How the West became wired – over 155 years ago, the first transcontinental telegraph was completed

Ian Harvey
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In today’s world technology is just taken for granted.  Nobody bats an eye when a new phone, TV, or tablet comes out, and there are dozens of way to socialize, including the Internet and cell phones.

Over 155 years ago, the first transcontinental telegraph was completed.  The telegraph stretched from sea to sea and it came at a good time, bringing people closer together.  This completion came at the same time the North and South were winding down the Civil War.  Many Americans who got to test out the telegraph firsthand realized what a breakthrough it was.  It could enhance national identity and change lives.

Amy Fischer, an archivist for Western Union, said that there were telegraph lines running across mountains, canyons, and even tribal lands to make connections. She said that the Civil War had just ended only months before and people were in awe that someone from California could talk to someone in Washington or even the East Coast.  On October 24, 1861, California’s chief justice, Stephen J. Field, wired a message from San Francisco to President Lincoln, all with the touch of one button.  His message to Lincoln was a congratulations for the telegraph’s completion that day.

Dispatching trains by telegraph started in 1851, the same year Western Union began business. Western Union would build the first transcontinental telegraph

Dispatching trains by telegraph started in 1851, the same year Western Union began business. Western Union would build the first transcontinental telegraph

Some would say that the transcontinental telegraph was equivalent to a long-distance tin can attached to strings.  However, while an invention like that might seem lame today, it still meant a lot as a step forward for Americans nationwide in its time.  Just several years after the nation was first wired, telegraph technology was extended all throughout North America.  There were cylindrical wires that ran from Mexico to Canada, redefining the means of communication which could eventually mean that business could be done from different states as money could be wired from Washington.  News was finally about to travel fast; in 1869 the final track that connected the transcontinental railroad was laid in Promontory, Utah, and The Associated Press sent the story out on the wire.

Telegraph historian Thomas Jepsen believes that the transcontinental telegraph is what started our journey toward technology.  If it wasn’t for this invention there would be no telephone, no teletype, no fax, or no internet.  The telegraph could even be considered a greater influence on communication than the Internet.

Wendover, Utah, June 17, The last pole is erected on the first transcontinental telephone line.

Wendover, Utah, June 17, The last pole is erected on the first transcontinental telephone line.