When Bad Things Happen to Good Technologies: Three Phases in the Diffusion and Perception of American Telegraphy

  • Menahem Blondheim
Part of the Sociology of the Sciences book series (SOSC, volume 17)


The telegraph was supposed to bring about a world of good. When Samuel Finley Breese Morse tried to persuade the American government to promote his telegraph, he argued that “the greater the speed with which intelligence can be transmitted from point to point, the greater is the benefit derived to the whole community.” Few nineteenth-century Americans would have quarreled with his rationale. When Morse, forecasting the ultimate impact of his invention, invoked the image of making “one neighborhood of the whole country,” contemporaries might have suspected “the crazy painter” of exaggerating the blessings of his invention, not of pessimistically anticipating the discontents of a future mass society.1 Perceptions and evaluations of the telegraph changed radically in three distinct phases that paralleled the transformations of telegraphic technology in the process of its diffusion.


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  1. 1.
    U.S. Congress, House, Telegraphs for the United States, H. Doc. 15, 25th Congr., 2nd sess., 1837, p. 30; U.S. Congress, House, Electro-Magnetic Telegraphs, 25th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 753, 1838, Appendix C.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This observation is based on a survey of the files of the New York Herald, New York Journal of Commerce, New York Sun, New York Express, Baltimore Sun, and Washington Globe from May 24 to June 2, 1844.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Other religious aspects in perception and evaluations of telegraphy are discussed by James W. Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communications,” in Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 13–36, as well as in other essays in that volume; and by Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), pp. 8-14. Both were influenced by Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See e.g., Albany Argus, June 11, 1845; New York Herald, December 6, 1845. Clippings in the Henry O’Rielly Telegraph Collection, New York Historical Society, New York, NY; “The Telegraph,” poem in the Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1847, clipping in the Morse scrapbooks, Morse papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Washington D.C. Newspaper clippings in the many volumes of scrapbooks in the O’Rielly collection, together with the scrapbooks in the Morse papers, and in the Alfred Vail papers and telegraph collection, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington D.C, were the major source for analysis of public opinion presented below. Reference to the respective collections is made only when unidentified or undated clippings are cited.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    New York Express, quoted in the Pittsburgh Mercantile Advertiser, July 8, 1848.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Alonzo B. Cornell, True and Firm: Biography of Ezra Cornell (New York, 1884), pp. 93ff.; Alfred Vail Telegraph Diary, Vail Telegraph Collection; Frederic Hudson, Journalism in the United States (New York, 1873), pp. 598-599. Although Czitrom, Media and the American Mind, pp. 6-8, argues to the contrary, and could be supported by the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, January 1, 1846, and the Pittsburgh Gazette and Advertiser, December 30,1846, it appears that the crowds surrounding Morse in the first days of the first line were lured by the news of the national conventions taking place in Baltimore. More generally the gathering of crowds in telegraph offices upon their opening appear to reflect initial curiosity, which faded quickly after initiation.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For a discussion of this aspect see Oscar Handlin, “Man and Magic: First Encounters with the Machine,” American Scholar 33 (Summer 1964), 415ff.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Philadelphia Pennsylvanian, December 30, 1846; practically all modern accounts have commented on the divorce of transportation and communication by means of the telegraph. Of these the most profound discussion is in Carey, “A Cultural Approach,” and in idem, “Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph,” Communication as Culture, pp. 201–230.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    S. F. B. Morse quoted in the New York Tribune, November 13, 1847; Henry David Thoreau, Waiden (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1857), p. 36; Pittsburgh Gazette and Advertiser, December 30, 1846; Philadelphia North America, December 30, 1846.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Clipping from an unidentified New Orleans Newspaper, Morse scrapbooks, Morse papers.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Charleston Daily Courier, June 8, 1846; New Orleans Commercial Times, July 13, 1846.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Numerous accounts of this and related episodes may be found in the O’Rielly scrapbooks, 2nd series Vols. I, II. The most reliable account is probably Alexander Jones, Historical Sketch of the Electric Telegraph Including Its Rise and Progress in the United States (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1852), pp. 133–134.Google Scholar
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    The best account of this episode is in Jones, Historical Sketch, p. 133.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See e.g., New York Herald, March 3, 1846, March 4, 1846, August 18, 1846, November 5, 1846, November 6, 1846; New York Evening Mirror, December 15, 1846; Utica Daily Gazette, November21, 1846; Buffalo Commercial Journal, March 2, 1847; Rochester Daily Democrat, February 13, 1847.Google Scholar
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    Philadelphia North American, December 30, 1846; Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, June 8, 1846; Philadelphia United States Gazette, May 16, 1847.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6, 1846; Buffalo Mercantile Advertiser, July 8, 1847; National Police Gazette, May 30, 1846; New York Express, quoted in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, June 17, 1846; “Professor Morse’s Electric Telegraph,” unidentified clipping, Morse scrapbooks, Morse papers: “Justice to American Genius,” New York Tribune, undated, Morse scrapbooks, Morse papers; U.S. Cong., Report of the Postmaster General, Ex. Doc. 2, 29th Cong., lst sess., 1845, p. 861.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    The best of the numerous accounts of the development of American telegraphy to 1866 remains Robert Luther Thompson, Wiring a Continent (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947). The fullest contemporary account is James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America and Morse Memorial (New York: John Polhemus, 1886); Alvin F. Harlow, Old Wires and New Waves (New York: D. Appleton-Century Col, 1936), although anecdotal, is also useful.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Unidentified clipping, Vail Telegraph Collection.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Marshall Lefferts, Address to the Stockholders of the New York and New England Telegraph Co. (New York: Snowden, 1851); idem, “The Electric Telegraph: Its Influence on Geographical Distribution,” Bulletin of the American Geographiealand Statistical Society 2 (January 1857), 242-264; Richard B. DuBoff, “The Telegraph and the Structure of Markets in the United States, 1845-1890,” Research in Economic History 8 (1983), 253–277.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    New York Herald, June 4, 1844, December 6, 1847; National Police Gazette, May 30, 1846; Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, January 1, 1846; Albany Evening Atlas, July 6, 1846; Edward Lind Morse, Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. 2, p. 224; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 217–227.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Utica Daily Gazette, undated clipping, Henry O’Rielly collection.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    New York Sun, November 25, 1846.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    New York Herald, November22, 1846.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    New York Herald, November 20, 1846; cf. New York Tribune, quoted in Henry O’Rielly, Caution to the Public, undated circular, O’Rielly Telegraph Collection.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    The corporation, originally a private entity entrusted with public duties on behalf of the community, had gradually become a means for granting public sanction to private enterprises, serving the private pecuniary interests of the incorporators. At the time the telegraph was spreading, incorporation was fast becoming a privilege free to all. Oscar Handlin and Mary Flug Handlin, Commonwealth: A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 106–181; Stuart Bruchey, Enterprise: The Dynamic Economy of a Free People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 131-133, 205-210.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    The most profound statement in support of government control was issued by the New York Express, June 25, 1846; other revealing statements to the same effect include New York Herald, October 9, 1848, January 15, 1850; National Police Gazette, May 30, 1846. Strong statements in opposition to government control include New York Evening Mirror, December 15, 1846; New York Evening Post, January 5, 1846; Pittsburgh Mercantile Advertiser, July 8, 1848; “Justice to American Genius,” New York Tribune, undated clipping, Morse scrap-books, Morse papers; “Opposition Telegraphs,” Buffalo Courier, undated clipping, O’Rielly Telegraph Collection. Most common were calls for competition in telegraphy. Representative of numerous statements to that effect are the Troy Daily Post, September 30, 1847; New York Tribune, November 13, 1847.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Alfred D. Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 188–200, et passim; James D. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 16-25, et passim. Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Albany Argus, undated clipping, Henry O’Rielly Telegraph Collection.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    The best source for these developments are the Western Union Presidents’ Letter Books and other corporated records deposited in the Corporate Secretary’s Office, Western Union Corporation, Upper Saddle River, NJ. WU’s printed annual reports for the late 1860s and 1870s provide a good summary.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    The development of the Associated Press is described in Victor Rosewater, History of Cooperative News Gathering in the United States (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1930); Menahem Blondheim, “The News Frontier: Control and Management of America’s News in the Age of the Telegraph,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1989); Richard A. Schwarzlose, The Nation’s Newsbrokers (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    The best sources for G&S history are its BOD’s Minutes and other corporate records deposited in the Corporate Secretary’s Office, Western Union Corporation; Western Union’s Presidents’ Letter Books, Western Union Corporation. Short secondary accounts include DuBoff, “Telegraph and the Structure of Markets,” pp. 267–269; Blondheim, “News Frontier,” pp. 350-351.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Lester G. Lindley, “The Constitution Faces Technology: The Relationship of National Government to the Telegraph” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Rice University, 1971); Richard B. DuBoff, “The Rise of Communications Regulation: The Telegraph Industry, 1844-1880,” Journal of Communication 34 (Summer 1984), 52–65; Blondheim, “News Frontier,” pp. 455-469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    U.S. Congress, House, Telegraph Lines, H. Rept. 125, 43rd Cong., 2nd Sess., 1877, pp. 7–8. Cf. Speech of Charles Sumner of California in the House of Representatives, pamphlet (Washington, 1884), pp. 25-27.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    U.S. Congress, Senate, Connecting the Telegraph with the Postal Service, S. Rept. 242, 42nd Cong., 3rd Sess., 1872, pp. 4–5.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    U.S. Congress, House, To Connect the Telegraph with the Postal Service, H. Rept. 6, 42nd Cong., 3rd Sess., 1872.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    U.S. Congress, House, Telegraph Lines, H. Rept. 125, 43rd Cong. 2nd Sess., 1875, p. 7.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Ibid., pp. 403-417.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Good representatives of these diverse tendencies are: Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, undated clipping, Henry O’Rielly Telegraph Collection; New York Sun, November 3, 1847 (”the greatest revolution of modern times and indeed of all times”); New York Herald, May 30, 1844 (”Prof. Morse’s telegraph is not only an era in the transmission of intelligence, but it has originated in the mind an entirely new class of ideas, a new species of consciousness”).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Menahem Blondheim
    • 1
  1. 1.Hebrew University of JerusalemIsrael

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