A Communications Revolution
A Communications Revolution
Transportation Revolution . American expansion was more than just talk. Locally and nationally, workers were busy building a transportation and communication infrastructure necessary to fulfill the transcontinental dream. The number of post offices, for example, grew from 903 in 1800 to 28,498 in 1860. The mileage of post roads needed to reach the new offices also expanded rapidly, from 20,817 miles in 1800 to 240,594 miles in 1860. The growth of the postal system facilitated expansion. Western immigrants used the mails to spread the word about their fortunes out West and to maintain links with their old lives in the East. In time, railroads made the expansion quicker and more convenient. Railroad mileage, a sign of the nation’s growing industrial strength, grew from a mere twenty-three miles in 1830 to 30,626 miles in 1860. All of these developments helped Americans achieve the nationalist dream, linking together an increasingly scattered population across a growing number of towns, territories, and states.
Electric Communication. The first report on the telegraphic transmission of news appeared in the Baltimore Sun on 27 May 1844. “Some further experiments were conducted on the new telegraph on Saturday morning…,” the paper reported. “Several messages were sent to and from [Washington] with almost incredible despatch, which, although unimportant in themselves, were most interesting from the novelty of the proceeding, forcing upon the mind the reality of complete annihilation of space….” The reporter for the Baltimore Sun got it right. The telegraph had indeed “annihilated” space, for the first time allowing news to be instantly and efficiently delivered wherever telegraph lines could be strung. In a matter of months, in fact, a line was completed between Albany and Utica, New York, allowing the Utica Daily Gazette to run regular news bulletins from the state capitol. The Albany line was soon extended west, and by September 1846 the line was completed between New York City and Buffalo. New York State—and eventually the entire country—was now wired together in ways never before possible.
Ponies Deliver the Mail
The Pony Express was a heroic undertaking, but the coming of the telegraph secured its fate. The young riders were fast, but electricity was instantaneous, and the express mail service closed two days after the transcontinental telegraph line began operations in October 1861. The following advertisement appeared in the 26 March 1860 issue of the St. Louis Republic:
To San Francisco in 8 days by the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company. The first courier of the Pony Express will leave the Missouri River on Tuesday April 3rd at 5 o’clock P.M. and will run regularly weekly thereafter, carrying a letter mail only. The point of departure… will be in telegraphic connection with the East and will be announced in due time.
The Telegraph. From Samuel F. B. Morse’s one experimental telegraph line in 1844, telegraph wires stretched across 16,735 miles by 1852. By 1860 the telegraph spanned 50,000 miles. The telegraph was, in a word, revolutionary. Using the power of electricity and the artificial alphabet known as Morse Code, the telegraph allowed—for the first time in human history—reliable and efficient transmission of messages faster than human locomotion. The telegraph broke the link between transportation and communication, putting a premium on speed and opening the way for the eventual centralization of communication. It emphasized the need for timely news and information, creating more competition among newspapers. The telegraph also created a new profession, the telegraphic reporter. These men made it their business to collect and send information to client newspapers, an arrangement that helped the papers get more news cheaper. Cooperative news-gathering was not new in the 1840s, but the new technology facilitated the cooperation between rival newspapers. After all, the telegraph was a capital-intensive system. Acquiring rights-of-way, stringing wires, and establishing a national system of telegraphic offices was not a task individual newspapers could manage. The
papers could cooperate for their mutual benefit, which is just what happened in New York in 1848, just four years after Morse’s original experiment. The telegraph also fostered the growth of small-town dailies because these papers could now use the telegraph to overcome the handicap of distance. Thanks to Morse, they too could publish news from the important political and business centers of the nation.
Uneven Growth . The most important quality of the telegraph was its speed. Electricity reduced vast distances to insignificance, a change that had both psychological and physical consequences. On the psychological level the “annihilation of space” led to a change in national consciousness, allowing—in theory, at least—all Americans to hear the same news at about the same time. After the telegraph Americans spread across a vast landscape could respond quickly and simultaneously to national events. The wiring of the nation had more obvious consequences as well. The telegraph spread quickly, but it was not evenly distributed. Most of the early growth was in the East, of course, where cities were fairly close together and the need for instantaneous communication was greater. This left the vast spaces of the West unwired and isolated for a time from Morse’s electric revolution.
The completion of the first transatlantic cable brought jubilant headlines in the United States, as published on the first page of The New York Times on 17 August 1858:
THE OCEAN TELEGRAPH.
VICTORY AT LAST!
THE FIRST MESSAGE.
ENGLAND GREETS AMERICA.
QUEEN VICTORIA TO PRESIDENT BUCHANAN.
THE PRESIDENT’S REPLY.
TRIUMPHANT COMPLETION OF THE GREAT WORK OF THE CENTURY.
THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW UNITED.
GLORIA IN EXCELSIS!
he connection failed within a few weeks, and a permanent cable was not completed until 1866.
Pony Express . In the 1850s mail to California traveled by boat and stage, a journey that could take nearly three weeks. Western Union, the telegraph company, was slowly but surely extending its lines, holding out the promise of a coast-to-coast telegraphic link. In the meantime the freighting firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell organized and backed an express mail service, the Pony Express. This venture called on a cadre of young riders to change horses every ten or fifteen miles at the 190 stations the service established. After about seventy-five miles a new rider took over. The route extended from St. Joseph, Missouri, the westernmost extension of any railroad line from the East, along the Platte River in Nebraska to Fort Bridger in present-day Wyoming, then south to Salt Lake City. Riders traveled south from Salt Lake across the desert to the Sierra Nevada
to Sacramento. Many of the two hundred riders employed by the Pony Express were teenagers, and the company gave them Bibles and made them promise not to drink or swear. The first run of the Pony Express in April 1860 proved successful, reaching California in only ten days. The service operated weekly at first, then twice weekly. In November 1860 the riders carried a telegraph report of Abraham Lincoln’s election from Fort Kearny, Nebraska, to Fort Churchill, Nevada, in six days, their fastest ride yet. Fort Churchill was now linked by telegraph to San Francisco, a fact that foreshadowed the end of the Pony Express. By 1861, with tensions over Southern secession rising in the East, federal officials were more anxious than ever to have California connected to the rest of the nation. Just weeks after the Pony Express began, in fact, Congress had authorized a $40,000 annual subsidy to speed the completion of the telegraph line. Competing crews working east from Fort Churchill and west from Omaha completed its transcontinental line on 24 October 1861. The Pony Express closed two days later, a romantic venture that could not compete with the new technology. Russell, Majors, and Waddell lost more than $100,000 on the enterprise.
Alfred M. Lee, The Daily Newspaper in America (New York: Macmillan, 1937);
Raymond W. Settle and Mary Lund Settle, Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga (Harrisburg, Pa.: The Stackpole Company, 1955).