Friday, April 23, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

In the modern era of instant messaging and online streaming, the dots and dashes that constitute Morse Code seem like a feeble attempt to exchange information. Although the telegraph is functionally irrelevant in the twenty-first century, the legacy of that arcane device is more important to our modern lifestyles than we realize. The advent of the telegraph in the 1840s sparked the creation of an electrified network across North America and connected South Carolina to an international conversation. In the winter of 1848, Charleston went “on line” and entered a bold new era of telecommunication.

The desire the transmit information rapidly over long distances is as ancient as human civilization itself. The idea of lighting signal fires and using smoke signals to relay simple visual messages from one point to another, for example, was shared by many ancient cultures around the world, including those in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. This tradition was being practiced in colonial South Carolina as early as the year 1690, when our provincial government initiated a system of coastal signal stations to alert the people of Charleston to ships approaching the harbor. The original plan, which was first implemented on Sullivan’s Island, required paid lookouts to light signal fires to indicate the number of approaching enemy vessels during times of war. Observers on the Charleston peninsula could count the number of smoke signals to determine the strength of the enemy and make appropriate preparations. This system expanded in the early years of the eighteenth century to include a chain of coastal lookout stations from Port Royal Harbor to Winyah Bay, and the signal fires were soon replaced by signaling cannon. The creation of a network of coastal roads rendered these costly lookout stations obsolete before the American Revolution, by which time South Carolinians relied on express riders on horseback to convey information rapidly over long distances.[1]


The next big advance in long-distance communication appeared in the early 1790s, when French inventors developed a signal-producing contraption that quickly became known as the optical telegraph. This invention utilized a tall pedestal surmounted by moveable armatures that could be manipulated to display simple coded messages through a series of mechanical gestures. Observers using telescopes at a similar, distant installation could read the coded message and replicate the symbolic gestures for a subsequent station in a chain of communication. Although useful and widely imitated across Europe, the French telegraphe of the 1790s required a clear line of sight between stations and was limited to a fairly basic vocabulary of visually coded messages. Nevertheless, the word “telegraph” entered the English language at the turn of the nineteenth century as a popular buzz-word for any sort of rapid long-distance communication.

By the early 1800s, there were newspapers with titles like The Washington Telegraph, The Hibernian Telegraph, The Calcutta Telegraph, and many others, and fast-sailing ships with telegraphic names. By the 1820s, there were scores of steamboats plying the rivers of North America with telegraphic titles because they carried mail and produce faster than any human or animal in history. The advent of commercial railroads in the 1830s spawned a new generation of telegraphic imagery as the speed of communication between distant communities increased. All of these phenomena demonstrate that the rather generic term “telegraph” was firmly established in the popular imagination long before the appearance of the small electromechanical device we think of as THE telegraph.

Most Americans are familiar with the telegraph code developed by Samuel Morse in New York in the 1830s, but Morse was one of several inventors tinkering with the same concept in different countries at the same time. All of their devices were founded on the principles of electromagnetism, which was cutting-edge experimental science of the 1820s. The concept of using the flow of electricity—which many people of that era imagined as an invisible fluid—to magnetize and demagnetize metallic objects spawned a variety of ideas for practical applications. The portrait painter Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), who had resided in Charleston seasonally between 1817 and 1821, for example, learned about the science in the early 1830s and began designing a communication system. Using electromagnets to make electric pulses of short and long duration, Morse created a simple alphabetic code that could communicate complex messages over long distances through electric wires. With the help of several associates who contributed mechanical experience, the Morse telegraph quickly evolved into a functional communication device that even included a method of automatically printing coded messages as they arrived at a distant terminal.

Morse’s system of telegraphic communication matured during the mid-1830s and was soon ready for demonstration. He was invited to the U.S. Capitol in February 1838, where he staged a simple but successful exhibition for members of Congress and President Martin Van Buren.[2] Although impressed by the potential of the mysterious machine, Congress declined to provide Morse with the funding he needed to develop a large-scale prototype network. The Panic of 1837, which crippled the American economy for several lean years, obliged Morse and his associates to refine their machinery and wait until commercial conditions improved. A return visit to the U.S. Capitol in December 1842 again impressed the Federal Government, which granted Morse a sum of $30,000 in the spring of 1843 to develop a functional line of telegraphic communication between Washington and Baltimore. That thirty-eight mile line, consisting of insulated wire hung from wooden posts along the path of existing railroad right-of-way, was completed in the spring of 1844 and inaugurated on May 24th.

The next challenge for the diffusion of telegraphic communication was the creation of the vast network of wooden posts and electrical wires across the continent of North America. Many early advocates of telegraphy believed that the Federal Government should control the technology to insure its equitable distribution across the country, just as it oversaw the national postal service. Federal reluctance to spend the necessary funds soon dispelled this belief, however, and private enterprise stepped up to the table. In the spring of 1845, Samuel Morse and his associates formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company and set in motion a business plan to extend the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line to New York. Private citizens in the Northeast quickly jumped at the chance to invest in the nation’s first telecommunication entity, and plans were soon underway to extend telegraphic lines to Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and a host of American cities.

Charleston was on the periphery of these scientific and commercial developments for a variety of reasons. The Palmetto City had once been a major North American port when sailing vessels followed the prevailing winds, but the advent of steamships made it easier to bypass Charleston. Combined with the rapid growth the newer southwestern states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, Charleston was losing business to ports both in the Northeast and in the Gulf of Mexico. South Carolina’s feud with the Federal Government over the issue of State’s Rights, which had commenced in the late 1820s, continued to sour domestic relations in the 1840s. While elected leaders defended the institution of slavery and refused the modernize the state’s agricultural economy, South Carolinians watched much of the nation benefit from an increasingly diverse and free system of commerce. In the downward spiral of this historical moment, the electromagnetic telegraph offered a ray of hope.

The Charleston newspapers of the early 1840s followed closely the national story of Samuel Morse and his new-fangled communication device. Local press descriptions of the technology, though simplified for mass consumption, echoed the enthusiasm and sense of wonder printed by Northern writers who witnessed telegraphic demonstrations and spoke directly with the inventors. The idea that information or “intelligence” could be transmitted from Boston to New Orleans in an instantaneous flash of electricity, when such communication heretofore required weeks of patient waiting, was an advance of breathtaking proportion. Investors, for example, could learn the prices of commodities at distant exchanges in matter of minutes rather than days or weeks, and insurance brokers could learn of ship arrivals at distant ports with unprecedented speed.

The potential benefits of the “electro-magnetic telegraph,” or the “magnetic telegraph,” as it was commonly called, stretched beyond the realm of commerce, of course. Individuals could track the lives and deaths of their distant relatives with improved speed, and citizens could more easily follow the progress of state and national politics with patriotic vigor. Many writers of this era also anticipated that the telegraph would heal the political wounds caused by the growing sectional feelings in the United States. “Like steamships and railways,” said a Louisiana newspaper in 1845, “this rapidity of intercommunication must strengthen the bonds of national union, by making us more and more one people in knowledge, action, sentiment, and feeling. . . . National resolves, the result of exciting public feeling, will not, as heretofore, rise like a wave in one section of [the] country, and roll on to another. . . . On the contrary[,] opinion and action will be simultaneously over the country.”[3]

Charlestonians had plenty of time in the mid-1840s to read about telegraphic developments in the Northeast while they waited for the progress to spread southward. In the meantime, one of Samuel Morse’s associates, Alfred Vail, published in 1845 a compilation of telegraphic history for the general public. Vail’s booklet, titled Magnetic Telegraph.—Description of the American Electro Magnetic Telegraph, and of all known Electric and Magnetic Telegraphs, with 81 Wood Cuts, was immediately available in local bookstores and recommended by the press. Even when viewed from the distance of nearly two centuries, Vail’s illustrated book—which is now available online—conveys an impressive survey of the scientific achievement that struck antebellum readers with such awe and wonder.[4]

In this historic context, therefore, imagine the excitement in Charleston when an agent of the Magnetic Telegraph Company arrived in mid-January 1847 to commence negotiations. William B. Lloyd, one of Samuel Morse’s early business associates, appeared at several meetings of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce to discuss the commercial advantages that the new technology might bring to the local economy. Before a rapt audience of merchants, bankers, insurance brokers, civic leaders, and potential investors at Temperance Hall on January 13th and 14th, Lloyd commenced his sales pitch by stating what had become obvious to the business community after several years of reporting. The initial Washington-to-Baltimore line was a scientific and technical triumph that proved the telegraph to be a viable and useful tool for rapid communication. Subsequent lines, erected by private enterprise between such cities as New York, Albany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and points in-between, had already produced profits for their investors. The westernmost objective of the current plan was to extend the telegraph all the way to New Orleans, and the citizens of Charleston had to decide if their fair city should be included in that western route.

While it might seem obvious to us that the great Southern port city of Charleston should be included in the early planning of the first continental grid of telecommunication, there was a catch to the sales pitch of 1847. Mr. Lloyd explained that the electromagnetic telegraph network that Samuel Morse and associates planned for North America would consist of two different tiers of service. Communities that made significant investments in the initial infrastructure by purchasing large sums of stock would secure a place in the main line or trunk of the telegraphic service, and would enjoy direct communication with the large metropoles to the North and West. Communities that invested smaller sums at the outset would be connected to the network at some later date via secondary and tertiary branch lines, and their communication needs would always take a backseat to the traffic on the main line.

Whether or not Charleston would enjoy a spot on the telegraphic main line was entirely up to the people of Charleston, said Mr. Lloyd. If the citizens of the Palmetto City would subscribe their names to purchase stock in the amount of $40,000, within a few weeks time, then they would be assured of direct access to the telegraphic offices in numerous distant cities. If local investors could not meet that target, then Charleston would have to wait in line behind some other Southern cities like Wilmington, Augusta, Columbia, or Savannah. In light of this challenge, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce immediately appointed a committee to begin canvassing the community for stock subscriptions. One of their first targets was City Council.[5]

After receiving a letter from the committee of the Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Thomas Leger Hutchinson called a special meeting of Charleston’s City Council on Saturday, January 16th, 1847. The Chamber was investigating “the establishment of a line of Magnetic Telegraph, connecting New-Orleans and the cities [to the] North by way of Charleston,” which subject they believed to be “one of the greatest importance to the business, and even the security of the city in time of war.” Council responded by appointing a similar committee to coordinate with the Chamber of Commerce to study the matter and recommend “such measures as may be best calculated to effect the construction of this important improvement.”[6]

Mayor Hutchinson, a member of the special committee, reported back to City Council on January 20th and recommended that the City of Charleston subscribe the sum of $5,000 to the project, “provided so much should be required to make up the quota from Charleston to secure the passage of the Magnetic Telegraph line through the city to New Orleans.” The board of aldermen immediately approved the committee recommendation, but “a large number of citizens” were not pleased by Council’s decision to commit public funds to a private, high-tech start-up company. They demanded the mayor call a public meeting “for the purpose of having submitted to them such facts as will show the great importance of the magnetic telegraph line through this city.”[7]

The mayor responded by calling a large public meeting on February 4th “to take into consideration the advantages that would result from the introduction of the magnetic telegraph into this city, connecting the metropolis of South Carolina with the main line between New York and New Orleans.” At the event, Mayor Hutchinson introduced John M. Leitch, a local merchant, who spoke for more than ninety minutes about the value of the new technology and “the advantages which would accrue from the establishment of the Magnetic Telegraph in this city, to the banks, to insurance companies, to wholesale and retail dealers, and to the community in general.” The content of his presentation must have been convincing; neither the surviving record of City Council proceedings nor the public newspapers of 1847 contain any further dissenting views about the wisdom of bringing the telegraph line to Charleston.[8]

Despite the enthusiasm expressed by local government and the Chamber of Commerce, however, the Charleston business community did not immediately subscribe the funds necessary to achieve their goal. As the weeks passed during the early part of 1847, local boosters sought to cajole reluctant investors. The City of Savannah, they argued, seemed far more eager to have the telegraph line than Charleston, and the Palmetto City was in danger of being eclipsed by her younger rival. The target of $40,000 seemed large, but experienced men argued that such a sum was equal to the cost of three miles of good railroad track, and no one doubted the wisdom of investing in that new infrastructure a few years earlier. If the people of Charleston did not act quickly, the city’s commercial prospects would surely decline. “It behooves all of us,” said a newspaper editorial, “to be on the alert, or Charleston will not be placed in the main line, and if not, she will have to depend upon chance occasions, when the main line has no other business to attend to, in order to get her communications sent from Columbia or Augusta, or whatever point she may hereafter build a subsiding line, provided she will be able to obtain the consent of the patentees and owners of the main line.”[9]

The hesitation of local investors in the spring of 1847 apparently stemmed from legal concerns rather than a mistrust of the emerging technology. The initial corporate structure of the Magnetic Telegraph Company and its subsidiaries, as recent historians have observed, was rather poorly organized. Samuel Morse’s company, created in 1845, was rapidly mushrooming into a large inter-state corporation, but the legal relationship between the original line and the regional branches was tenuous and murky. Interstate communication was a new concept at the time, and there were a host of novel legal issues to tackle. The New-York-based entity was pressuring Charleston to purchase $40,000 in company stock, but their plan, based on rather vague articles of association, lacked sufficient guarantees that such money would be invested locally to secure the stated objective.[10]

A solution to this impasse appeared in late April 1847, but the local press did not articulate the nature of the compromise. Instead, the headlines simply praised Charleston’s City Council and Chamber of Commerce for their “indefatigable exertions” in completing “the subscription necessary to secure to our city the advantages of one of the greatest improvements of modern times.” Local investment reached the goal of $40,000 on April 29th, ensuring that the main line of telegraphic communication between New York and New Orleans would pass through Charleston. As the communication grid expanded in future years, the Palmetto City would profit from the direct exchange of information with scores of communities across North America. As one local editor opined at that moment, this was a celebratory moment in the history of Charleston: “We are therefore no longer exposed to the stigma of refusing to keep pace with the progressive march of the age; and our city, too, like the other commercial emporiums of the republic, will soon receive and transmit mercantile, military, political, and general intelligence with the speed of lightning. And justly we may form the hope and the expectation that the domestication of this wonderful invention among us will prove an important element of our prosperity.”[11]

Planning commenced in May 1847 for the construction of a line of wooden posts and electrical wire to connect Charleston with various points to the north and west. As with earlier lines built in the Northeast, the route of the telegraph wire followed the right-of-way of existing railroad tracks. Morse’s original line, based in Washington, D.C., now ran as far north as the city of Quebec. To the south, it was now extending from Washington to Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburgh, Virginia, to Raleigh and Fayetteville in North Carolina, and then to Cheraw, Camden, Columbia, and Charleston in South Carolina. The obtrusive poles and overhead wires did not come into the city proper, however, but terminated (at least initially) at the railroad depot on the north side of John Street (which was then outside the city limits). Continuing westward along the railroad, the proposed main line passed through Augusta, Macon, and Columbus in Georgia to Montgomery and Mobile in Alabama on the way to New Orleans.[12]

The first link in this long chain of communication opened on December 1st, 1847, when telegraph operators in Charleston and Columbia exchanged messages using Samuel Morse’s unique code of dots and dashes. Two weeks later, the South Carolina General Assembly adopted a new law that sheds light on the compromise effected during the previous April. On December 17th, the state legislature ratified an act to incorporate the local operation of the “Washington and New Orleans Magnetic Telegraph Company.” This legal maneuver, replicated by our neighbors in North Carolina and Virginia, apparently compensated for deficiencies in the parent structure and provided the legal assurances necessary to secure South Carolina’s commitment to the initial infrastructure. The company could legally operate within the state, said the new law, “provided, that the main line, or wire of the said Telegraph, shall pass through the cities of Columbia, and Charleston, in this state, and a Telegraphic Station be maintained and kept at each of the said cities.”[13]

Charleston’s highly-anticipated connection to the nation’s first communication grid progressed incrementally during the winter of 1847–48. Commencing from the railroad depot on the north side of John Street, the telegraph line continued northwestward to Columbia and reached Camden before the end of December. By January 16th, telegraph operators in Charleston were chatting in code with their brothers in Cheraw. One week later, the Palmetto City was connected to Fayetteville and Raleigh. On Saturday, February 12th, the line between Raleigh and Petersburg opened, which completed the chain northward to New York and beyond. Technical faults plagued the line for the first few days, but city leaders soon had cause to celebrate.[14] One local newspaper editor expressed his excitement in terms that merit repetition:

“The Electro Magnetic Telegraph now connects Charleston, and has placed her in positive and certain communication (not mesmeric communication,) with the following places: Portland, Me., Montreal, Canada, Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, and a thousand other intermediate stations, traversing thousands of miles. The ‘sayings and doings’ at each end all can be known to us in less than an hour. Do you want to know the price of lumber or fish in Portland—the per centage advance on a British invoice of goods in Montreal—the value of wheat and flour in Rochester—the price of pork in Cincinnati—state of the market for flax-seed, hemp, cotton bagging, lead, &c., in Louisville or St. Louis—go to the Telegraph! and you receive the information, swift as light, noiseless as the zephyr, certain as the Daguerreotype. Take a pair of compasses, plant one leg in Charleston, distend the other to St. Louis, Mo., describe the segment of a circle, by drawing it to Montreal or Portland, then fancy what millions can be brought in close and social converse with you at your own fire side. Knowledge is not only wisdom but also power. Here you may command it, despite of Time and Space.”[15]

Charleston’s connections to the south and west matured during the ensuing months. A branch line of telegraphic communication, operating through “the mysterious influence of the Magnetic fluid,” opened between Charleston and Savannah on the evening of March 22nd. The line from New Orleans eastward to Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama, was completed in early June and was functioning by the end of the month. The final stretch between Montgomery and Macon, Georgia, opened in July 1848, completing the planned circuit from Washington to New Orleans. Charleston was now part of the first information superhighway in the United States.[16]

The completion of the nationwide telegraph network in the summer of 1848 effected an immediate and permanent change in the distribution of information across the United States. Charlestonians, like their counterparts in other distant cities, could exchange news about prices, weather events, politics, and cultural developments with unprecedented speed and ease. Technical limitations in the initial wiring limited the volume of traffic on the electrical network, however, which rendered data exchanges less than instantaneous. Transmission speed and data volume increased in subsequent years as the technology improved, and the magnetic telegraph soon became an indispensable fixture of American life.

While its technical and cultural value was undeniable, the early telegraph business proved to be less profitable than anticipated. The industry was plagued by numerous legal challenges related to patents, rights-of-way, and contracts, and obliged to spend continuously on the maintenance and replacement of outdated machinery and infrastructure. The rapid exchange of information by telegraph also fostered more sectional division in the United States rather than the national harmony promised by early advocates. Like the modern platforms of online social media, the telegraph empowered like-minded citizens to share favored ideas and tune-out the traditional forums of balanced discussion. By facilitating the rapid exchange of disinformation and radical ideas, the telegraph helped create an echo-chamber of dissent that accelerated the rupture of our national union in 1860.

In hindsight, we can conclude that the advent of the electromagnetic telegraph in the 1840s marked the beginning of a new era of rapid communication that lead directly to the creation of the telephone, the fax machine, the national grid of electric power, and the Internet. More than just a quaint old device encumbered by an arcane language of dots and dashes, the telegraph was a major step towards the lifestyle we take for granted today. Charleston was far from the center of this international phenomenon, of course, but the arrival of the telegraph in 1848 marked a significant milestone in the history of this community. Like the advent of the public Internet just a generation ago, the telegraph quickened the pace of life in a manner beyond all previous human understanding.

To compile this short program about telegraph history, I have relied on the Internet to read digitized newspapers, request materials from distant libraries, and even downloaded entire books held in remote archives. My computer and microphone draw electricity through a plug in the wall that connects to a broad network of electrical transmission wires running across our country. All of this activity is rooted in the study of electromagnetism in the 1820s and practical applications of that science conceived in the 1830s. If you can remember the awe of your first experience with the Internet, just imagine the sense of wonder and amazement experienced in Charleston in the 1840s. In that long-ago era of hoop-skirts, top-hats, and chattel slavery, the tapping of the telegraph key heralded the dawn of the information age.



[1] I’ll save the details of South Carolina’s colonial-era costal lookout system for a future program.

[2] Morse’s demonstration at the U.S. Capital was reported in Charleston via the Baltimore newspapers; see Charleston Courier, 20 February 1838, page 2, “Correspondence of the Baltimore Com. Transcript.”

[3] [Charleston, S.C. ] Southern Patriot, 6 May 1845, page 1, “From the N.O. Jeffersonian Republican. Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph.”

[4] See, for example, Courier, 9 December 1845, page 1, “Magnetic Telegraph”; Courier, 18 January 1848, page 2, “Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.” A full transcription of Vail’s book can be found online via Project Gutenberg, and a digital scan of the original publication is available in Google Books.

[5] Courier, 14 January 1847, page 2, “The citizens of Charleston have now an opportunity of deciding whether this city shall be connected by a line of Morse’s magnetic telegram with New York and other northern cities, and with Mobile and New Orleans”; Courier, 15 January 1847, page 2, “Chamber of Commerce”; the sum of $40,000 is explained in Courier, 25 January 1847, page 2, “The Magnetic Telegraph Once More.”

[6] Courier, 16 January 1847, page 2, City Council Proceedings of 15 January.

[7] Courier, 22 January 1847, page 2, City Council Proceedings of 20 January 1847; Courier, 3 February 1847, page 2, City Council Proceedings of 1 February 1847.

[8] Courier, 3 February 1847, page 2, “Mayor’s Office, Feb. 3, 1847”; Courier, 6 February 1847, page 2, “Public Meeting.”

[9] Courier, 25 January 1847, page 2, “The Magnetic Telegraph Once More”; Southern Patriot, 25 March 1847, page 2, “Magnetic Telegraph Line.”

[10] For more information about the legal and technical challenges of the early telegraph industry, see David Hochfelder, The Telegraph in America: 1832–1920 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); Joshua Wolff, Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845–1893 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[11] Courier, 30 April 1847, page 2, “The Magnetic Telegraph secured to Charleston.”

[12] A more detailed description of the route appears in Robert Luther Thompson, Wiring a Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States, 1832–1866 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947).

[13] Southern Patriot, 2 December 1847, page 2: “Magnetic Telegraph”; Act No. 3030, “An Act to Incorporate the Washington and New Orleans Magnetic Telegraph Company,” ratified on 17 December 1847, in South Carolina, General Assembly, Acts of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, Passed in December 1847 (Columbia, S.C.: A. G. Summer, 1848), 465–69.

[14] Southern Patriot, 29 December 1847, page 2, “Magnetic Telegraph”; Courier, 17 January 1848, page 2, “Telegraph open to Cheraw”; Courier, 24 January 1848, page 2, “The Telegraph”; Courier, 14 February 1848, page 2, “The Telegraph Through”; Courier, 16 February 1848, page 2, “Telegraphic Communication opened with the North.”

[15] Courier, 21 February 1848, page 1, “The World in a Nutshell, and Charleston within the Circuit.”

[16] Courier, 23 March 1848, page 2, “Telegraphic”; Southern Patriot, 13 June 1848, page 2, “Telegraph Completed”; Courier, 21 June 1848, page 2, “The Telegraph line between Mobile and Montgomery is completed”; Courier, 28 June 1848, page 2, “The Telegraph is now in communication from New Orleans to Mobile and Montgomery.”


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