remove the amplitude-obscuring battery from the circuit entirely. “I have accidentally made a discovery of the greatest importance,” Bell wrote in a letter to Hubbard. “I have succeeded today in transmitting signals without any battery whatsoever!” The harmonic telegraph was momentarily forgotten in favor of this new possibility.

Bell sketched for Watson a design that used identical devices on each end of a wire for both sending and receiving the spoken word. They consisted of a single untuned metal reed, an electromagnet, and a thin diaphragm. If one spoke into one of them shortly after power had been supplied to the wire — i..e, when the electromagnets still retained some residual magnetism — the resulting vibrations of the diaphragm ought to induce a very faint electrical signal of the same character as the sound wave that had caused the vibration. At the other end of the wire, this signal would be translated back into sound when it caused the reed to vibrate.

Alexander Graham Bell’s very first attempt at a telephone, using unpowered magnetic induction. It was later given the rather morbid nickname of the “gallows telephone,” after its resemblance to an execution gallows when turned on end.

Experts who have looked at the design since have concluded that it is workable in principle. In practice, however, it stubbornly refused to function properly. Bell and Watson just couldn’t seem to get the fine-tuning right, could get it to transmit some form of sound but not comprehensible speech. The Achilles heel of the “magnetic induction” method of sound transmission was the vanishing faintness of the signals it produced. Even under perfect conditions, a human voice could reach the other end of a wire as the barest whisper, audible only to a person with very keen hearing — and the slightest technical infelicity would mean it couldn’t even manage that much.

Faced with this latest setback, and with his harmonic telegraph also seemingly going nowhere, Alexander Graham Bell came very close to giving up on electrical invention altogether. He and Watson were both utterly frazzled, having worked themselves to the bone in recent months. Gardiner Hubbard remained enthusiastic about telegraphy, but was less interested in telephony, and didn’t hesitate to tell Bell this. Bell himself now believed that his harmonic telegraph stood little chance against its competition even if he could get it working — by now Thomas Edison had already patented a design for a telegraph capable of sending four messages simultaneously down the same wire — but he hesitated to say as much to his prospective father-in-law. Instead he prevaricated, devoting more time and energy once again to his teaching. Needless to say, this too displeased Hubbard. “I have been sorry to see how little interest you seem to take in telegraph matters,” he wrote to Bell that fall. “Your whole course has been a very great disappointment to me, and a sore trial.” What Bell and Hubbard didn’t know, but would doubtless have been even more consternated to learn, was that Elisha Gray had also turned away from multiplex telegraphy in the wake of Edison’s patent and begun pursuing the possibility of telephony.

What time Bell did spend on his electrical pursuits during the second half of 1875 was largely devoted to preparing a patent application for his inventions, even though none of them quite worked yet. Hubbard helped him to file it, on February 14, 1876. Incredibly, just a few hours later on that same day Gray filed a “caveat” — a claim of primacy submitted before a formal patent application — detailing his plans for a “speaking telephone.” Had the order been reversed, the history of the telephone in service might have gone much differently, with the name of “Gray” replacing that of “Bell” in the annals of invention.

But as it was, Bell’s own patent application, which was approved on March 7, 1876, would go on to become one of the most valuable and controversial in American history. To say it buries the lede is an understatement: rather than Gray’s speaking telephone, it promises only “improvements in telegraphy,” never even using the word “telephone.” And rather than the transmission of intelligible speech, it promises only the transmission of “vocal or other sounds” — which was accurate enough, considering that this was all that Bell and Watson had managed to date by even the most generous possible interpretation.

Still, the patent filing did reinvigorate the young inventor and his assistant: they returned to their laboratory and began working in earnest again. The day after his patent was approved, Bell was futzing about alone when he did something that seems almost inexplicable on the face of it, being out of keeping with all of his experiments to date. First he attached a battery to a wire. He then split one end of the wire into two leads, running one of them to a tuning fork and dropping the other into a dish of water. At the other end of the wire he attached one of his metal reeds, but left it untuned so that it would vibrate freely in response to any signal. He tapped the tuning fork to make it vibrate and dipped one of its arms into the dish of water, whereupon he was rewarded with a “faint sound” from the reed. Excited now, he added some sulfuric acid to the water to make it a better conductor, then repeated the experiment. Sure enough, the sound from the reed got louder. He attached the lead in the water to a submerged ribbon of brass, and the sound got louder still.

What was happening here? The liquid in the dish and the metal of the tuning fork both being conductive, they were serving to bridge the two leads, allowing the current from the battery to flow between them. But the vibrations of the tuning fork were varying the resistance of the circuit, which in turn varied the frequency and amplitude of the current flowing along it. This “variable resistance” method of transmitting a sound wave was far superior to the unpowered magnetic induction Bell had been relying on earlier, which had been able to create the merest trace of a signal on the line. This signal, by contrast, was stronger to begin with, and could be further amplified to whatever extent one desired simply by using more and/or larger batteries. It was the great breakthrough on the road to a practical, usable telephone. Bell immediately went in search of Watson.

Two days later, all was in readiness for the pivotal test. Watson, who had by now taken on a recording function for the duo’s adventures not that far removed from his literary namesake, describes the scene:

I had made Bell a new transmitter, in which a wire, attached to a diaphragm, touched acidulated water contained in a metal cup, both included in a circuit through the battery and receiving telephone. The depth of the wire in the acid and consequently the resistance of the circuit was varied as the voice made the diaphragm vibrate, which made the galvanic current undulate in speech form.

At the other end of the wire was of course an untuned metal reed, waiting to receive whatever electrical signal came down the wire and turn it back into sound waves.

Bell’s crude sketch of his first “liquid transmitter” telephone.

Bell took his spot at the transmitting station, while Watson went to the receiving station behind a closed door in the adjacent room. And then Watson heard the canonical first words ever spoken into a working telephone: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

I rushed into his room and found he had upset the acid of a battery over his clothes. He forgot the accident in the joy of his new transmitter when I told him how plainly I had heard his words.

The two men spent hours running between the rooms testing out their contraption, which did indeed work — not perfectly, mind you, but vastly more reliably than anything they had created to date. In an inadvertent homage to poor Joseph Faber, Bell concluded the evening’s festivities by singing “God Save the Queen” into the wire. “This is a great day with me,” he wrote. “I feel that I have at last struck the solution of a great problem — and the day is coming when telegraph [sic] wires will be laid on to houses just like water or gas — and friends converse with each other without leaving home.” The words were prescient. Alexander Graham Bell, elocutionist and teacher of the deaf, working alone except for one talented assistant, had invented the telephone before anyone else.

Or had he?

In the very near future, individuals and courts would come to speculate endlessly about where the sudden burst of insight that a sound wave could be transmitted on a powered wire by varying the circuit’s resistance had actually come from. The possibility is mentioned in Bell’s patent application, but only as a last-minute, hand-scrawled notation in the margin. Elisha Gray’s patent caveat, by contrast, includes not only the principle but a detailed description of how a transmitter very similar to the one Bell employed might be made, right down to a diaphragm with a lead dangling into a dish of acidulated water. Bell himself wrote in a letter to his father that he had become friendly with the clerk who had accepted both documents, and continued to talk with him regularly while his own patent was going through the approval process. Did the clerk let slip these details of Gray’s design, or possibly even allow Bell to look at the document itself? Did he let Bell add that crucial note to the margin of his own patent application after its submission? (Bell did later acknowledge that he was allowed to “clarify” some other terms that the patent office deemed too vague in the first draft.) All of these things would soon be insinuated in court.

Elisha Gray, the man who some insist deserves at least equal credit with Alexander Graham Bell for the invention of the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell’s personal papers did provide some exculpatory evidence after they were donated to the Library of Congress in 1976. Bell’s notes show that he was thinking about the potential of using variable resistance to transmit sound as early as May 4, 1875, and even conducted some experiments in that direction shortly thereafter. Likewise, he did tinker with “liquid transmitters” from time to time prior to that fateful date of March 8, 1876. Still, he never thought to combine a transmitter using acidulated water with the principle of variable resistance until suspiciously close to the moment that Elisha Gray submitted a detailed plan for doing so to a man with whom Bell later had several fairly long conversations. The evidence is highly circumstantial, to be sure, but is no less hard to discount entirely for that. Historians have combed through all of the relevant papers thoroughly without finding any more definitive smoking gun pointing one way or the other. It seems that the truth of the matter will never be known with complete certainty.

On the other hand, if we judge that the credit for an invention should go to the first person to make a working version of it, full stop, then we can comfortably declare Alexander Graham Bell to be the inventor of the telephone; there is no suggestion that Gray actually built the telephone he designed on paper prior to Bell’s first successful test on March 10, 1876. The whole controversy serves to remind us that any remotely modern technology is a mishmash of ideas and discoveries, and the order and primacy of the whole is not always as clear as we might wish.

At any rate, the telephone was now a reality. And now that it was invented, it needed to be put into service.

(Sources: the books The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison by Michael B. Schiffer, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman, A Thread across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Telegraph by John Steele Gordon, The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph by Henry M. Field, Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude by Robert V. Bruce, Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone by Edwin S. Grosvenor, Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention by Charlotte Gray, Telephone: The First Hundred Years by John Brooks, and American Telegraphy and Encyclopedia of the Telegraph by William Maver, Jr. Online sources include History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications and “Joseph Faber and the Euphonia Talking Device” at History Computer.)


Posted by on February 18, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction



A Web Around the World, Part 3: …Try, Try Again

A major financial panic struck the United States in August of 1857, just as the Niagara was making the first attempt to lay the Atlantic cable. Cyrus Field had to mortgage his existing businesses heavily just to keep them going. But he was buoyed by one thing: as the aftershocks of the panic spread to Europe, packet steamers took to making St. John’s, Newfoundland, their first port of call in the Americas for the express purpose of passing the financial news they carried to the island’s telegraph operators so that it could reach Wall Street as quickly as possible. It had taken the widespread threat of financial ruin, but Frederick Gisborne’s predictions about the usefulness of a Newfoundland telegraph were finally coming true. Now just imagine if the line could be extended all the way across the Atlantic…

While he waited for the return of good weather to the Atlantic, Field sought remedies for everything that had gone wrong with the first attempt to lay a telegraph cable across an ocean. The Niagara‘s chief engineer, a man named William Everett, had examined Charles Bright’s paying-out mechanism with interest during the last expedition, and come up with a number of suggestions for improving it. Field sought and was granted Everett’s temporary release from the United States Navy, and brought him to London to redesign the machine. The result was actually simpler in most ways, being just one-fourth of the weight and one-third of the size of Bright’s design. But it incorporated a critical new feature: the brake now set and released itself automatically in response to the level of tension on the cable. “It seemed to have the intelligence of a human being, to know when to hold on and when to let go,” writes Henry Field. In reality, it was even better than a human being, in that it never got tired and never let its mind wander; no longer would a moment’s inattention on the part of a fallible human operator be able to wreck the whole project.

Charles Bright accepted the superseding of his original design with good grace; he was an engineer to the core, the new paying-out machine was clearly superior to the old one, and so there wasn’t much to discuss in his view. There was ongoing discord, however, between two more of Cyrus Field’s little band of advisors.

Wildman Whitehouse and William Thomson had been competing for Field’s ear for quite some time now. At first the former had won out, largely because he told Field what he most wished to hear: that a transatlantic telegraph could be made to work with an unusually long but otherwise fairly plebeian cable, using bog-standard sending and receiving mechanisms. But Field was a thoughtful man, and of late he’d begun losing faith in the surgeon and amateur electrical experimenter. He was particularly bothered by Whitehouse’s blasé attitude toward the issue of signal retardation.

Meanwhile Thomson was continuing to whisper contrary advice in his ear. He said that he still thought it would be best to use a thicker cable like the one he had originally proposed, but, when informed that there just wasn’t money in the budget for such a thing, he said that he thought he could get even Whitehouse’s design to work more efficiently. His scheme exploited the fact that even a heavily retarded signal probably wouldn’t become completely uniform: the current at the far end of the wire would still be full of subtle rises and falls where the formerly discrete dots and dashes of Morse Code had been. Thomson had been working on a new, ultrasensitive galvanometer, which ingeniously employed a lamp, a magnet, and a tiny mirror to detect the slightest variation in current amplitude. Two operators would work together to translate a signal on the receiving end of the cable: one, trained to interpret the telltale patterns of reflected light bobbing up and down in front of him, would translate them into Morse Code and call it out to his partner. Over the strident objections of Whitehouse, Field agreed to install the system, and also agreed to give Thomson access to the enormous spools of existing cable that were now warehoused in Plymouth, England, waiting for the return of spring. Thomson meticulously tested the cable one stretch at a time, and convinced Field to let him cut out those sections where its conductivity was worst.

The United States and Royal Navies agreed to lend the Atlantic Telegraph Company the same two vessels as last time for a second attempt at laying the cable. To save time, however, it was decided that the ships would work simultaneously: they would sail to the middle of the Atlantic, splice their cables together there, then each head toward a separate continent. So, in April of 1858, the Niagara and the Agamemnon arrived in Plymouth to begin the six-week process of loading the cable. They sailed together from there on June 10. Samuel Morse elected not to travel with the expedition this time, but Charles Bright, William Thomson, Cyrus Field and his two brothers, and many of the other principals were aboard one or the other ship.

They had been told that “June was the best month for crossing the Atlantic,” as Henry Field writes. They should be “almost sure of fair weather.” On the contrary, on June 13 the little fleet sailed into the teeth of one of the worst Atlantic storms of the nineteenth century. The landlubbers aboard had never imagined that such a natural fury as this could exist. For three days, the ships were lashed relentlessly by the wind and waves. With 1250 tons of cable each on their decks and in their holds, both the Niagara and the Agamemnon rode low in the water and were a handful to steer under the best of circumstances; now they were in acute danger of foundering, capsizing, or simply breaking to pieces under the battering.

The Agamemnon was especially hard-pressed: bracing beams snapped below decks, and the hull sprang leaks in multiple locations. “The ship was almost as wet inside as out,” wrote a horrified Times of London reporter who had joined the expedition. The crew’s greatest fear was that one of the spools of cable in the hold would break loose and punch right through the hull; they fought a never-ending battle to secure the spools against each successive onslaught. While they were thus distracted, the ship’s gigantic coal hampers gave way instead, sending tons of the filthy stuff skittering everywhere, injuring many of the crew. That the Agamemnon survived the storm at all was thanks to masterful seamanship on the part of its captain, who remained awake on the bridge for 72 hours straight, plotting how best to ride out each wave.

An artist’s rendering of the Agamemnon in the grip of the storm, as published in the Illustrated London News.

Separated from one another by the storm, the two ships met up again on June 25 smack dab in the middle of an Atlantic Ocean that was once again so tranquil as to “seem almost unnatural,” as Henry Field puts it. The men aboard the Niagara were shocked at the state of the Agamemnon; it was so badly battered and so covered in coal dust that it looked more like a garbage scow than a proud Royal Navy ship of the line. But no matter: it was time to begin the task they had come here to carry out.

So, the cables were duly spliced on June 26, and the process of laying them began — with far less ceremony than last time, given that there were no government dignitaries on the scene. The two ships steamed away from one another, the Niagara westward toward Newfoundland, the Agamemnon eastward toward Ireland, with telegraph operators aboard each ship constantly testing the tether that bound them together as they went. They had covered a combined distance of just 40 miles when the line suddenly went dead. Following the agreed-upon protocol in case of such an eventuality, both crews cut their end of the cable, letting it drop uselessly into the ocean, then turned around and steamed back to the rendezvous point; neither crew had any idea what had happened. Still, the break had at least occurred early enough that there ought still to be enough cable remaining to span the Atlantic. There was nothing for it but to splice the cables once more and try again.

This time, the distance between the ships steadily increased without further incident: 100 miles, 200 miles, 300 miles. “Why not lay 2000 [miles]!” thought Henry Field with a shiver of excitement. Then, just after the Agamemnon had made a routine splice from one spool to the next, the cable snapped in the ship’s wake. Later inspection would reveal that that section of it had been damaged in the storm. Nature’s fury had won the day after all. Again following protocol for a break this far into the cable-laying process, the two ships sailed separately back to Britain.

It was a thoroughly dejected group of men who met soon after in the offices of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Whereas last year’s attempt to lay the cable had given reason for guarded optimism in the eyes of some of them, this latest attempt seemed an unadulterated fiasco. The inexplicable loss of signal the first time this expedition had tried to lay the cable was in its way much more disconcerting than the second, explicable disaster of a physically broken cable, as our steadfast Times of London reporter noted: “It proves that, after all that human skill and science can effect to lay the wire down with safety has been accomplished, there may be some fatal obstacle to success at the bottom of the ocean, which can never be guarded against, for even the nature of the peril must always remain as secret and unknown as the depths in which it is encountered.” The task seemed too audacious, the threats to the enterprise too unfathomable. Henry Field:

The Board was called together. It met in the same room where, six weeks before, it had discussed the prospects of the expedition with full confidence of success. Now it met as a council of war is summoned after a terrible defeat. When the Directors came together, the feeling — to call it by the mildest name — was one of extreme discouragement. They looked blankly in each other’s faces. With some, the feeling was almost one of despair. Sir William Brown of Liverpool, the first Chairman, wrote advising them to sell the cable. Mr. Brooking, the Vice-Chairman, who had given more time than any other Director, sent in his resignation, determined to take no further part in an undertaking which had proved hopeless, and to persist in which seemed mere rashness and folly.

Most of the members of the board assumed they were meeting only to deal with the practical matter of winding up the Atlantic Telegraph Company. But Cyrus Field had other ideas. When everyone was settled, he stood up to deliver the speech of his life. He told the room that he had talked to the United States and Royal Navies, and they had agreed to extend the loan of the Niagara and the Agamemnon for a few more weeks, enough to make one more attempt to lay the cable. And he had talked to his technical advisors as well, and they had agreed that there ought to be just enough cable left to span the Atlantic if everything went off without a hitch. Even if the odds against success were a hundred to one, why not try one more time? Why not go down swinging? After all, the money they stood to recoup by selling a second-hand telegraph cable wasn’t that much compared to what had already been spent.

It is a tribute to his passion and eloquence that his speech persuaded this roomful of very gloomy, very pragmatic businessmen. They voted to authorize one more attempt to create an electric bridge across the Atlantic.

The Niagara and the poor, long-suffering Agamemnon were barely given time to load coal and provisions before they sailed again, on July 17, 1858. This time the weather was propitious: blue skies and gentle breezes the whole way to the starting point. On July 29, after conducting tests to ensure that the entirety of the remaining cable was still in working order, they began the laying of it once more. Plenty of close calls ensued in the days that followed: a passing whale nearly entangled itself in the cable, then a passing merchant ship nearly did the same; more sections of cable turned up with storm-damaged insulation aboard the Agamemnon and had to be cut away, to the point that it was touch and go whether Ireland or the end of the last spool would come first. And yet the telegraph operators aboard each of the ships remained in contact with one another day after day as they crept further and further apart.

At 1:45 AM on August 6, the Niagara dropped anchor in Newfoundland at a point some distance west of St. John’s, in Trinity Bay, where a telegraph house had already been built to receive the cable. One hour later, the telegraph operator aboard the ship received a message from the Agamemnon that it too had made landfall, in Ireland. Cyrus Field’s one-chance-in-a-hundred gamble had apparently paid off.

Shouting like a lunatic, Field burst upon the crew manning the telegraph house, who had been blissfully asleep in their bunks. At 6:00 AM, the men spliced the cable that had been carried over from the Niagara with the one that went to St. John’s and beyond. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, the crew of the Agamemnon was doing the same with a cable that stretched from the backwoods of southern Ireland to the heart of London. “The communication between the Old and the New World [has] been completed,” wrote the Times of London reporter.

The (apparently) successful laying of the cable in 1858 sparked almost a religious fervor, as shown in this commemorative painting by William Simpson, in which the Niagara is given something very like a halo as it arrives in Trinity Bay.

The news of the completed Atlantic cable was greeted with elation everywhere it traveled. Joseph Henry wrote in a public letter to Cyrus Field that the transatlantic telegraph would “mark an epoch in the advancement of our common humanity.” Scientific American wrote that “our whole country has been electrified by the successful laying of the Atlantic telegraph,” and Harper’s Monthly commissioned a portrait of Field for its cover. Countless cities and towns on both sides of the ocean held impromptu jubilees to celebrate the achievement. Ringing church bells, booming cannon, and 21-gun rifle salutes were the order of the day everywhere. Men who had or claimed to have sailed aboard the Niagara or the Agamemnon sold bits and pieces of leftover cable at exorbitant prices. Queen Victoria knighted the 26-year-old Charles Bright, and said she only wished Cyrus Field was a British citizen so she could do the same for him. On August 16, she sent a telegraph message to the American President James Buchanan and was answered in kind; this herald of a new era of instantaneous international diplomacy brought on yet another burst of public enthusiasm.

Indeed, the prospect of a worldwide telegraph network — for, with the Atlantic bridged, could the Pacific and all of the other oceans be far behind? — struck many idealistic souls as the facilitator of a new era of global understanding, cooperation, and peace. Once we allow for the changes that took place in rhetorical styles over a span of 140 years, we find that the most fulsome predictions of 1858 have much in common with those that would later be made with regard to the Internet and its digital World Wide Web. “The whole earth will be belted with electric current, palpitating with human thoughts and emotions,” read the hastily commissioned pamphlet The Story of the Telegraph.[1]No relation to the much more comprehensive history of the endeavor which Henry Field would later write under the same title. “It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for the exchange of thoughts between all the nations of the earth.” Indulging in a bit of peculiarly British wishful thinking, the Times of London decided that “the Atlantic telegraph has half undone the Declaration of 1776, and has gone far to make us once again, in spite of ourselves, one people.” Others found prose woefully inadequate for the occasion, found they could give proper vent to their feelings only in verse.

‘Tis done! The angry sea consents,
The nations stand no more apart,
With clasped hands the continents
Feel throbbings of each other’s heart.

Speed, speed the cable; let it run
A loving girdle round the earth,
Till all the nations ‘neath the sun
Shall be as brothers of one hearth;

As brothers pledging, hand in hand,
One freedom for the world abroad,
One commerce every land,
One language and one God.

But one fact was getting lost — or rather was being actively concealed — amidst all the hoopla: the Atlantic cable was working after a fashion, but it wasn’t working very well. Even William Thomson’s new galvanometer struggled to make sense of a signal that grew weaker and more diffuse by the day. To compensate, the operators were forced to transmit more and more slowly, until the speed of communication became positively glacial. Queen Victoria’s 99-word message to President Buchanan, for example, took sixteen and a half hours to send — a throughput of all of one word every ten minutes. The entirety of another day’s traffic consisted of:

Repeat please.

Please send slower for the present.


How do you receive?

Send slower.

Please send slower.

How do you receive?

Please say if you can read this.

Can you read this?


How are signals?

Do you receive?

Please send something.

Please send Vs and Bs.

How are signals?

Cyrus Field managed to keep these inconvenient facts secret for some time while his associates scrambled fruitlessly for a solution. When Thomson could offer him no miracle cure, he turned back to Wildman Whitehouse. Insisting that there was no problem with his cable design which couldn’t be solved by more power, Whitehouse hooked it up to giant induction coils to try to force the issue. Shortly after he did so, on September 1, the cable failed completely. Thomson and others were certain that Whitehouse had burned right through the cable’s insulation with his high-voltage current, but of course it is impossible to know for sure. Still, that didn’t stop Field from making an irrevocable break with Whitehouse; he summarily fired him from the company. In response, Whitehouse went on a rampage in the British press, denouncing the “frantic fooleries of the Americans in the person of Cyrus W. Field”; he would soon publish a book giving his side of the story, filled with technical conclusions which history has demonstrated to be wrong.

On October 20, with all further recourse exhausted, Field bit the bullet and announced to the world that his magic thread was well, truly, and hopelessly severed. The press at both ends of the cable turned on a dime. The Atlantic Telegraph Company and its principal face were now savaged with the same enthusiasm with which they had so recently been praised. Many suspected loudly that it had all been an elaborate fraud. “How many shares of stock did Mr. Field sell in August?” one newspaper asked. (The answer: exactly one share.) The Atlantic Telegraph Company remained nominally in existence after the fiasco of 1858, but it would make no serious plans to lay another cable for half a decade.

Cyrus Field himself was, depending on whom you asked, either a foolish dreamer or a cynical grifter. His financial situation too was not what it once had been. His paper business had suffered badly in the panic of 1857; then came a devastating warehouse fire in 1860, and he sold it shortly thereafter at a loss. In April of 1861, the American Civil War, the product of decades of slowly building tension between the country’s industrial North and the agrarian, slave-holding South, finally began in earnest. Suddenly the paeans to universal harmony which had marked a few halcyon weeks in August of 1858 seemed laughable, and the moneyed men of Wall Street turned their focus to engines of war instead of peace.

Yet the British government at least was still wondering in its stolid, sluggish way how a project to which it had contributed considerable public resources, which had in fact nearly gotten one of Her Majesty’s foremost ships of the line sunk, had wound up being so useless. The same month that the American Civil War began, it formed a commission of inquiry to examine both this specific failure and the future prospects for undersea telegraphy in general. The commission numbered among its members none other than Charles Wheatstone, along with William Cooke one of the pair of inventors who had set up the first commercial telegraph line in the world. It read its brief very broadly, and ranged far afield to address many issues of importance to a slowly electrifying world. Most notably, it defined the standardized units of electrical measurement that we still use today: the watt, the volt, the ohm, and the ampere.

But much of its time was taken up by a war of words between Wildman Whitehouse and William Thomson, each of whom presented his case at length and in person. While Whitehouse laid the failure of the first transatlantic telegraph at the feet of a wide range of factors that had nothing to do with his cable but much to do with the gross incompetence of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in laying and operating it, Thomson argued that the choice of the wrong type of cable had been the central, precipitating mistake from which all of the other problems had cascaded. In the end, the commission found Thomson’s arguments more convincing; it did seem to it that “the heavier the cable, the greater its durability.” Its final conclusions, delivered in July of 1863, were simultaneously damning toward many of the specific choices of the Atlantic Telegraph Company and optimistic that a transatlantic telegraph should be possible, given much better planning and preparation. The previous failures were, it said, “due to causes which might have been guarded against had adequate preliminary investigation been made.” Nevertheless, “we are convinced that this class of enterprise may prove as successful as it has hitherto been disastrous.”

Meanwhile, even in the midst of the bloodiest conflict in American history, all Cyrus Field seemed to care about was his once and future transatlantic telegraph. Graduating from the status of dreamer or grifter, he now verged on becoming a laughingstock in some quarters. In New York City, for example, “he addressed the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Brokers, and the Corn Exchange,” writes Henry Field, “and then he went almost literally door to door, calling on merchants and bankers to enlist their aid. Even of those who subscribed, a large part did so more from sympathy and admiration of his indomitable spirit than from confidence in the success of the enterprise.” One of his marks labeled him with grudging admiration “the most obstinately determined man in either hemisphere.” Yet in the course of some five years of such door-knocking, he managed to raise pledges amounting to barely one-third of the purchase price of the first Atlantic cable — never mind the cost of actually laying it. This was unsurprising, in that there lay a huge unanswered question at the heart of any renewal of the enterprise: a cable much thinner than the one which almost everyone except Wildman Whitehouse now agreed was necessary had dangerously overburdened two of the largest ships in the world, very nearly with tragic results for one of them. And yet, in contrast to the 2500 tons of Whitehouse’s cable, Thomson’s latest design was projected to weigh 4000 tons. How on earth was it to be laid?

But Cyrus Field’s years in the wilderness were not to last forever. In January of 1864, in the course of yet another visit to London, he secured a meeting with Thomas Brassey, one of the most famous of the new breed of financiers who were making fortunes from railroads all over the world. Field wrote in a letter immediately after the meeting that “he put me through such a cross-examination as I had never before experienced. I thought I was in the witness box.” (He doesn’t state in his letter whether he noticed the ironic contrast with the way this whole adventure had begun exactly one decade earlier, when it had been Frederick Gisborne who had come with hat in hand to his own stateroom for an equally skeptical cross-examination.)

It seems that Field passed the test. Brassey agreed to put some of his money and, even more importantly, his sterling reputation as one of the world’s foremost men of business behind the project. And just like that, things started to happen again. “The wheels were unloosed,” writes Henry Field, “and the gigantic machinery began to revolve.” The money poured in; the transatlantic telegraph was on again. Cyrus Field placed an order for a thick, well-insulated cable matching Thomson’s specifications. The only problem remaining was the same old one of how to actually get it aboard a ship. But, miraculously, Thomas Brassey believed he had a solution for that problem too.

During the previous decade, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably the greatest steam engineer of the nineteenth century, had designed and overseen the construction of what he intended as his masterpiece: an ocean liner called the Great Eastern, which displaced a staggering 19,000 tons, could carry 4000 passengers, and could sail from Britain to Australia without ever stopping for coal. It was 693 feet long and 120 feet wide, with ten steam engines producing up to 10,000 horsepower and delivering it through both paddle wheels and a screw propeller. And, most relevantly for Brassey and Field, it could carry up to 7000 tons of cargo in its hold.

T.G. Dutton’s celebratory 1859 rendering of the Great Eastern.

Alas, its career to date read like a Greek tragedy about the sin of hubris. The Great Eastern almost literally killed its creator; undone by the stresses involved in getting his “Great Babe” built, Brunel died at the age of only 53 shortly after it was completed in 1859. During its sea trials, the ship suffered a boiler explosion that killed five men. And once it entered service, those who had paid to build it discovered that it was just too big: there just wasn’t enough demand to fill its holds and staterooms, even as it cost a fortune to operate. “Her very size was against her,” writes Henry Field, “and while smaller ships, on which she looked down with contempt, were continually flying to and fro across the sea, this leviathan could find nothing worthy of her greatness.” The Great Eastern developed the reputation of an ill-starred, hard-luck ship. Over the course of its career, it was involved in ten separate ship-to-ship collisions. In 1862, it ran aground outside New York Harbor; it was repaired and towed back to open waters only at enormous effort and expense, further burnishing its credentials as an unwieldy white elephant. Eighteen months later, the Great Eastern was retired from service and put up for sale. A financier named Daniel Gooch bought the ship for just £25,000, less than its value as scrap metal. And indeed, scrapping it for profit was quite probably foremost on his mind at the time.

But then Thomas Brassey came calling on his friend, asking what it would cost to acquire the ship for the purpose of laying the transatlantic cable. Gooch agreed to loan the Great Eastern to him in return for £50,000 in Atlantic Telegraph Company stock. And so Cyrus Field’s project acquired the one ship in the world that was actually capable of carrying Thomson’s cable. One James Anderson, a veteran captain with the Cunard Line, was hired to command it.

Observing the checkered record of the Atlantic Telegraph Company in laying working telegraph cables to date, Brassey and his fellow investors insisted that the latest attempt be subcontracted out to the recently formed Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, the entity which also provided the cable itself. During the second half of 1864, the latter company extensively modified the Great Eastern for the task before it. Intended as it was for a life lived underwater, the cable was to be stored aboard the ship immersed in water tanks in order to prevent its vital insulation from drying out and cracking.

Then, from January to July of 1865, the Great Eastern lay at a dock in Sheerness, England, bringing about 20 miles of cable per day onboard. The pendulum had now swung again with the press and public: the gargantuan ship became a place of pilgrimage for journalists, politicians, royalty, titans of industry, and ordinary folks, all come to see the progress of this indelible sign of Progress in the abstract. Cyrus Field was so caught up in the excitement of an eleven-year-old dream on the cusp of fulfillment that he hardly noticed when the final battle of the American Civil War ended with Southern surrender on April 9, 1865, nor the shocking assassination of the victorious President Abraham Lincoln just a few days later.

On July 15, the Great Eastern put to sea at last, laden with the 4000 tons of cable plus hundreds more tons of dead weight in the form of the tanks of water that were used to store it. Also aboard was a crew of 500 men, but only a small contingent of observers from the Atlantic Telegraph Company, among them the Field brothers and William Thomson. Due to its deep draft, the Great Eastern had to be very cautious when sailing near land; witness its 1862 grounding in New York Harbor. Therefore a smaller steamer, the Caroline, was enlisted to bring the cable ashore on the treacherous southern coast of Ireland and to lay the first 23 miles of it from there. On the evening of July 23, the splice was made and the Great Eastern took over responsibility for the rest of the journey.

So, the largest ship in the world made its way westward at an average speed of a little over six knots. Cyrus Field, who was prone to seasickness, noted with relief how different an experience it was to sail on a behemoth like this one even in choppy seas. He and everyone else aboard were filled with optimism, and with good reason on the whole; this was a much better planned, better thought-through expedition than those of the Niagara and the Agamemnon. Each stretch of cable was carefully tested before it fell off the stern of the ship, and a number of stretches were discarded for failing to meet Thomson’s stringent standards. Then, too, William Everett’s paying-out mechanism had been improved such that it could now reel cable back in again if necessary; this did indeed prove to be the case twice, when stretches of cable proved not to be as water-resistant as they ought to have been despite all of Thomson’s efforts.

The days went by, filled with minor snafus to be sure, but nothing that hadn’t been anticipated. The stolid and stable Great Eastern, writes Henry Field, “seemed as if made by Heaven to accomplish this great work of civilization.” And the cable itself continued to work even better than Thomson had said it would; the link with Ireland remained rock-solid, with a throughput to which Whitehouse’s cable could never have aspired.

At noon on August 2, the Great Eastern was well ahead of schedule, already almost two-thirds of the way to Newfoundland, when a fault was detected in the stretch of cable just laid. This was annoying, but nothing more than that; it had, after all, happened twice before and been dealt with by pulling the bad stretch out of the water and discarding it. But in the course of hauling it back in this time, an unfortunate burst of wind and current spelled disaster: the cable was pulled taut by the movement of the ship and snapped.

Captain Anderson had one gambit left — one more testament to the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company’s determination to plan for every eventuality. He ordered the huge grappling hook with which the Great Eastern had been equipped to be deployed over the side. It struck the naïve observers from the Atlantic Telegraph Company as an absurd proposition; the ocean here was two and a half miles deep — so deep that it took the hook two hours just to touch bottom. The ship steamed back and forth across its former course all night long, dragging the hook patiently along the ocean floor. Early in the morning, it caught on something. The crew saw with excitement that, as the grappling machinery pulled the hook gently up, its apparent weight increased. This was consistent with a cable, but not with anything else that anyone could conceive. But in the end, the increasing weight of it proved too much. When the hook was three quarters of a mile above the ocean floor, the rope snapped. Two more attempts with fresh grappling hooks ended the same way, until there wasn’t enough rope left aboard to touch bottom.

It had been a noble attempt, and had come tantalizingly close to succeeding, but there was nothing left to do now but mark the location with a buoy and sail back to Britain. “We thought you went down!” yelled the first journalist to approach the Great Eastern when it reached home. It seemed that, in the wake of the abrupt loss of communication with the ship, a rumor had spread that it had struck an iceberg and sunk.

Although the latest attempt to lay a transatlantic cable had proved another failure, one didn’t anymore have to be a dyed-in-the-wool optimist like Cyrus Field to believe that the prospects for a future success were very, very good. The cable had outperformed expectations by delivering a clear, completely usable signal from first to last. The final sticking point had not even been the cable’s own tensile strength but rather that of the ropes aboard the Great Eastern. Henry Field:

This confidence appeared at the first meeting of directors. The feeling was very different from that after the return of the first expedition of 1858. So animated were they with hope, and so sure of success the next time, that all felt that one cable was not enough, they must have two, and so it was decided to take measures not only to raise the broken end of the cable and to complete it to Newfoundland, but also to construct and lay an entirely new one, so as to have a double line in operation the following summer.

Nothing was to be left to chance next time around. William Thomson worked with the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company to make the next cable even better, incorporating everything that had been learned on the last expedition plus all the latest improvements in materials technology. The result was even more durable, whilst weighing about 10 percent less. The paying-out mechanism was refined further, with special attention paid to the task of pulling the cable in again without breaking it. And the Great Eastern too got a refit that made it even more suited to its new role in life. Its paddle wheels were decoupled from one another so each could be controlled separately; by spinning one forward and one backward, the massive ship could be made to turn in its own length, an improvement in maneuverability which should make grappling for a lost cable much easier. Likewise, twenty miles of much stronger grappling rope was taken onboard. Meanwhile the Atlantic Telegraph Company was reorganized and reincorporated as the appropriately trans-national Anglo-American Telegraph Company, with an initial capitalization of £600,000.

This time the smaller steamer William Corry laid the part of the cable closest to the Irish shore. On Friday, July 13, 1866, the splice was made and the Great Eastern took over. The weather was gray and sullen more often than not over the following days, but nothing seemed able to dampen the spirit of optimism and good cheer aboard; many a terrible joke was made about “shuffling off this mortal coil.” As they sailed along, the crew got a preview of the interconnected world they were so earnestly endeavoring to create: the long tether spooling out behind the ship brought them up-to-the-minute news of the latest stock prices on the London exchange and debates in Parliament, as well as dispatches from the battlefields of the Third Italian War of Independence, all as crystal clear as the weather around them was murky.

The Great Eastern maintained a slightly slower pace this time, averaging about five knots, because some felt that some of the difficulties last time had resulted from rushing things a bit too much. Whether due to the slower speed or all of the other improvements in equipment and procedure, the process did indeed go even more smoothly; the ship never failed to cover at least 100 miles — usually considerably more — every day. The Great Eastern sailed unperturbed beyond the point where it had lost the cable last time. By July 26, after almost a fortnight of steady progress, the excitement had reached a fever pitch, as the seasoned sailors aboard began to sight birds and declared that they could smell the approaching land.

The following evening, they reached their destination. “The Great Eastern,” writes Henry Field, “gliding in as if she had done nothing remarkable, dropped her anchor in front of the telegraph house, having trailed behind her a chain of 2000 miles, to bind the Old World to the New.” A different telegraph house had been built in Trinity Bay to receive this cable, in a tiny fishing village with the delightful name of Heart’s Content. The entire village rowed out to greet the largest ship by almost an order of magnitude ever to enter their bay, all dressed in their Sunday best.

The Great Eastern in Trinity Bay, 1866. This photograph does much to convey the sheer size of the ship. The three vessels lying alongside it are all oceangoing ships in their own right.

But there was one more fly in the ointment. When he came ashore, Cyrus Field learned that the underwater telegraph line he had laid between Newfoundland and Cape Breton ten years before had just given up the ghost. So, there was a little bit more work to be done. He chartered a coastal steamer to take onboard eleven miles of Thomson’s magic cable from the Great Eastern and use it to repair the vital span; such operations in relatively shallow water like this had by now become routine, a far cry from the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company’s wild adventure of 1855. While he waited for that job to be completed, Field hired another steamer to bring news of his achievement to the mainland along with a slew of piping-hot headlines from Europe to serve as proof of it. It was less dramatic than an announcement via telegraph, but it would have to do.

Thus word of the completion of the first truly functional transatlantic telegraph cable, an event which took place on July 27, 1866, didn’t reach the United States until July 29. It was the last delay of its kind. Two separate networks had become one, two continents sewn together using an electric thread; the full potential of the telegraph had been fulfilled. The first worldwide web, the direct ancestor and prerequisite of the one we know today, was a reality.

(Sources: the books The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison by Michael B. Schiffer, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman, A Thread across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Telegraph by John Steele Gordon, and The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph by Henry M. Field. Online sources include “Heart’s Content Cable Station” by Jerry Proc, Distant Writing: A History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain between 1838 and 1868 by Steven Roberts, and History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.)


1 No relation to the much more comprehensive history of the endeavor which Henry Field would later write under the same title.


A Web Around the World, Part 2: If At First You Don’t Succeed…

The early history of the telegraph in commercial service can largely be told as a series of anecdotes, publicity coups that served to convince people that this was a technology worth embracing. The first of these occurred just a few days after the Washington-to-Baltimore line’s inauguration. On May 18, 1844, this first American telegraph service brought to the capital the shocking news that, after nine ballots’ worth of wrangling over the issue, the Baltimore-based Democratic National Convention had settled on a dark-horse candidate for president by the name of James K. Polk; word of this game changer reached the ears of the Washington political establishment within five minutes of the deciding votes being cast. Clearly the telegraph had its uses, in politics as in so many other facets of life. The newspapers were soon filled with more personal anecdotes about the new technology, such as reports of births and deaths delivered instantaneously to the family members affected.

Nevertheless, Samuel Morse found Congress to be stubbornly unforthcoming with more money to build more telegraph lines. After lobbying fruitlessly over the balance of 1844 for what struck him as the next logical step, an extension of the existing line from Baltimore to New York City, he gave up and turned to the private investors who were now beginning to knock at his door. Although neither he nor they could possibly realize it at the time, it would prove a fateful change of course whose aftereffects can still be felt in the world of today. Unlike the European nations, whose communications networks would be funded and managed by their governments, the United States would rely mostly on private industry. The two contrasting funding and governance models more or less persist to the present day.

Rather than attempting to raise capital and wire the United States all by himself, Morse was content to license his telegraph patent to various regional players. The first of these private telegraph lines, linking Philadelphia to New York City, opened in January of 1846. The telegraph’s spread thereafter was breathtaking; the stampede to get onto the World Wide Web during the 1990s has nothing on the speed with which the telegraph became a fixture of everyday American life during the second half of the 1840s.

By 1851, one could send telegraph messages to and from almost any decent-sized American town east of the Mississippi River. To the average mid-nineteenth-century American, the telegraph seemed literally to be a form of magic. Newspapers published rapturous poetry dedicated to Morse’s wondrous invention, which had “annihilated time and space.” Thanks to the telegraph, the United States as a whole became infatuated with the wonders of technology — an infatuation that has never really left it. A thoroughly impressed British visitor reported on the extraordinary range of uses to which the telegraph was already being put just five years after the first lines opened for business:

It is employed in transmitting messages to and from bankers, merchants, members of Congress, officers of government, brokers, and police officers. [It is used for] items of news, election returns, announcements of deaths, inquiries respecting the health of families and individuals, daily proceedings of the Senate and the House of Representatives, orders of goods, inquiries respecting the sailing of vessels, proceedings of cases in various courts, summoning of witnesses, messages for express trains, invitations, the receipt of money at one station and its payment at another; for persons requesting the transmission of funds from debtors, consultation of physicians, and messages of every character usually sent by the mail. The confidence in the efficiency of telegraphic communication is so complete that the most important commercial transactions daily transpire by its means between correspondents several hundred miles apart.

The financiers who built this network out from nothing in almost no time at all were more often than not connected with the railroads that were busily binding the sprawling nation together in another way. Indeed, the telegraph and the railroad were destined to be boon companions for a long, long time to come; the two usually ran along the same rights-of-way, just as with that very first telegraph line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. Together they were the necessary prerequisites of a burgeoning new age of big business; they became the handmaids of the modern bureaucratic corporation, with its tendrils stretching across the country like the arms of an octopus (a rather sinister analogy that would become a populist favorite during the Gilded Age to come).

In the meanwhile, Western Europe was being wired together at a slower pace. The telegraph first captured anecdotal headlines in Britain on August 6, 1844, when it was used to send word from Windsor Palace to Fleet Street that Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, had been born. The Duke of Wellington forgot to bring his best suit down from London with him for the celebratory banquet, but the telegraph and the railroad, those two fast stablemates of Progress, saved the day: an urgent electronic message was sent back up the line, and the duke’s ensemble arrived on the next train.

On January 3, 1845, the railroad and the telegraph had starring roles in a sensational murder case, when one John Tawell killed his mistress in Slough and jumped on a train for London. The police in Slough sent a telegraph message to their counterparts in London to watch for him at the station, and the blackguard was apprehended as he climbed down from his carriage. “It may be observed,” wrote the London Times, “that had it not been for the efficient aid of the London telegraph, the greatest difficulty as well as delay would have occurred in the apprehension of the party now in custody.” After the murderer was duly executed, the telegraph was immortalized in verse as “the cords that hung John Tawell.”

Observing the more rapid expansion of the telegraph in the United States, Britain and the other European nations grudgingly came to accept that Samuel Morse’s simple, robust system was more practical than any of their more baroque approaches. And so, gradually, the rudimentary tool that was the Morse key and the more refined one that was the Morse Code became an international standard. Morse himself, who was determined to receive every dollar and every bit of credit he felt he had coming to him for his inventions, was less pleased than he might have been by these developments, in that he usually wasn’t paid for Europe’s copycat systems. (In 1860, France and several other European nations would finally agree to pay him a one-time joint indemnity of $80,000, far less than he believed he was owed.)

Of course, Morse’s original telegraph had to evolve in some ways in order for a single 40-mile wire to be transformed into a dense network of connections binding entire nations together. Although the core components of Morse’s telegraph — a Morse key used to transmit Morse Code — would remain the same for a century and more, everything else was ripe for improvement. Better batteries and better cables stretched the possible distance between stations and repeaters almost exponentially year by year; switchboards, timetables, and manual routing protocols were developed to move messages through the system quickly and efficiently from any given source to any given destination.

The new telegraph companies attracted the sort of brainy young men who, had they been born in the following century, might have become computer hackers. A freewheeling culture of competitive cooperation that wasn’t at all far removed from the future hacker culture developed around the telegraph, as all of these bright sparks relentlessly optimized their systems, creating their own legends and lore, heroes and villains in the process. They developed shortcuts for talking with one another along the wires that smack of nothing so much as Internet chat: “SFD” stood for “stop for dinner,” “GM” for “good morning”; one almost expects to find an “LOL” lurking around in there somewhere. During downtime, they filled the lines with such idle chatter, or played checkers and chess with their counterparts in other cities using a special system of codes they’d developed — the original form of networked gaming. And surely they must have made fun of the clueless suits who believed they were the ones running things…

As the second half of the nineteenth century began, then, the telegraph had already become an inexorable transformative force on two continents. There now remained only the most world-transforming feat of connectivity of them all: to bridge the aforementioned two continents themselves, thereby to turn two discrete communications networks into one.

Over the last 50 years, the arrival of steamships on the scene had reduced the time it took to get news across the Atlantic from four or six weeks to as little as ten days under ideal conditions. Yet in the new age of the telegraph such an interval still seemed painfully long. What was needed was obvious: a telegraph wire running across — or rather under — the Atlantic Ocean. Samuel Morse had envisioned just such a thing already in 1843: “A telegraph communication on my plan may with certainty be established across the Atlantic! Startling as this may seem now, the time will come when this project is realized.” Nine years later, the magazine Scientific American dreamed of a future when “the earth will be belted by the electric wire, and New York will yet be able to send the throb of her electric pulse through our whole continent, Asia, Africa, and Europe in a second of time.” Such aspirations seemed far-fetched even in light of the magical powers of current telegraph systems. And yet one thoroughly remarkable man would soon set in motion a major transatlantic effort to realize them — an effort whose vision, daring, and sheer audacity makes it worthy of comparison to the twentieth century’s Project Apollo.

Cyrus Field

This giant nerve, at whose command
The world’s great pulses throb or sleep —
It threads the undiscerned repose
Of the dark bases of the deep.

Around it settle in the calm
Fine tissues that a breath might mar,
Nor dream what fiery tidings pass,
What messages of storm and war.

Far over it, where filtered gleams
Faintly illumine the mid-sea day,
Strange, pallid forms of fish or weed
In the obscure tide softly sway.

And higher, where the vagrant waves
Frequent the white, indifferent sun,
Where ride the smoke-blue hordes of rain
And the long vapors lift and run,

Pauses, perhaps, some lonely ship
With exile hearts that homeward ache —
While far beneath it flashed a word
That soon shall bid them bleed or break.

— “The Atlantic Cable” by Charles G.D. Roberts

During this antebellum era of the United States, New York City’s Astor House was the most famous hotel in the country, the place where all of the movers and shakers stayed when they came to the business capital of the nation. In January of 1854, two of the Astor’s guests happened to be Matthew Field, a prominent railroad engineer, and Frederick Gisborne, a British entrepreneur who was attempting to secure additional funding for a project that had proved much more difficult than he had first anticipated: a telegraph line linking the town of St. John’s on the island of Newfoundland with the town of Sydney on the island of Cape Breton, which entailed some 400 miles of overland and about 85 miles of undersea cable.

Map of Newfoundland and Cape Breton

The undersea portion of the telegraph line would need to be run between Channel-Port aux Basques and the northern tip of Cape Breton, where Cape Breton Highlands National Park is today.

When they bumped into one another one evening in the bar and Gisborne told Field how strapped for cash he was, his interlocutor could well understand the reluctance of potential investors. He asked Gisborne why on earth he wanted to build a telegraph cable in such a remote and inhospitable location at all, serving a Newfoundland population of fishermen that numbered in the bare handful of thousands. Gisborne’s response surprised him: he explained that St. John’s was actually the most easterly town in the Americas, fully one-third closer to Europe than New York City was. If fast steamers carrying urgent messages docked there instead of at one of the larger eastern cities, then passed said messages on to a telegraph operator there, they could substantially cut the communication time between the two continents. Gisborne envisioned a bustling trade of businesses and governments willing to pay well to reduce their best-case communication lag from ten to seven days.

Matthew Field was intrigued enough that he mentioned Gisborne and his scheme to his brother Cyrus Field, who at the age of just 33 was already one of the richest men in New York City. He had made his fortune in paper, but was now semi-retired from business life; being possessed of a decided taste for adventure, he had recently returned from an expedition to some of the more remote regions of South America, in the company of the great landscape painter Frederic Church. Cyrus Field took a meeting with Gisborne, but wasn’t overly impressed with his plan, which struck him as an awful lot of trouble and expense for a fairly modest gain in communication speed. The matter might have ended there — but for one thing. “After [Gisborne] left,” wrote Henry M. Field (another of Cyrus’s brothers) in his history of the Atlantic Cable, “Mr. Field took the globe which was standing in the library, and began to turn it over. It was while thus studying the globe that the idea first occurred to him that the telegraph might be carried further still, and be made to span the Atlantic Ocean.”

It’s hard not to compare this realization with Samuel Morse’s own eureka moment aboard the Sully 22 years earlier. Like Morse at the time, Field was enough of a rank amateur to believe that his brainstorm was a new idea under the sun. Knowing nothing whatsoever about telegraphy, eager to find out if a transatlantic cable was a realistic possibility, Field dispatched two letters. One was to Morse, the one name in the field that absolutely everyone was familiar with. The other was to one Matthew Fontaine Maury, a noted oceanographer and intellectual jack-of-all-trades who wore the uniform of the United States Navy. Both responded enthusiastically: Morse was excited enough to join the project as an official advisor and to offer Field the use of his precious telegraph patent for free, while Maury explained that he had thought about the question enough already to propose a route for the cable between Newfoundland and Ireland, based upon deep-sea soundings he had recently conducted. The route in question was, he said, “neither too deep nor too shallow; yet it is so deep that the wires but once landed will remain forever beyond the reach of vessels’ anchors, icebergs, and drifts of any kind, and so shallow that the wires may be readily lodged upon the bottom.”

The planned course of the cable between Ireland and Newfoundland.

Field’s further inquiries revealed that underwater telegraphy wasn’t an entirely black art. As early as 1845, well before the landlocked telegraph became a reality of daily life in the developed world, an experimental cable had been laid under the Hudson River between New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey, sheathed in a rubber-packed lead pipe; it had functioned for several months, until the winter ice did it in. In 1851, an underwater cable had bridged the 31 miles of the English Channel, to be followed soon after by another cable connecting Britain to Ireland. Using the latest batteries and wiring, such distances and more were by now possible without employing any repeaters.

So, Field set about enlisting other wealthy men into his cause, whilst getting Gisborne to accept a relegation to the role of chief engineer in what was now to be a much more ambitious venture than he had ever envisioned. In March of 1854, a company was founded with an appropriately ambitious name: the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. The founders estimated that they would need about $1.5 million to complete their task. This was no small sum in 1854; the entire budget of the federal government of the United States that year totaled just $54 million. Nevertheless, the project would end up costing far, far more. “God knows that none of us were aware of what we had undertaken to accomplish,” Cyrus Field would muse later. Had they known, it is doubtful they ever would have begun.

There is nothing in the world easier than to build a line of railroad or of telegraph on paper. You have only to take the map and mark the points to be connected, and then with a single sweep of the pencil to draw the line along which the iron track is to run. In this airy flight of the imagination, distances are nothing. All obstacles disappear. The valleys are exalted, and the hills are made low, soaring arches span the mountain streams, and the chasms are leaped in safety by the fire-drawn cars.

Very different it is to construct a line of railroad or of telegraph in reality; to come with an army of laborers, with axes on their shoulders to cut down the forests, and with spades in their hands to cast up the highway. Then poetry sinks to prose, and instead of flying over the space on wings, one must traverse it on foot, slowly and with painful steps. Nature asserts her power, and, as if resentful of the disdain with which man in his pride affected to leap over her, she piles up new barriers in his way. The mountains with their rugged sides cannot be moved out of their place, the rocks must be cleft in twain, to open a passage for the conqueror, before he can begin his triumphal march. The woods thicken into impassable jungle, and the morass sinks deeper, threatening to swallow up the horse and his rider, until the rash projector is startled at his own audacity. Then it becomes a contest of forces between man and nature, in which, if he would be victorious, he must fight his way. The barriers of nature cannot be lightly pushed aside, but must yield at last only to time and toil, and “man’s unconquerable will.”

— Henry M. Field, The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph

The newly incorporated New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company decided that its first goal ought to be the completion of Gisborne’s original project, which would also constitute the fulfillment of two-thirds of its name: a telegraph line linking Newfoundland to New York City, via Cape Breton. Such a line would hopefully bring some money in to help fund the vastly more audacious final third of the company’s name.

The first stage of this first goal required no underwater cable, but was daunting enough in its own right: it entailed running an overland cable from St. John’s across the widest part of Newfoundland to the point where the underwater cable was planned to begin. Gisborne had managed to complete the first 40 miles of this link before his money ran out; that left 260 miles still to go. Matthew Field took charge of this endeavor in the summer of 1854, anticipating that it would be done within a year. But he hadn’t reckoned with the rugged, isolated, in many places well-nigh unmapped terrain the work party had to cross, where opportunities for living off the land were few. The logistics surrounding the building of the line thus became much more complicated than the construction effort itself; the 600 men involved in the effort had to build their own roads as they went just to get supplies in and out. “Recently, in building half a mile of road, we had to bridge three ravines,” wrote Matthew Field to his brother Cyrus on one occasion. “Why didn’t we go around the ravines? Because Mr. Gisborne had explored twenty miles in both directions and found more ravines. That’s why!” The whole project could have served as a case study in why builders of telegraph lines usually preferred to follow the smooth, straight paths which the builders of railroads had already cut through the landscape. Alas, that wasn’t an option on Newfoundland.

And then the dark, cold northern winter set in, exacerbating the builders’ suffering that much more. “What hardships and suffering the men endured — all this is a chapter in the History of the Telegraph which has not been written, and which can never be fully told,” writes Henry Field. Bridging Newfoundland and then constructing another 100 miles of overland telegraph line on Cape Breton to reach Sydney wound up taking two years and costing more than $1 million all by itself.

While Matthew Field’s party was inching its way thorough the wilds, Cyrus Field was growing impatient to begin laying the undersea part of the route, which he saw as an important test run of sorts for the eventual laying of an Atlantic-spanning cable. He went to London to purchase 85 miles of the best undersea cable money could buy, the same as that which had been used to connect Britain to France and Ireland. It consisted of three intertwined copper-alloy wires, sheathed in tarred hemp, gutta-percha, and galvanized iron wire — guaranteed, so the sellers said, to be impervious to water forever. Field made plans to lay the undersea cable already in the summer of 1855, when the overland cable was still only half completed.

Having as keen an instinct for publicity as any tech mogul of today, Field decided to turn the laying of the cable into a junket for existing and potential investors. Thus on August 7, 1855, the luxury coastal steamer James Adgar departed New York Harbor with many of the brightest stars in the moneyed East Coast firmament aboard. It was to rendezvous off the coast of Newfoundland with an older sailing ship, a sturdy brig called the Sarah L. Bryant carrying the shiny new cable from London, then tow it as it paid out the cable behind it across the Cabot Strait that separates Newfoundland from Cape Breton.

Right from the start, everything that possibly could went wrong, a result not only of bad luck but of a thoroughgoing lack of planning and preparation. The Bryant failed to turn up at the appointed time. When it did appear several days late, it was in a sorry state, having been badly battered by a rough Atlantic crossing weighted down by the cable in its hold. More days were spent on repairs, after which an impenetrable fog rolled in and forced the two ships to sit idle for yet 48 more hours. When the weather cleared at last and the Adgar tried to take the Bryant in tow to begin the operation, a series of cock-ups caused the steamship to ram the brig broadside, very nearly breaking it in two. The captain of the Adgar, whose name was Turner, was by now convinced — and not without justification, it must be admitted — that he was dealing with a bunch of rank amateurs; he grew willfully uncooperative, refusing to steer the course and speed asked of him even after he finally had the Bryant in tow. Cyrus Field and his party watched with alarm as the Adgar‘s high speed, combined with the weight of the cable spooling out behind, caused the Bryant‘s stern to dip lower and lower into the water. Meanwhile the light breeze that had marked the morning’s weather was becoming a howling sidelong gale by mid-afternoon, threatening to capsize the already floundering brig. The captain of the Bryant felt he had no choice: he cut both the tow rope and the telegraph cable, letting the latter fall uselessly into the ocean.

John Wells Stancliff, an amateur painter who was a part of the 1855 attempt to lay a telegraph cable from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, created this dramatic image of the Sarah L. Bryant being towed through dangerously choppy seas by the James Adgar.

The company’s first attempt to lay an undersea cable had proved an unadulterated fiasco, with the chattering class in ringside seats for the whole sorry spectacle. The final price tag: $351,000 almost literally tossed into the ocean.

Publicly, the partners blamed it all, more than a little disingenuously, on Captain Turner of the Adgar: “We had spent so much money, and lost so much time, that it was very vexatious to have our enterprise defeated by the stupidity and obstinacy of one man.” In truth, though, the obstinate captain was neither the only nor the most important reason that everything had gone sideways. The company had learned the hard way that a sailing ship in tow simply didn’t have the maneuverability necessary to lay a cable in the notoriously temperamental waters of the North Atlantic.

Luckily, Cyrus Field was a man capable of learning from his mistakes. He traveled to London again and bought another cable. And the next summer, just as the overland lines across Newfoundland and Cape Breton were being completed, he tried again to lay it under the ocean. This time, however, he used the agile modern steamer Propontis for the purpose, and invited no one to witness the endeavor, in case it all went wrong again. He needn’t have worried: it all went off without a hitch. The newly minted telegraph connection between St. John’s and Sydney would suffer no service interruptions for the next ten years — a very impressive service record for any line by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the completion of Frederick Gisborne’s original project had cost the company all of its starting capital and then some — and yet there were still 2000 miles to go if the cable was to reach Ireland. The completed stretch of line ended up bringing in the merest pittance, as Field had suspected it would when Gisborne first broached his idea to him.

So, Field traveled yet again to London, the financial capital of the world, to beat the bushes for more investors. He met with no less skepticism there than he had in his home country; no less august a personage than the head of the Royal Greenwich Observatory called it “a mathematical impossibility to submerge the cable at so great a depth, and if it were possible, no signals could be transmitted through so great a length.” But Cyrus Field could be persuasive: by the time he left Britain six months later, he had formed a new corporation called the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with £350,000 (the equivalent of £40 million or $53 million today) of investment capital; the roll call of those who had pledged their money to the cause included such well-known names as the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Lest anyone accuse him of failing to put his money where his mouth was, know that the total also included the majority of Field’s own remaining fortune.

Almost as importantly, the British government promised to pay £14,000 per year to use the telegraph for diplomatic dispatches, and offered to loan the company the recently commissioned 3500-ton steam-powered battleship HMS Agamemnon for the laying of the cable — a poetically appropriate choice, given how the ship shared a name with the ancient tragedy which contains the first documented description of a long-distance signaling system. So, just like that, the Atlantic Telegraph Company had its first customer. Shortly thereafter, it gained its second, when the American government agreed to virtually the same deal: $70,000 per year to make use of the cable. And the Americans too offered a ship for the purpose of laying it: the USS Niagara, a fast, modern 5200-ton steam-powered frigate that was due to be commissioned in the spring of 1857 in the New York Navy Yard. The pride of the United States Navy already, the Niagara was set to become the biggest and arguably the most powerful warship in service anywhere in the world.

The USS Niagara. It dates from that odd era in naval history when builders were still hedging their bets between sail and steam power by equipping their ships with both. Its hull too was a hybrid of old and new, being made of wood draped over a skeleton of steel.

Working from the proposals of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the company plotted a relatively level course for the cable across the Atlantic seafloor. The company’s engineers believed that, by combining a big power source with a cable big enough to handle all the juice it put out without melting, they could push a signal fully 2000 miles without a single repeater; the old, vexing problem of signal loss down a wire had largely been solved by now by brute force. But another potential problem had since cropped up that rather smacked of this older one.

Earlier underwater telegraph cables had proved to be subject to a peculiar phenomenon: the farther the signal traveled down the wire, the more distorted it became. “A signal which is sent off as a short, sharp, sudden impulse,” writes the historian of telegraphy Silvanus P. Thompson, “in being transmitted to greater and greater distances is changed in character, smoothed out into a longer-lasting impulse, which rises gradually to a maximum and then gradually dies away.” It became harder and harder for the telegraph operator at the other end of the line to work out the dots and dashes of Morse Code from a signal that was slowly being transformed from a stair-step pattern to a series of gentler waves and troughs as it traveled farther and farther down the wire.

This phenomenon, which was dubbed signal “retardation,” was odd in that it didn’t show itself in overland telegraph lines at all. So far, it had been an annoyance rather than a showstopper even for underwater telegraphy — but then, no one had yet tried to lay an underwater cable 2000 miles long. The British physicist Michael Faraday demonstrated retardation to be a direct result of the immersion of an insulated wire into the conductive material that is water; this can cause the insulation to become charged with static electricity, which in turn distorts the signal in the wire it is designed to protect.

A British mathematician and physicist named William Thomson concluded that there was a “law of squares” governing retardation, meaning it was proportional to the square of the cable’s length. But one Wildman Whitehouse, a British surgeon and gentleman experimenter, begged to differ: he claimed that retardation increased linearly down the length of a cable. So, he said, the problem actually wasn’t as big as Thomson made it sound. And there was, he noted, a straightforward solution of sorts to the problem of retardation even when it was at its worst: operators could simply work their Morse keys more slowly to ensure that every pulse remained distinct. In the end, Cyrus Field felt he had no choice but to gamble that he would be able to transmit quickly enough along his line to make a profit.

Field then asked both William Thomson and Wildman Whitehouse what type of cable they thought would work best. Predictably enough, they were in complete disagreement. Thomson believed that the thicker the wire at the core of the cable and the thicker the layer of protective insulation around it, the less retardation the whole would be subject to; he thus recommended a cable as big around as a man’s upper arm. He also believed that a more naturally conductive wire would be subject to less retardation, and therefore proposed a core made of pure copper rather than the more typical copper alloy. Finally, he proposed a new, ultra-sensitive galvanometer for detecting signals on the receiving end, something he had ideas for but had yet to make a reality.

Whitehouse, on the other hand, was vastly more sanguine. A thinner cable made from a copper alloy, combined with the already proven technologies for sending and receiving, would be just fine according to him; his proposed cable would be only as big around as a man’s wrist.

Unsurprisingly, Field opted for Whitehouse’s approach, by far the cheaper and easier of the two to see through in the real world. In fact, his engineers had told him that it was doubtful whether a cable conforming to Thomson’s specifications could be laid at all; it would wind up being simply too heavy to handle.

The future Atlantic Cable being made in London.

So, without considering the matter further, Field sent an order to London for 2500 miles of Whitehouse’s cable, at a price of £225,000. (The peaks and valleys of the ocean floor, plus the fact that the cable would not be stretched completely taut, meant that crossing 2000 miles of ocean would surely take considerably more than just 2000 miles of the stuff.) When Thomson was given a snippet of it to test, he was horrified to discover its alloy core was so sloppily made that some sections were twice as conductive as other sections. But the die was now cast.

Whitehouse’s cable may have been comparatively light, but it still weighed one ton per mile, and there was no ship in the world at the time capable of carrying a load of 2500 tons. Therefore the company made plans to load half of this longest length of cable ever made aboard each of the Agamemnon and the Niagara. The ships would sail together, and when the first ship ran out of cable somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, the other would splice the beginning of its cable onto the end of the first and complete the job.

On April 24, 1857, the Niagara departed New York Harbor on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, its decks and holds cleared of guns and ammunition to make room for the massive weight of cable that was to be loaded in Britain. Aboard were the Field brothers, Samuel Morse, and a party of engineers and technicians in the employ of one or the other of Cyrus Field’s recently formed telegraph companies; more personnel would be picked up in Britain. Relations between the United States and Britain were not yet as warm as they would become in later decades; the British Army had, after all, sacked and burned Washington, D.C., within the lifetime of most of the politicians there. The Atlantic cable and the cooperative endeavor of laying it were therefore invested with huge symbolic importance by the governments of both nations. Windy speeches and toasts accompanied the Niagara as it met up with the Agamemnon in Plymouth, England, then continued apace as the two ships loaded their unique cargoes, a tricky process that wound up taking quite some weeks. When that task was completed at last, they sailed on to the tiny port of Queenstown (now known as Cobh) on the southern tip of Ireland, where the eastern end of the cable was to make landfall. As a further symbol of the emerging spirit of transatlantic cooperation and trust, the American Niagara was to begin the laying of the cable on the British side of the ocean, while the British Agamemnon would complete it on the American side.

Loading the cable aboard the ships was no small task in itself. It had to be dragged up from the quay and laboriously wound around the giant spools in the ships’ holds.

But first, the two ships anchored side by side off the coast of Ireland to conduct an important test. The crew of the Niagara ferried the end of their cable over to the Agamemnon, where it was spliced with the one onboard that ship. Telegraph operators aboard each of the ships then sent a series of test signals back and forth. The 2500-mile connection worked. Whatever the ultimate merits of the cable Field had elected to purchase, the moment was a telling testament to an extraordinarily rapid evolution in electrical engineering and materials science since that time less than two decades before when Samuel Morse had struggled to push a decipherable signal down 40 feet of wire.

With the test completed, it was time to begin the actual laying of the cable. Its end came ashore on the evening of August 5, 1857, to the accompaniment of much celebration and speechifying. Cyrus Field was clearly touched when he stepped up to the podium:

I have no words to express the feelings which fill my heart tonight — it beats with love and affection for every man, woman, and child who hears me. I may say, however, that, if ever at the other side of the waters now before us, any one of you shall present himself at my door and say that he took hand or part, even by an approving smile, in our work here today, he shall have a true American welcome. I cannot bind myself to more, and shall merely say, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Paying out the first of the cable from the stern of the Niagara. Note the cage around the ship’s screws, put there to make sure the cable couldn’t become entangled in them. The sailors liked to call it a “crinoline,” after the wire hoops used to support ladies’ skirts.

A 25-year-old British telegraph engineer named Charles Bright had designed an ingenious mechanism for drawing the cable up from the spools in the ships’ holds and paying it out in a controlled fashion behind them. As the Niagara and its escort crept away from Ireland at a speed of three to six knots, Bright himself monitored his machine day and night, adjusting it constantly to account for the shifting topography of the seafloor beneath and the wind and waves that buffeted the vessel on whose deck it rode. Telegraph operators ashore in Ireland and aboard the ship tapped out a constant patter back and forth to confirm that the cable was still functioning. The distinctive, steady rumble of the pay-out mechanism became an equally important source of comfort to everyone aboard, another reminder that everything was working as it ought to. “If one should drop to sleep, and wake up at night,” wrote Henry Field later, “he has only to hear the sound of ‘the old coffee mill,’ and his fears are relieved, and he goes to sleep again.”

Charles Bright’s paying-out mechanism on the deck of the Niagara.

By the dawn hours of August 10, almost 300 miles of cable had been laid without a hitch, and Bright stepped away from his machine for some much needed rest, leaving it in the charge of one of his assistants. At 3:45 AM, the ship plunged into the trough of an unusually large wave. As it rose again, the cable was pulled taut. The attendant Bright had left in charge should have reduced the braking force in the mechanism, to let the cable spool out faster and ease the strain on it. But he failed to do so in time. The cable snapped with a sound that reverberated through the decks like the clap of doom. In a flash, the frayed end was lost forever beneath the ocean.

“Instantly ran through the ship a cry of grief and dismay,” writes Henry Field. “All gathered on deck with feelings which may be imagined.” The captain of the Niagara would remember the moment as akin to the death of a “dear friend”; he promptly ordered his ship’s flag lowered to half mast.

Field and his colleagues did a quick assessment, and concluded that the well over 300 miles of cable they had lost left them without enough of it remaining to start over again and hope to complete their task. There was nothing for it but to return to Britain. Once back in London, Field learned that it wasn’t possible to manufacture the needed additional cable before the Atlantic winter made the project of laying it too dangerous to attempt. So, the Niagara sailed for home for the season, and the naysayers and mockers on both sides of the ocean came out in force. A parody of “Pop Goes the Weasel!” made the music-hall rounds:

Pay it out! Oh, pay it out
As long as you are able:
For if you put the damned brake on:
Pop goes the cable!

But Cyrus Field professed himself to be undaunted — indeed, to be more encouraged than discouraged by recent events. Rather than the dismal failure described in the popular press, he chose to see his first attempt to lay his Atlantic Cable as a successful proof of concept; he had sent and received underwater telegraph signals over a gap several times longer than anyone had ever managed before. All he needed to go the full distance were a modestly redesigned paying-out mechanism and some equally modest operational refinements. He said as much in a letter to his investors:

The successful laying down of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable is put off for a short time, but its final triumph has been fully proved by the experience that we have had. My confidence was never so strong as at the present time, and I feel sure that, with God’s blessing, we shall connect Europe and America with the electric cord.

The first Atlantic cable may have been lost forever beneath the cold, dark waves of the ocean, but Field’s passion for the task burned as warmly as ever.

(Sources: the books The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison by Michael B. Schiffer, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman, A Thread across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Telegraph by John Steele Gordon, The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph by Henry M. Field, and The Life of William Thomson by Silvanus Phillips Thompson; The Atlantic Monthly of November 1862. Online sources include “The Telegraph and Chess” by Bill Wall, Distant Writing: A History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain between 1838 and 1868 by Steven Roberts, and History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.)



A Web Around the World, Part 1: Signals Down a Wire

The microcomputer had a well-nigh revolutionary impact on the way that business was done over the first twenty years after its invention: the arrival of a computer on every desk made the workplace more efficient in countless ways. But the gadget’s impact on our personal lives during this period was less all-encompassing. Yes, many youngsters and adults learned the advantages of word processing over typewriting, and a substantial minority of both learned the advantages of computer over console gaming. Meanwhile smaller minorities learned of the pleasures of programming, and some even ventured online to meet others of their ilk. Yet the wide-angle social transformation promised by the most starry-eyed pundits during the would-be Home Computer Revolution of the early 1980s didn’t materialize on the timetable we were promised. For a good decade after the heyday of such predictions, one could get on perfectly well as an informed, aware, plugged-in member of society without owning a computer or caring a whit about them. The question of what a home computer was really good for, beyond word processing, entertainment, and accessing fairly primitive online services at usually exorbitant prices, was difficult to answer for the average person. Most of the other usage scenarios proposed during the early 1980s, from storing recipes to balancing one’s checkbook, remained easier and cheaper on the whole to do the old-fashioned way. The personal computer seemed a useful invention in its realm, to be sure, but not a society-reshaping one.

All of that changed in the mid-1990s, when the Internet entered the public consciousness. By the turn of the millennium, those unable or unwilling to buy a computer and enter cyberspace were well and truly left behind, having no seat at the table where our most important cultural dialogs were suddenly taking place. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the impact the Internet has had on us: on the way we access information, on the way we communicate and socialize with one another, on the way we entertain ourselves, on the very way we think. The claim that the Internet is the most important advance in the technologies of information and communication since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which once seemed so expansive, now seems almost picayune in relation to the change we’ve witnessed. Coming at the end of a century of wondrous inventions, the Internet was the most wondrous of them all. We may still be waiting for our flying cars and cheap tickets to Mars, but the world we live in today would nevertheless have seemed thoroughly science-fictional just 30 years ago. Seen in this light, the computer itself seems merely a comparatively plebeian bit of infrastructure that needed to be laid down for the really earth-shattering technology to build upon. Or perhaps we were just seeing computers the wrong way before the Internet: what seemed most significant as a tool for, well, computation was actually a revolution in communication just waiting to happen. In this formulation, a computer without the Internet is like a car without any roads.

When I talk about the Internet in this context, of course, I really mean the combination of a globe-spanning network of computers — one which was already a couple of decades old by the beginning of the 1990s — with the much younger World Wide Web, which applied to the network a new paradigm of effortless navigation based on associative hyperlinks. This serves as a useful reminder that no human invention since the first stone tools has ever been monolithic; inventions are always amalgamations of existing technologies, iterations on what came before. In A Brief History of the Future, his classic millennial history of and philosophical meditation on the Internet, John Naughton noted that “it’s always earlier than you think. Whenever you go looking for the origins of any significant technological development, you find that the more you learn about it, the deeper its roots seem to tunnel into the past.”

I thought about those words a lot as I considered how best to tell the story of the Internet and the World Wide Web here. And as I did so, I kept coming back to this word “Web.” In the strict terms by which Tim Berners-Lee meant the word when he invented the World Wide Web, it refers to a logical web of links. But the prerequisite for that logical web is the physical web of cables that allows computers to talk to one another over long distances in the first place. This infrastructure was not originally designed for computers; it is in fact much, much older than they are. Still, this network — the physical network — strikes me as the most logical place to start this series of articles about the Internet, that ultimate expression of instantaneous worldwide communication.

Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon of the fifth century BC deals, like so much classical Greek literature, with the Trojan War, an event historians now believe to have occurred in approximately 1000 BC. In the play, we’re told how the Greek soldiers abroad sent news of their victory over the Trojans back to their homeland far more quickly than any ship- or horse-borne messenger could possibly have delivered it. This ecstatic paean to modern communication issues from the mouth of Clytemnestra, the wife of the Greek commander Agamemnon, who has been waiting on her husband for ten years at home in the Peloponnesian city of Argos:

Hephaestus, who sent the blazing light from Ida;
then beacon after beacon’s courier flame:
from Ida first, to Hermes’ crag at Lemnos.
Third came the Athos summit, which belongs
to Zeus: it, too, received the massive firebrand.
Ascending now to shoot across the sea’s back,
the journeying torch in all its power and joy.
The pine wood, like a second sun, conveyed
the gold-gleam to the watchtower on Macistus.
Prompt and triumphant over feckless sleep,
unslacking in its task as courier,
passing Euripus’s streams, the beacon’s light
signaled far off to watchmen on Messapion.
They sent out light in turn, sent on the message,
setting alight a rick of graying heather.
Potent against the dimming murk, the light
went leaping high across Asopus’ plain
like the beaming moon, and at Cathaeron’s scarp
roused missive fire still another relay.
The lookout there did not defy the light
sent from far off; the new blaze shot up stronger.
The glow shot past the lake called Gorgon’s Face;
arriving at the mountains where the goats roam,
it urged the fire-ordnance on.
With all their strength, men raised a giant flame,
beard-shaped, to overshoot and pass beyond
the headland fronting the Saronic strait —
so bright the blaze. Darting again, it reached
Arachne’s lookout peak, this city’s neighbor;
then it fell here, on the Atreides’ mansion.
The light we see descends from Ida’s fire.
Tourchbearers served me in this regimen,
with every handoff perfectly performed.
The runners who came first and last both win.
This is my proof, the pledge of what I tell you.
My husband passed the news to me from Troy.

In this fascinating passage, then, we learn of what may have been the first near-instantaneous long-distance communications network ever conceived, dating back more than 3000 years. The signal began with a burning pyre atop Mount Ida near Troy itself, then flashed onward like a torch being passed between the members of a relay team: to the highlands of the island of Lemnos, to Mount Athos on a northeastern peninsula of the Greek mainland, to the northern tip of the island of Euboea, to finally reach the mainland city of Aulas, whence the Greek fleet had sailed for Troy so long before. From there, the signal fires spread across Greece. Historians and geographers are skeptical whether such a signal system might truly have been practicable, even given the mountainous landscape of the region with its many rarefied peaks. But even if it never existed in reality, Aeschylus — or some other, anonymous earlier Greek who created the legend before him — deserves a great deal of credit for imagining that such a thing might exist.

Others after Aeschylus refined the idea further, into something that would function over shorter distances in places without mountain peaks in useful proximity to one another, something that might be used to send a message at least slightly more complicated than word of a war won. During the Second Punic War of the late second century BC, both Rome and its enemy Carthage are believed to have built networks of signal towers for purposes of battlefield communication. Very simple messages — signals to attack or withdraw, etc. — could be passed from tower to tower by waving torches in distinctive patterns. Many more short-range optical-signal systems followed: the Chinese used fireworks on their border walls to raise the alarm if one section was attacked by the “barbarians” on the other side; harbors raised flags to inform ships of the height and movement of the tides.

But all such systems were sharply limited in the types of information they could transmit and the distances over which they could send it. On any broader, more flexible scale, the speed of communication was still the same as that of messengers on horseback, or of sailors in ships at the mercy of the wind and waves. The impact this had on commerce, on diplomacy, and on warfare is difficult for us children of the mass-media age to appreciate; there are repeated instance in history of such follies as bloody battles fought after the wars that spawned them had already ended, because word of the ceasefire couldn’t be gotten to the front lines in time. The people of the past, for their part, had equally little conception of any alternative speed of communication; for them, the weeks that were required to, say, get a message from the Americas to Europe were as natural as a transatlantic telephone call is to us.

Claude Chappe

But in 1789, one Claude Chappe, a French seminary student whose studies had been interrupted by his country’s political revolution, began to envision something else. He became obsessed with the idea of a fast long-range communications network that could transmit messages as arbitrary as the content of any given written letter. He first thought of using electricity, a phenomenon which scientists and inventors were just starting to consider how to turn to practical purposes. But it was still a dangerous, untamed beast at this juncture, and Chappe quickly — and probably wisely — set it aside. Next he turned to sound. He and his four brothers discovered that a cast-iron pot could be heard up to a quarter of a mile away if hit hard enough with a steel mallet. Thus by beating out patterns they could pass messages across reasonably long distances, a quarter-mile at a time. But the method had some obvious problems: its range was highly dependent on the vagaries of wind and weather, and the brothers’ experiments certainly didn’t make them very popular with their neighbors. So, Chappe went back to the drawing board again — went back, in fact, to the ancient solution of optical signalling.

After much experimentation, he arrived at a system based on semaphores mounted atop towers. Each semaphore consisted of three separate, jointed pieces which could be positioned in multiple ways, enough so that there were fully 98 possible distinct configurations of the apparatus as a whole. Six of the configurations were reserved for special purposes, the equivalent of what a digital-network engineer would call “control blocks”: stop and start signals, requests for re-transmission, etc. The other 92 stood for numbers. Chappe provided a code dictionary consisting of 8464 words, divided into 92 pages of 92 words each. The transmission of each word was a two-step procedure: first a number pointing to the page, then another pointing to the word on that page. The system even boasted a form of error correction: since the operator of the next tower in the chain would need to configure his semaphores to match those of the tower before his in order to transmit the message further, the operator in the previous tower got a chance to confirm that his message had been received correctly, and was expected to send a hasty “Belay that!” signal in the case of a mistake.

A contemporary sketch of Chappe’s semaphore system.

Optical engineering had by now progressed to the point that Chappe’s towers could be placed much farther apart than any of the signal towers of old, for they could now be viewed through a telescope rather than with the naked eye. Chappe envisioned a vast network of towers, separated from one another by 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 kilometers) depending on the terrain, the whole extending across the country of France or even eventually across the whole continent of Europe.

The system was labor-intensive, requiring as it did a pair of attendants in every tower. It was also slow — at best, it was good for about one word per minute — and at the mercy of the hours of daylight and to some extent the weather. But when the conditions were right it worked. Appropriately given how the germ of the concept stemmed from Aeschylus, Chappe turned to Greek for a name for his invention. He first wanted to call it the tachygraphe, combining two Greek cognates meaning “fast” and “writing.” But a friend in the government suggested télégraphe — “distant writing” — instead.

Living in revolutionary times tends to bring challenges along with benefits: Chappe and his brothers had to run for their lives during at least one of their tests, when a mob decided they must be Royalist sympathizers passing secret messages of sedition. On the other hand, the new leaders of France were as eager as any have ever been to throw out the old ways of doing things and to embrace modernity in all its aspects. Some of the innovations they enacted, such as the metric system of measurement, have remained with us to this day; others, such as a new calendar that used ten-day weeks (Revolutionary France had a positive mania for decimals), would prove less enduring. Chappe’s telegraph would fall somewhere in between the two extremes, adding a word and an idea to our culture that would long outlive this first practical implementation of it.

On July 26, 1793, following a series of proof-of-concept demonstrations, the National Convention gave Claude Chappe the title of “Telegraph Engineer” in the Committee of Public Safety. And so, while other branches of the same Committee were carrying out the Reign of Terror with the assistance of Madame la Guillotine, Chappe was building a chain of signal towers stretching from Lille to Paris; the terminus in the capital stood on the dome of the Louvre Palace, newly re-purposed as a public art museum.

On August 15, 1794, shortly after the telegraph went officially into service, it brought news of a major French victory in the war with the old, conservative order of Europe that was going on on the country’s northern border. A National Convention delegate named Lazare Carnot ascended to the podium in the Salles des Machines in Paris. “Quesnoy is restored to the Republic,” he read out from the scrap of paper in his hands. “Its surrender took place at six o’clock this morning.” A wave of jubilation swept the hall, prompted not only by the military victory thus reported but by the timeliness with which the news had arrived, which seemed an equally potent validation of the whole forward-looking revolutionary project. A delegate to the Convention named Joseph Lakanal summed up the mood: “What brilliant destiny do science and the arts not reserve to a republic which, by the genius of its inhabitants, is called to instruct the nations of Europe!”

In the end, the republic in question had a shorter career than Lakanal might have hoped for it, but Chappe’s telegraph survived its demise. By the time Napoleon seized power from the corrupt and dysfunctional remnants of the Revolution in 1799, most of France had been bound together in a web of towers and semaphores. Napoleon supported the construction of many more stations as part of his mission to make France the world’s unrivaled leader in science and technology. But Chappe found himself increasingly sidelined by the French bureaucracy, even as he apparently suffered from a debilitating bladder disease. On January 25, 1805, at the age of 42, he either cut his own throat while standing beneath a telegraph tower on the Rue de Saint Germain in Paris, or deliberately threw himself into a well, or stumbled accidentally into one. (Reports of the death of Claude Chappe, like many of those pertaining to his life, are confused and contradictory, a byproduct of the chaotic times in which he lived.)

This statue of Claude Chappe used to stand in central Paris on the site where some say he committed suicide, just next to one of his preserved telegraph towers. It was removed and melted down by the Nazis during World War II.

His optical telegraph would live on for another half-century after him, growing to fully 556 towers, concentrated in France but stretching as far as Amsterdam, Brussels, Mainz, Milan, Turin, and Venice. According to folk history, it was used for the last time in 1855, to bring news of the victory of France and its allies in the siege of Sevastopol — a fitting bookend for a system which had announced its arrival with word of another military victory more than 60 years before.

Remnants of Chappe’s telegraph network can still be seen in many places in France. This semaphore tower stands in the commune of Saverne in the northeastern part of the country.

One morning he made him a slender wire,
As an artist’s vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange, fierce fire
That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain’s crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean’s breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.
“We are one!” said the nations, and hand met hand,
In a thrill electric from land to land.

— “The Victory,” written anonymously in honor of Samuel Morse upon his death in 1872

This photograph of Samuel Morse was taken in 1840, in the midst of his struggle to interest the world in his electric telegraph.

In 1824,  a 33-year-old American painter named Samuel Morse traveled to Washington, D.C. An artist of real talent with a not unimpressive track record — he had once been commissioned to paint President James Monroe — he had previously been in the habit of prioritizing his muse over his earnings. But now he was determined to change that: he went to the capital in the hope of becoming one of a small circle of painters who earned a steady living by making flattering official portraits of prominent men.

On February 10, 1825, Morse sent a letter back home to his wife in New Haven, Connecticut, with some exciting news: he had won a lucrative contract to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, a famous hero of both the American and French Revolutions. But his wife never got to read the letter: she had died on February 7. The day after Morse had posted his missive, word of her death finally reached him. He immediately left for home, but by the time he arrived she had already been buried. The episode was a painful lesson in the shortcomings of current communications methods in the United States, a country which had not embraced even the optical telegraph.

In addition to his more well-known accomplishments as an inventor, Samuel Morse was a painter of no small talent and not inconsiderable importance. He painted his rather magnificent Grand Gallery of the Louvre on his trip to Europe of 1829 to 1832.

Seven years later, Morse found himself aboard a packet ship called the Sully, returning to his homeland from France after an extended sojourn in Europe during which he had combined the profitable business of making miniature copies of European masterpieces with the more artistically satisfying one of trying to create new masterpieces of his own. One of his fellow passengers enjoyed dabbling with electricity, and showed him a battery and some other toys he had brought onboard. Morse was not, as is sometimes claimed, a complete neophyte to the wonders of electricity at this point; a man of astonishingly diverse interests and aptitudes, he had attended a series of lectures on the subject a few years earlier, and had even befriended the instructor. Nevertheless, he clearly had a eureka moment aboard the Sully. “It occurred to me,” he would later write, “that by means of electricity, signs representing figures, letters, or words might be legibly written down [emphasis original] at any distance.” He chattered almost manically about it to anyone who would listen throughout the four-week passage home. His brother Sidney, who met him at the dock upon the Sully‘s arrival in New York City, would later recall that he was still “full of the subject of the [electric] telegraph during the walk from the ship, and for some days afterward could scarcely speak about anything else.”

His surprise and excitement at the thought were in some ways a measure of his ignorance: the idea of an electric telegraph that would not be subject to all of the multitudinous drawbacks of optical systems was practically old hat by now in engineering and invention circles. Still, no one had ever quite managed to get one to work well enough to be useful. This may strike us as odd today; as Tom Standage has noted in his book The Victorian Internet, any clever child of today can construct a working one-way electric telegraph in the course of an afternoon. All you need is a length of wire, a breaker switch, an electric lamp of some sort, and a battery. Run the wire between the breaker switch and the lamp, connect the whole circuit to the battery, and you can sit at one end of the wire making the bulb at the other end flash on and off to your heart’s content. All that’s left to do is to decide upon some sort of code to give meaning to the flashes.

But for electrical experimenters at the turn of the nineteenth century, the devil was in the details. One serious problem was that of detecting the presence or absence of electric current at all, many decades before reasonably reliable incandescent light bulbs became available. By 1800, it had been discovered that immersing the end of a live wire into water would generate telltale bubbles; we now understand that these are the result of a process known as electrolysis, in which an electric current breaks water molecules down into their component hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Experiments were conducted which attempted to apply this phenomenon to telegraphy, but it was difficult, to say the least, to read a coherent message from bubbles floating in a pot of water.

A breakthrough came in 1820, when a Danish scientist named Hans Christian Ørsted discovered that electric current pulls the needle of a compass toward itself. Electricity, in other words, generates its own magnetic field. By winding together a coil of wire, one can make an electromagnet, which affects a compass or anything else containing ferromagnetic materials just like an ordinary magnet, with one important difference: this magnet functions only when electric current is flowing through the coil. The implications for telegraphy were enormous: an electromagnet should finally make it possible to instantly and precisely detect the presence or absence of current in a wire.

But there was still another problem: it didn’t seem to be possible to transmit currents over really long wires. Over such distances as those which separated two typical towers in Claude Chappe’s optical-telegraph system — much less that which separated, say, Lille from Paris — the signal just seemed to peter out and disappear. In 1825, a Briton named Peter Barlow, one of the eminent mathematical and scientific luminaries of his day, conducted a series of experiments to determine the scale of the problem. His conclusions gave little room for optimism. A current’s strength on a wire, he wrote, was inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the battery that had spawned it. As for the telegraph: “I found such a sensible diminution with only 200 feet [60 meters] of wire as at once to convince me of the impracticality of the scheme.”

Luckily for the world, not everyone was ready to defer to Barlow’s reputation. An American named Joseph Henry, a teacher of teenage boys at The Albany Academy in New York who was possessed at the time of neither a university degree nor an international reputation, conducted experiments of his own, and found that Barlow had been mistaken in one of his key conclusions: he found that the strength of a current was inversely proportional to its distance from the battery, full stop — i.e., not from the distance squared. In the course of further experimenting, Henry discovered that higher voltages lost proportionally even less of their strength over distance than weaker ones. Fortunately, the state of the art in batteries was steadily improving. Henry found that a cutting-edge 25-cell battery had enough “projectile force” to push a current a fairly long distance; it was able to ring a bell at the end of a wire more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) long. He published his findings in 1831, while a blissfully unaware Samuel Morse was painting pictures in Europe. But the world of science and invention did take notice; suddenly a workable electric telegraph seemed like a practical possibility once again.

Meanwhile Morse spent the years after his eureka moment aboard the Sully as busily and diversely as ever: teaching art at New York University, teaching private pupils how to paint, painting more pictures of his own, serving on the American Academy of Fine Arts, writing feverish anti-Catholic screeds, even running for mayor of New York City under the auspices of the anti-immigration Native American Democratic Association. (Like too many men of his era, Morse was a thoroughgoing racist and bigot in addition to his more positive qualities.) In light of all this activity, it would be a stretch to say he was consistently consumed with the possibility of an electric telegraph, but he clearly did tinker with the project intermittently, and may very well have followed the latest advancements in the field of electrical transmission closely as part of his interest.

But while people like Joseph Henry were asking whether and how an electrical signal might be sent over a long distance in the abstract, Morse was asking how an electric telegraph might actually function as a tool. How could you get messages into it, and how could you get them out of it?

Morse’s first solution to the problem of sending a message is a classic example of how old paradigms of thought can be hard to escape when inventing brand-new technology. He designed his electric telegraph to work essentially like a long-distance printing press. The operator arranged along a groove cut into a three-foot (1-meter) beam of wood small pieces of metal “movable type,” each having from one to ten teeth cut into it to represent a single-digit number; ten teeth meant zero. He then slotted the beam into a sending apparatus Morse called a “port-rule,” attached to one end of the telegraph wire. The operator turned a hand crank on the port-rule’s side to move the beam through the contraption. As he did so, the teeth on the metal type caused a breaker connected to the telegraph wire to close and open, producing a pattern of electrical pulses.

Morse’s movable type. We see here two pieces representing the number two, and one representing each of three, four, and five.

The whole port-rule apparatus.

At the other end of the wire was an electromagnet, to which was mounted a pencil on the end of a spring-loaded arm made from a ferromagnetic metal. The nib of the pencil rested on a band of paper, which could be set in motion by means of a clockwork mechanism driven by a counterweight. When a message came down the wire, the electrical pulses caused the electromagnet to switch on and off, pulling the pencil up and down as the paper scrolled beneath it. The resulting pattern on the paper could then be translated into a series of digits, which could then be further decoded into readable text using a code dictionary not dissimilar to the one employed by Claude Chappe’s optical telegraph.

Morse’s receiving mechanism, which he called the “register.”

It was all quite fiddly and complicated, but by 1837 — i.e., fully five years after Morse’s eureka moment — it more or less worked on a good day. Range was his biggest problem; not having access to the cutting-edge batteries that were available to Joseph Henry, Morse found that his first versions of his telegraph could only transmit a message 40 feet (12 meters). Pondering this, he came up with a rather brilliant stopgap solution, in the form of what is now called a “repeater”: an additional battery partway down the wire, activated by an electromagnet that responded to the current coming down the prior section of wire. “By the same operation the same results may again be repeated,” Morse wrote in his patent application, “extending and breaking at pleasure such current through yet another and another circuit, ad infinitum.” If you had enough batteries and electromagnets, in other words, you could extend the telegraph to a theoretically infinite length.

With his invention looking more and more promising, Morse befriended a younger man named Alfred Vail, the scion of a wealthy family with many industrial and political connections. Vail became an important collaborator in ironing out the design of the telegraph, while his family signed on as backers, giving Morse access to much more advanced batteries among other benefits. In January of 1838, he sent a “pretty full letter” down a wire 10 miles (16 kilometers) long. “The success is complete,” he exalted.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to rest it, and I will move the world,” the ancient engineer Archimedes had once (apocryphally) said. Now, Morse paraphrased him with an aphorism of his own: “If [the signal] will go ten miles without stopping, I can make it go around the globe.”

One month after their ten-mile success, Morse and Alfred Vail traveled to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate the telegraph to members of Congress and even to President Martin Van Buren himself. The demonstration was not a success; it’s doubtful whether most of the audience, the president among them, really understood what they were being shown at all. This was not least because Morse was forced to set up his sending and receiving stations right next to one another in the same room, then to try to explain that the unruly tangle of wire lying piled up between them meant that they could just as well have been ten miles apart. As it was, his telegraph looked like little more than a pointless parlor trick to busy men who believed they had more important things to worry about.

So, Morse decided to try his luck in Europe. Upon arriving there, he learned to his discomfiture that various Europeans were already working on the same project he was. In particular, a pair of Britons named William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, building upon the ideas and experiments of a Russian nobleman named Pavel Lvovitch Schilling, had made considerable progress on a system which transmitted signals over a set of ten wires to a set of five needles, causing them to tilt in different directions and thereby to signify different letters of the alphabet.

Morse pointed out to anyone who would listen that this system’s need for so many wires made it far more complicated, expensive, and delicate than his own system, which required just one.Yet few of the Europeans Morse met showed much interest in yet another electric-telegraph project, much less one from the other side of the Atlantic. He grew almost frantic with worry that one of the European projects would pan out before he could get his own telegraph into service. Against all rhyme and reason, he began claiming that Cooke and Wheatstone had stolen from him the very idea for an electric telegraph; it had, he said, probably reached them through one of the other passengers who had sailed on the Sully back in 1832. This was of course absurd on the face of it; the idea of an electric telegraph in the broad strokes had been batted about for decades by that point. Morse’s invention was a practical innovation, not a conceptual one. Yet he heatedly insisted that he alone was the father of the electric telegraph in every sense. Europeans didn’t hesitate to express their own opinion to the contrary. The argument quickly got personal. One French author, for example, took exception with Morse’s habit of calling himself a “professor.” “It may be well to state here,” he sniffed, “that he [is] merely professor of literature and drawing, by an honorary title conferred upon him by the University of New York.”

Morse returned to the United States in early 1839 a very angry man. He now enlisted the nativist American press in his cause. “The electric telegraph, that wonder of our time, is an American discovery,” wrote one broadsheet. “Professor Morse invented it immediately after his return from France to America.” To back up his claim of being the victim of intellectual theft, Morse even tracked down the Sully‘s captain and got him to testify that Morse had indeed spoken of his stroke of genius freely to everyone onboard.

But even Morse had to recognize eventually that such pettiness availed him little. There came a point, not that long after his return to American shores, when he seemed ready to give up on his telegraph and all the bickering that had come to surround it in favor of a new passion. While visiting Paris, he had seen some of the first photographs taken by Louis Daguerre, had even visited the artist and inventor personally in his studio. He had brought one of Daguerre’s cameras back with him, and now, indefatigable as ever, he set up his own little studio; the erstwhile portrait painter became New York City’s first portrait photographer, as well as a teacher of the new art form. His knack for rubbing shoulder with Important Men of History hadn’t deserted him: among his students was one Mathew Brady, whose images of death and destruction from the battlefields of the American Civil War would later bring home the real horrors of war to civilians all over the world for the first time. Morse also plunged back into reactionary politics with a passion; he ran again, still unsuccessfully, for mayor of New York on an anti-immigration, anti-Catholic, pro-slavery platform.

So, Morse might have retired quietly from telegraphy, if not for an insult which he simply couldn’t endure. Over in Britain, Cooke and Wheatstone had been making somewhat more headway. They had found that the men behind the new railroads that were then being built showed some interest in their telegraph as a means of keeping tabs on the progress of trains and avoiding that ultimate disaster of a collision. In 1839, Cooke and Wheatstone installed the first electric telegraph ever to be put into everyday service, connecting the 13 miles (21 kilometers) that separated Paddington from West Drayton along Britain’s Great Western Railway. Several more were installed over the next few years on other densely trafficked stretches. One story has it that, when three of the five indicator needles on the complex system conked out on one of the lines, the operators in the stations improvised a code for passing all the information they needed to using only the remaining two needles. The lesson thus imparted would only slowly dawn on our would-be electric-telegraph entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic: that both of their systems were actually more complicated than they needed to be, that a simpler system would be cheaper and more reliable while still doing everything it needed to.

But first, the insult: flush with their relative success, Cooke and Wheatstone wrote to Morse in early 1842 to ask whether, in light of all his experience with electric telegraphy in general, he might be interested in peddling their system to the railroads in his country — in becoming, in other words, a mere salesman for their telegraph. It may have been intended as an honest conciliatory overture, a straightforward attempt to bury the hatchet. But that wasn’t how Morse took it. Livid at this affront to his inventor’s pride, he jumped back into the telegraphy game with a vengeance; he soon extended his system’s maximum range to 33 miles (53 kilometers).

He wrote a deferential letter to Joseph Henry, whose experiments had by now won him a position on the faculty of Princeton University and the reputation of the leading authority in the country on long-distance applications of electricity. Morse knew that, if he could get Henry to throw his weight behind his telegraph, it might make all the difference. “Have you met with any facts in your experiments thus far that would lead you to think that my mode of telegraphic communication will prove impracticable?” he asked in his letter. Not only did Henry reply in the negative, but he invited Morse up to Princeton to talk in person. This was, needless to say, exactly what Morse had been hoping for. Henry agreed to support Morse’s telegraph, even to publicly declare it to be a better design than its competitor from Britain.

Thus Henry was in attendance when Morse exhibited his telegraph in New York City in the summer of 1842, garnering for it the first serious publicity it had received in a couple of years. Morse continued beavering away at it, adding an important new feature: a sending and receiving station at each end of the same wire, to turn his telegraph into an effortless two-way communications medium. The British system, by contrast, required no fewer than twenty separate wires to accomplish the same thing. In December of 1842, the growing buzz won Morse another hearing in Washington, D.C. Knowing that this was almost certainly his last chance to secure government funding, he lobbied for and got access to two separate audience halls. He installed one station in each, and he and Alfred Vail then mediated a real-time conversation between two separate groups of politicians and bureaucrats who could neither see nor hear one another.

This added bit of showmanship seemed to do the trick; at last some of those assembled seemed to grasp the potential of what they were seeing. A bill was introduced to allocate $30,000 to the construction of a trial line connecting Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles (65 kilometers). On February 23, 1843, it passed the House by a vote of 89 to 83, with 70 abstainers. On March 3, the Senate passed it unanimously as a final piece of business in the literal last minute of the current term, and President John Tyler signed it. More than a decade after the idea had come to him aboard the Sully, Morse finally had his chance to prove to the world how useful his telegraph could be.

He had no small task before him: no one in the country had ever attempted to run a permanent electrical cable over a distance of 40 miles before. Morse asked the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company for permission to use their right-of-way between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. They agreed, in return for free use of the telegraph, thus further cementing a connection between railroads and telegraphs that would persist for many years.

The project was beset with difficulties from the start. A plan to lay the cable underground, encased within custom-manufactured lead pipe, went horribly awry when the latter proved to be defective. The team had to pull it all up again, whereupon Morse decided to string the cable along on poles instead, where it would be more exposed to the elements and to vandals but also much more accessible to repair crews; thus was born the ubiquitous telegraph — later telephone — pole.

This experience may have taught Morse something of the virtues of robust simplicity. At any rate, it was during the construction of the Washington-to-Baltimore line that he finally abandoned his complicated electrical printing press in favor of a sending apparatus that was about as simplistic as it could be. It was apparently Alfred Vail rather than Morse himself who was primarily responsible for designing what would be immortalized as the “Morse key”: a single switch which the operator could use to close and open the circuit breaker manually. The receiving station, on the other hand, remained largely unchanged: a pencil or pen made marks on a paper tape turning beneath it.

The Morse key. For well over a century the principal tool and symbol of the telegraph operator’s trade, it was actually a last-minute modification of a more ambitious design.

To facilitate communication using such a crude tool, Morse and Vail created the first draft of the system that would be known forevermore as Morse code. After being further refined and simplified by the German Friedrich Clemens Gerke in 1848, Morse code became the first widely used binary communications standard, the ancestor of later computer protocols like ASCII. In lieu of the zeroes and ones of the computer age, it encoded every letter and digit as a series of dots and dashes, which the operator at the sending end produced on the roll of paper at the other end of the line by pressing and releasing the Morse key quickly (in the case of a dot) or pressing and holding it for a somewhat longer time (in the case of a dash). The system demanded training and practice, not to mention significant manual dexterity, and was far from entirely foolproof even with a seasoned operator on each end of the line. Nonetheless, plenty of people would get very, very good at it, would learn practically to think in Morse code and to transcribe any text into dots and dashes almost as fast as you or I might type it on a computer keyboard. And they would learn to turn a received sequence back into characters on the page with equal facility. The electromagnet attached to the stylus on the receiving end gave out a distinct whine when it was engaged; thanks to this, operators would soon learn to translate messages by ear alone in real time. The sublime ballet of a telegraph line being operated well would become a pleasure to watch, in that way it is always wonderful to watch competent people who take pride in their skilled work going about it.

On May 24, 1844, the Washington-to-Baltimore telegraph line was officially opened for business. Before an audience of journalists, politicians, and other luminaries, Morse himself tapped out the first message in, of all places, the chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States. At the other end of the line in Baltimore, Alfred Vail decoded it before an audience of his own. “What hath God wrought?” it read, a phrase from the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers.

For our purposes, a perhaps more appropriate question might be, “What hath the telegraph wrought?” Thanks to Samuel Morse and his fellow travelers, the first stepping stone toward a World Wide Web had fallen into place.

(Sources: the books A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton; The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage; From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology edited by Jeremy M. Norman; The Greek Plays edited by Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm; Les Télégraphes by A.L. Ternant, Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison by Michael B. Schiffer, and Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman. And the paper “The Telegraph of Claude Chappe: An Optical Communications Network for the XVIIIth Century” by J.M. Dilhac.)