The first telegraph message transmitted in Canada was sent from Toronto to Hamilton on December 19, 1846 by the Toronto-Hamilton-Niagara and St. Catharines Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company. It was the birth of Canada's telecommunications industry, an industry that was crucial to the development of this vast country.
The technology was conceived in North America by Samuel Morse in 1837 and in England by William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. Morse devised a means of transmitting encoded messages electrically by opening and closing electric circuits, tapping out with a brass key a series of "dots" and "dashes" that correspond with letters of the alphabet – the Morse code. The first North American telegraph line was established between Baltimore and Washington, with the inaugural message transmitted on May 24, 1844: "What hath God wrought." The telegraph had been in use by British railways since 1837.
The invention of the telegraph signaled a revolution in communicating over distances. We may consider the telegraph the 19th-century precursor of the Internet; it was hailed at the time as "the instantaneous highway of thought."
The requirement to send messages quickly to people out of earshot has existed as long as people have existed. Early attempts at "distance writing" – tele means far, graph means write, in Greek – were inventive, to be sure.
The earliest known distance messaging system existed between 522 and 486 BC, when King Darius I of Persia sent news from the capital to the provinces by way of a line of men shouting. An advancement on that system was devised c. 360BC; it consisted of two identical water-filled cylindrical vases – transmitter and receiver – placed on distant hills. Each contained a floating vertical pole at the centre with signs on it. Communication was enacted by raising or lowering the pole or changing the water level of the vases. The start and end of transmission was signaled with flags or torches.
In the late 18th century Claude and Ignace Chappe invented the optical telegraph, which was used in many European countries. It consisted of three interlinked wooden arms, one longer vertical one and two lateral indicator arms that rotated freely, atop a fixed pole. The different positions of the arms could transmit nearly 8500 words of a 92-page vocabulary. Only two signals were required for a single word – the page of the vocabulary and the number of the word.
Morse's invention was the first effective telegraph. Indeed, it changed the world. It brought national and international news; saved lives at sea; reported the end of two world wars; called for help as the Titanic sank; and brought word of countless births and deaths around the world.
In Canada, telegraph lines ran next to the rail lines crossing the nation. The railroads that had opened the West and supported the economic infra-structure of 19th-century Canada were joined by thousands of kilometers of wire strung next to the tracks, helping to keep the railway running and establishing crucial links between communities in the new country.
The telegraph's communications supremacy was challenged when Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first words on his invention: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you." But the telephone still required lengths of cable connecting its users. The telegraph transmission experienced a revival with Guglielmo Marconi's wireless telegraph (1899).
The telegraph system continued to be used by merchant vessels until the late 20th century, when it was displaced by a satellite-based "Mayday system," in 1995 in the US and in 1999 in Canada. Over the ensuing years, the telegraph has been supplanted by microwaves and fibre optics, and Canada has become a world leader in telecommunications.
Telegraph and Morse code still exist in the world of ham radios, with a few operators still "pounding the brass."
Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is the Associate Editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.