COLUMNS

As It Were: Telegraph brought rapid news

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist

Sometimes in the modern age of almost instantaneous communication by telephone, radio, television and all the social media, we tend to take for granted that instant information is available to us at all times.

Of course, that hasn't always been the case. In fact, the emergence of a new form of rapid communication was sometimes seen as a reason for public celebration.

Ed Lentz

The arrival of the telegraph in Columbus might serve as a case in point.

Life in 1800s America literally moved a lot slower than it does today.

The Ohio and Erie Canal came to Columbus in 1831, and canal boats reached the Canal Basin near what is now the Cultural Arts Center in downtown Columbus. They moved about as fast as the couple of mules pulling them – which was about 3 mph.

Similarly, wagons and carriages traveling along the 60-foot-wide, gravel paved National Road into Columbus also moved about as fast as the horse or ox pulling them could move – which was not all that fast.

Columbus had been established as the state capital in 1812, and by 1834, it was a city with a population of 5,000. But it still took a week or more for mail to reach the town from almost any point in Ohio. And this would not change for quite some time. People simply got used to the fact that the mail took a while to arrive.

There were exceptions. A local Columbus paper in 1846 announced remarkably fast communication under the headline of “Unparalleled Speed.”

“The President’s message was delivered and left Washington City on meridian on Tuesday ... It was received on the western bank of the Ohio River and was delivered at Columbus at ten minutes past eight o’clock the same evening, having been conveyed from Wheeling to Columbus – 135 miles – in the unparalleled short space of six hours and a half!

To the people of Columbus in 1846, this truly was rapid speed for any message to reach the capital city. But that was about to change. An American artist of some repute and an amateur inventor on the side transformed how Americans would keep in touch with each other. A local history from the 1800s told some of the story.

“Samuel F. B. Morse first conceived the idea of transmitting intelligence by means of the electric current while voyaging across the Atlantic, from (Le) Havre to New York, in the packet ship Sully, in 1832. The original apparatus was advanced to a working condition in 1836 and was for the first time exhibited in practical operation at the University of New York in 1837.”

It took Morse the next six years to convince Congress to grant him $30,000 – an immense sum in those days – to build an experimental test line from Washington to Baltimore. On May 27, 1844, the first message was sent from Washington to Baltimore. The message simply said, “What hath God wrought?”

It did not take long to find out.

It was later noted that by 1860, there were more than 50,000 miles of telegraph wire in operation in America.

In Columbus, “a stock subscription of five thousand dollars allotted to the capital (by the Morse company) had mostly been taken. After the pole-setters had done their work, the wires were quickly strung, and between seven and eight o’clock in the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1847, the first telegraphic message ever received in Columbus came over the lines from Pittsburgh. It was written out by Mr. Zook, the superintending operator: 'Pittsburgh, August 11 – Henry O’Reilly presents his respects, by lightning, to Judge Thrall, Colonel Medary, and Mr. Bateham on the extension of the Telegraph within reach of the Columbus Press.'"

The men receiving the message were the owners and operators of some of the major newspapers in the town.

The telegraph put Columbus in immediate touch with much of the rest of America. It would take time for the telegraph to reach all parts of the country. But when it did, even rapid-mail delivery services like the Pony Express had to yield to the electric wonder of its time.

And people celebrated improvements in the system of many different telegraph companies competing one with another.

In 1858, an Atlantic cable connected America with Europe. A later local history recorded what happened next.

“The announcement last evening that a dispatch was expected from the Queen to the President via the Atlantic Telegraph Cable excited general public interest among our citizens. About eight o’clock it was announced that the message had been received. ... The band in the Statehouse yard discoursed music for the entertainment of the crowd, and rockets, Roman candles, etc., were let off from various points. The Vedettes repaired to their armory and soon the sounds of the spirit stirring drum and the ear-piercing fife were heard therefrom. Shortly after ten o’clock, they turned out for parade and marched through the streets firing volleys of musketry. During the whole evening the streets – illuminated with bonfires – were filled with people."

Apparently, a good time was had by all.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.