Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
1. fejezet: "»Lightning Lines« and the Birth of Modern Communication, 1838-1900"
Részletek, 3-21.o. és 29.o. Jelen web-szöveg a jegyzeteket nem tartalmazza.
The success of the first electric telegraph line in 1844
opened the era of modern communication in America. Before the telegraph
there existed no separation between transportation and communication. Information
traveled only as fast as the messenger who carried it. The telegraph dissolved
that unity and quickly spread across the land to form the first of the
great communication networks. Contemporaries of the early telegraph had
no way of foreseeing the intricate wonders of our current communications
media, many of them institutional and technological descendants of the
"lightning lines." The awesome fact of instantaneous communication provided
cause enough for intense speculation; no future possibilities seemed as
dazzling as present reality.
But in puzzling over the implications of the telegraph,
"this most remarkable invention of this most remarkable age," as many styled
it, mid-nineteenth century Americans opened an important cultural debate
that has steadily intensified and expanded through the present. The intellectual
and popular responses to the telegraph included the first attempts at comprehending
the impact of modern communication on American culture and society. Then
as today, reckoning with new forms of communication provided a forum to
consider rather ancient issues charged with new meaning and urgency by
technological advance. What might the telegraph, "annihilator of space
and time," augur for thought, politics, commerce, the press, and the moral
Consideration of these questions paralleled and often
interlocked with the issues raised by the economic development of the telegraph
system: those of corporate power, monopoly, and government regulation.
The institutional history of the telegraph forms only a necessary background
for exploring the cultural reception given the first breakthrough into
modern communication. But the tension between what the communications revolution
implied and what the telegraph became, between fervent visions and prosaic
reality, make up a key portion of that story.
In 1858, speaking during a mammoth New York jubilee celebrating
completion of the Atlantic cable, the American scientist Joseph Henry hailed
the telegraph as the ultimate demonstration of the nation's genius. "The
distinctive feature of the history of the Nineteenth Century," he declared,
"is the application of abstract science to the useful arts, and the subjection
of the innate powers of the material world to the control of the intellect
as the obedient slave of civilized man." Henry's statement also serves
to accurately define comtemporary understanding of that curious new word,
technology. He was certainly not alone in holding up the telegraph
as perhaps the most remarkable technological triumph of the age, the clearest
demonstration yet of the harvest to be reaped from the application of science
to the arts.
Only after numerous fundamental discoveries in chemistry,
magnetism, and electricity could a practical electromagnetic (as opposed
to semaphoric) telegraph take shape. Nineteenth-century accounts of telegraph
history invariably begin with the discovery of electricity by Thales of
Miletus and other ancients. Watson of England and Franklin of America pioneered
in the sending of electricity through wires in the eighteenth century.
In the 1790s the Italians Galvani and Volta revealed the nature of galvanism,
or the generation of electricity by the chemical action of acids upon metals.
Oersted of Denmark and Ampere of France discovered electromagnetism about
1820. By 1831 Joseph Henry, then at Princeton University, solved the critical
problem of creating a strong electromagnet capable of producing mechanical
effects at a distance; he did this by substituting a battery of many small
cells for the customary battery of one large cell. In the 1820s and 1830s
scientists from all over the world worked to create a viable electric telegraph:
Ampere in France; Schilling in Russia; Steinheil in Germany; Davy, Cooke,
and Wheatstone in England.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, artist, daguerrotypist, "the
American Leonardo," gave the world its first practical electromagnetic
telegraph in 1838. Morse's career exemplified that union of science and
art so lauded by nineteenth-century boosters of technology. As a youth
he had studied painting and sculpture in Europe and he achieved some prominence
in America with his portraiture and landscapes. He became a professor of
painting and design at the University of the City of New York in 1832;
later he served as first president of the National Academy of Design. Morse
had also exhibited an avid interest in scientific and mechanical experiments,
particularly those involving electricity. In 1832 he conceived a plan for
applying sequential electrical impulses through wires for the transmission
of intelligence. His original motivation lay in the hope of obtaining an
income from his invention that might free him to pursue painting full time.
But over the next twelve years, a period marked by personal
poverty and public indifference, Morse gradually turned his attentions
entirely to the telegraph. Morse remained ignorant of most of the work
that preceded him. The conception of the telegraph, its early mechanical
form, and the signaling code were his achievements. After 1837 he received
important scientific, mechanical, and financial assistance from several
associates: Leonard Gale, Joseph Henry, Alfred Vail, and later Ezra Cornell.
Morse's sending apparatus was a crude version of the familiar telegraph
key; the receiver consisted of an electromagnet that attracted an iron
armature mounting a pen or stylus. A clockwork motor drew a paper tape
under the pen or stylus, which marked the tape in accordance with the pulse
of current in the circuit. Alfred Vail later worked out a simplified receiving
device, allowing the operator to read messages by listening to the clicks
emitted by a sounder.
After a series of public demonstrations of his device
in early 1838, Morse petitioned Congress for an appropriation to build
an experimental line. These exhibitions, at the Vail family iron works
in Morristown, New Jersey, at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, and
in Washington before the House Committee on Commerce, provoked keen local
curiosity wherever they took place. Morse himself reported that the Morristown
showing of 13 January 1838, at which he sent a long letter through two
miles of wire, was "the talk of all the people round, and the principal
inhabitants of Newark make a special excursion on Friday to see it." President
Van Buren and his cabinet requested and received a private viewing on 21
February 1838. Yet the doubts, disbelief, and ridicule surroundingMorse's
efforts were not easily overcome. Five lonely and frustrating years passed
before he obtained a thirty-thousand-dollar grant to construct a line between
Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Even then, the appropriation passed the
House only after a jocular discussion of a satirical amendment that would
have required half the sum to be spent "for trying mesmeric experiments."
Morse finally opened the nation's first telegraph line on 24 May 1844 with
the famous query, "What hath God wrought?"
Morse and his partners had hoped to sell their invention
to the federal government, but though Congress subsidized the initial line,
it refused offers to buy the patent rights. A period of wildcat speculation
and building followed, marked by byzantine legal tangles involving Morse,
his partners, and the various individuals who were leased construction
rights under the patents. Still, only eight years later, the nation boasted
over twenty-three thousand miles of telegraph lines. During these early
years, a host of astonished Americans pondered the answer to Morse's first
The public greeted the first "lightning lines" with a
combination of pride, excitement, and sheer wonder. But there were plenty
of expressions of doubt, incredulity, and superstitious fear. Not infrequently,
observers recorded an uneasy mixture of these feelings. In dozens of cities
and towns, as telegraph construction proceeded quickly in all directions,
skeptics, believers, and the merely curious flocked to get a firsthand
While readying the experimental line in early May, Morse
reported from Washington that "there is great excitement about the Telegraph
and my room is thronged." He understood the need for publicity to counter
widespread incredulity. "A good way of exciting wonder," he advised Alfred
Vail on the Baltimore end, "will be to tell the passengers to give you
some short sentence to send me; let them note time and call at the Capitol
to verify the time I received it." In the days immediately following the
24 May message, the telegraph played a sensational role in the Democratic
National Convention being held in Baltimore. Morse and Vail astounded crowds
in Washington with the news of James Polk's nomination. Silas Wright, nominated
for vice president, declined by telegaph. A dubious convention verified
the report by sending a committee by train to interview Wright in Washington.
A committee tried to change Wright's mind by telegraph the next day, but
The attendant press coverage and eyewitness accounts from
government officials helped legitimize Morse's breakthrough. On 31 May
the exultant inventor described the scene: "The enthusiasm of the crowd
before the window of the Telegraph Room in the Capitol was excited to the
highest pitch at the announcement of the nomination of the Presidential
candidate, and the whole of it afterward seemed turned upon the Telegraph."
Alfred Vail reported from Baltimore that crowds besieged the office daily,
pressing for a glimpse of the machine. They promised "they would not say
a word or stir and didn't care whether they understood or not, only they
wanted to say they had seen it."
A palpable scepticism no doubt fueled the desire to observe
the telegraph in person. As a Rochester newspaper put it, anxiously awaiting
the extension of the telegraph to that city in May 1846: "The actual realization
of the astonishing fact, that instantaneous personal conversation can be
held between persons hundreds of miles apart, can only be fully attained
by witnessing the wonderful fact itself." The press referred variously
to "that strange invention," "that almost superhuman agency," or "this
extraordinary discovery." Noting the large numbers of people visiting the
first Philadelphia telegraph office in early 1846, a local paper concluded,
"It is difficult to realize, at first, the importance of a result so wholly
unlike anything with which we have been familiar; and the revolution to
be effected by the annihilation of time . . . will not be appreciated until
it is felt and seen."
Western and southern communities, reached later, were
no less enthusiastic. Telegraph entrepreneurs and stock promoters toured
frontier districts, offering exhibitions to audiences in public halls.
Telegraph offices set aside ample space for spectators, usually allowing
visitors to have their name sent and returned for a small fee. "One of
the greatest events ever," exulted a Cincinnati daily upon the telegraph's
arrival: "We shall be in instantaneous communication with all the great
Eastern cities." As the "lightning" reached Zanesville, Ohio, in the summer
of 1847, the press described local response: "The Wires and other apparatus
of the Telegraph are exciting considerable discussion among our fellow
citizens. With those by far the larger part, who view it understandingly,
there are some gentlemen who are perfectly incredulous of all its boasted
capacity for the transmission of news."
The incredulous were not limited to Zanesville, and neither
were the nervous. Ezra Cornell, Morse's assistant who had supervised the
actual building of the first telegraph line, ran up against the gnawing
anxiety which accompanied public acclaim. Traveling to New York City to
put up demonstration lines in the autumn of 1844, Cornell found city authorities
fearful of unspecified dangers to the populace. They forced Cornell to
pay a fee for an eminent professor, Benjamin Silliman, to certify that
the telegraph wires posed no threat to public safety.
Reminiscing in 1902 about his days as a messenger boy
for an early Pennsylvania line of the 1840s, the writer William Bender
Wilson noted that "few can credit the curiosity and credulity which characterized
the people in connection with the telegraph, and how few had even an idea
of the principles governing it." The wires swaying in the wind
Serious considerations of the telegraph usually touched
upon the other technological marvels of the age, the railroad and the steamboat.
Yet the inscrutable nature of the telegraph's driving force made it seem
somehow more extraordinary. Nineteenth-century science, although beginning
to harness the power of electricity in several areas, could still not explain
precisely what it was. Daniel Davis, a Boston electrician and mechanic
who manufactured telegraph equipment for Morse, noted that electricity
was a very familiar agent visible in lightning, the hair of animals, and
other everyday contexts. But electricity was also unseen, "a central power
. . . endowing matter with a large proportion of its chemical and mechanical
Although tamed by the telegraph, the electric spark, wrote
a chronicler of electricity's progress, remained "shadowy, mysterious,
and impalpable. It still lives in the skies, and seems to connect the spiritual
and the material." Contemporary historians of telegraphy recurringly commented
on the paradox. "The mighty power of electricity, sleeping latent in all
forms of matter, in the earth, the air, the water, permeating every part
and particle of the universe, carrying creation in its arms, is yet invisible
and too subtle to be analyzed." Its potential appeared boundless; "its
mighty triumphs are but half revealed, and the vast extent of its extraordinary
power but half understood."
Electricity, Reverend Ezra S. Gannett told his Boston
congregation, was both "the swift winged messenger of destruction" and
"the vital energy of material creation." "The invisible, imponderable substance,
force, whatever it be - we do not even certainly know what it is which
we are dealing with . . . is brought under our control, to do our errands,
like any menial, nay, like a very slave."
Insofar as it markedly increased man's control over the
environment, electricity resembled that other grand force, the steam engine.
But steam was gross and material in comparison; "there is little poetical
or great in the rattle of the train or the roar of a monstrous engine."
As one typical historian argued: "Electricity is the poetry of science;
no romance ' no tale of fiction ' excel in wonder its history and achievement."
The new science of electromagnetism promised further development and application;
"the gigantic power of the steam engine may dwindle into insignificance
before the powers of nature which are yet to be revealed."
"Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say
unto thee, Here we are?" (Job 38:35). This Biblical quotation, one of the
impossibilities enumerated to convince Job of his ignorance and weakness,
frequently prefaced nineteenth-century writings on the telegraph. It expressed
well the sense of miracle that these works invariably sought to convey.
As the most astounding product of electrical science, the telegraph promised
miraculous consequences. T.P. Shaffner, historian and early telegraph booster,
concluded a history of all the past forms of communication: "But what is
all this to subjugating the lightnings, the mythological voice of Jehovah,
the fearful omnipotence of the clouds, causing them in the fine agony of
chained submission to do the offices of a common messenger - to whisper
to the four corners of the earth the lordly behests of lordly man!"
While Shaffner and others seized upon the telegraph as
a means of recasting all history in the terms of the growth of communication,
some became intoxicated with what the telegraph would bring to the future.
Always they spoke of a twin miracle: the grand moral effects of instantaneous
communication and the wonderful mystery of the lightning lines themselves.
"Universal communication" became the key phrase in these exhortations.
The electric telegraph promised a unity of interest, men linked by a single
mind, and the worldwide victory of Christianity. "It gives the preponderance
of power to the nations representing the highest elements in humanity .
. . It is the civilized and Christian nations, who, though weak comparatively
in numbers, are by these means of communication made more than a match
for the hordes of barbarism." Universal peace and harmony seem at this
time more possible than ever before, as the telegraph "binds together by
a vital cord all the nations of the earth. It is impossible that old prejudices
and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been
created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth."
Just as the telegraph promised "a revolution in moral
grandeur," the instrument itself seemed "a perpetual miracle, which no
familiarity can render commonplace. This character it deserves from the
nature employed and the end subserved. For what is the end to be accomplished
but the most spiritual ever possible? Not the modification or transportation
of matter, but the transmission of thought."
"The Telegraph," asserted the New York Times in
1858, "undoubtedly ranks foremost among that series of mighty discoveries
that have gone to subjugate matter under the domain of mind." Not only
did the new electrical technology further man's ability to conquer nature,
it actually allowed him to penetrate it. By successfully liberating the
subtle spark latent in all forms of matter, man became more godlike. "Piercing
so the secret of Nature, man makes himself symmetrical with nature. Penetrating
to the working of creative energies, he becomes himself a creator."
Underpinning the grand moral claims made on behalf of
the telegraph lay a special understanding of an elusive term, communication.
The word has had a complex history. Praisers of "universal communication"
no doubt had in mind the most archaic sense of the word: a noun of action
meaning to make common to many (or the object thus made common). The notion
of common participation suggested communion, and the two words shared the
same Latin root, communis. Sometime in the late seventeenth century
the meaning was extended to include the imparting, conveying, or exchanging
of information and materials. In this sense the means of communication
also included roads, canals, and railroads. The telegraph thus split communication
(of information, thought) from transportation (of people, materials). But
the ambiguity between the two poles of meaning, between communication as
a mutual process or sharing and communication as a one-way or private transmission,
Those who celebrated the promise of universal communication
stressed religious imagery and the sense of miracle in describing the telegraph.
They subtly united the technological advance in communication with the
ancient meaning of that word as common participation or communion. They
presumed the triumph of certain messages; but they suggested too that the
creation of a new communications technology itself, "the wonderful vehicle,"
was perhaps the most important message of all.
Henry Thoreau's sceptical view of the telegraph, one of
very few pessimistic expressions on the subject, sought the deflate just
such moral claims made on behalf of the new technology. In Walden
(1854) he argued that the telegraph represented simply another illusory
modern improvement rather than a positive advance, "an improved means to
an unimproved end. ... We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph
from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important
to communicate. ... We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring
the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news
that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that
Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." Thoreau was perhaps a bit churlish
here, for Maine and Texas did indeed have a great deal to communicate.
But the essence of that communication would not be the celestial commerce
savored by both Thoreau and those who deemed the telegraph a sublime moral
For the telegraph promised to transform the earthly realms
of politics and trade as well. The presumed annihilation of time and space
held a special meaning for a country of seemingly limitless size. And here
for the first time, one finds the repeated use of organic metaphor and
symbol to describe how modern communication would change American life.
As early as 1838, in trying to convince Congress to subsidize his work,
Morse anticipated twentieth-century notions of the "global village." It
would not be long, he wrote, "ere the whole surface of this country would
be channelled for those nerves which are to diffuse, with the speed
of thought, a knowledge of all that is occurring throughout the land; making,
in fact, one neighborhood of the whole country."
"This extraordinary discovery," asserted a Philadelphia
paper in 1846, "leaves, in our country, no elsewhere - it is all here:
it makes the pulse at the extremity beat - throb for throb and in the instant
- with that at the heart. . . . In short, it will make the whole land one
being - a touch upon any part will - like the wires - vibrate over all."
Or, as Dr. William F. Channing put it in 1852, "The Electric Telegraph
is to constitute the nervous system of organized societies . . . its functions
are analogous to the sensitive nerves of the animal system."
Americans generally hailed the telegraph as a means of
forging the Republic closer together, a vital political consideration as
millions moved to the West. In 1845 the House Ways and Means Committee,
reporting favorably on a bill to give another federal subsidy for a Baltimore-New
York line, stressed the need for "universal intelligence" over the vast
space of America: "Doubt has been entertained by many patriotic minds how
far the rapid, full, and thorough intercommunication of thought and intelligence,
so necessary to the people living under a common representative republic,
could be expected to take place throughout such immense bounds. That doubt
can no longer exist." In 1853 historian Laurence Turnbull wrote about those
isolated in the Far West: "Although separated from us by thousands of miles
of distance, they will be again restored to us in feeling, and still present
to our affections, through the help of the noiseless tenant of the wilderness."
The American Telegraph Magazine, published in 1852
and 1853, spoke of the "'manifest destiny' leading the 'lightning' abroad
over this capacious continent of ours." Donald Mann, its Democratic editor,
consistently publicized proposals for a federally funded and protected
system of "intercommunication by mail and telegraph along a military road
through our own territories, between the Atlantic and Pacific States."
Marveling at the telegraphic dispatch of election returns, presidential
messages, and political speeches, Mann thought "nearly all our vast and
wide-spread populations are bound together, not merely by political institutions
but by a Telegraph and Lightning-like affinity of intelligence and sympathy,
that renders us emphatically 'ONE PEOPLE' everywhere."
As for commerce, the impact of the telegraph on the nation's
trade elicited little extended comment. Nearly everyone assumed that telegraphy
must eventually prove a boon to business, particularly through the extension
of markets. In later years the commercial utility of the telegraph, both
directly and through the press, did just that. But in the early days nagging
doubts persisted concerning accuracy, secrecy, and possible abuses by speculators.
Frequent mechanical breakdowns, vandalism, bickering among the different
companies, the abuse of trust - these were all too often a part of the
reality of early telegraph operations. They seemed not to have dented the
faith of the more exuberant optimists, but they were real barriers to business
confidence in the new invention. A New Orleans paper summed up these misgivings
in 1848 when it noted that "as regards the general interests of commerce,
regularity in the transmission of intelligence is of more importance than
Successful completion of the Atlantic cable in the summer
of 1858 marked the peak of both the intellectual and popular exultation
over the telegraph. Celebrations around the country, both spontaneous and
planned, represented a confluence of all previous praise for the invention
with the tangible public pride in American technology. Such intense public
feeling over a technological achievement appears rather strange to us now;
certainly it is difficult to envision such a reaction today. It did not
matter that this first cable operated only a few weeks before going dead.
The initial response to the news revealed the strength of the telegraph's
hold on the public imagination.
First news of the cable's success in early August set
off spontaneous street demonstrations. Scores of cities and towns reported
scenes similar to that in Albany: "Crowds of persons flocked to the newspaper
offices and Telegraph offices for confirmation of the news, which most
at first doubted, but when the conviction of the truth of the report forced
itself on the public mind, the scene in the street was as though each person
had received some intelligence of strong personal interest. ... The people
are wild with excitement." Bonfires, fireworks, military salutes, and impromptu
parades marked the occasion across the nation. The demonstrations repeated
themselves in many cities on the receipt of Queen Victoria's message several
days later. A Boston minister expressed amazement at the reaction. But:
"The surprise, hesitation, doubt, the belief, delight, enthusiasm, with
which the intelligence that has been a principal subject of conversation
the last two days was received in our city, are sufficient evidence of
the interest taken in an enterprise, the practicability of which could
be proved only by its success."
New York City held a huge parade on 1 September 1858,
described as its greatest public celebration ever. Over fifteen thousand
people, from working men's clubs to immigrant societies and temperance
groups, marched from the Crystal Palace to Battery Park. Along with the
nods to international cooperation, banners and speakers continually reminded
the crowds of the distinctively American genius at work. Cyrus W. Field,
hero of the day, joined the American pantheon of popular heroes; for, as
one ditty put it, "'Twas Franklin's hand / That caught the horse / 'Twas
harnessed by/ Professor Morse."
The New York Times referred to the "divine boon" of the telegraph in describing the tumult: "From some such source must the deep joy that seizes all minds at the thought of this unapproachable triumph spring. It is the thought that it has metaphysical roots and relations that makes it sublime." This "wondrous event of a wondrous age," creation of "the international spinal connection," spectacularly confirmed the telegraph's dual potential as both a sublime moral force and a technology that would make a significant intervention in everyday life.
Yet the conception of the telegraph as an autonomous influence
in American culture was flawed from the start. In 1852 Alexander Jones
prefaced his Historical Sketch of the Electric Telegraph with a
dedication to the merchants of New York, "to whose patronage, with that
of the public press, the electric telegraphs are largely indebted for their
support and success." Jones accurately summarized the economic reality
faced by the early telegraph companies. Their survival as solvent businesses
depended more on the patronage of newspapers and traders than on messages
between individuals. But Jones's assessment gave only half of an historical
equation. Although the press and commercial interests made the telegraph
economically viable, the telegraph itself dramatically transformed the
press. Telegraphy gave rise to both the modern conception of news and our
present methods of news gathering. The telegraph ultimately touched the
public consciousness primarily through the mediation of the press. The
cultural debate over the telegraph's import thus shifted to encompass larger
questions raised by the new journalism.
Newspapers of the colonial and early national period,
usually weeklies or semiweeklies, printed the news as it arrived through
the mails or by word of mouth. Very seldom did they seek out news. Reporters
and correspondents of the modern type were unknown; national and foreign
news was obtained mostly through press "exchanges." The bulk of news in
colonial papers consisted of reports on English affairs and on European
events that affected England. But news from European capitals took from
two to six weeks to reach London, and from four to eight weeks to get to
America. Thus the original idea of news, that is, something that is "new,"
became transformed in colonial papers. Emphasis on timeliness gave way
to a concern merely with keeping a historical record of events long after
From the Revolution through the Civil War mercantile dailies
and various political papers dominated journalism in America. But in the
1830s a new kind of newspaper arose to challenge the partisan and commercial
press; this new variety eventually prevailed both economically and conceptually.
The "penny papers" of this period, led by Benjamin Day's New York Sun,
James G. Bennett's New York Herald, and William Swain's Philadelphia
Public Ledger, revolutionized the idea of news. They brought back the
element of timeliness and gave new life to the old notion that the most
important news is what the public looks for. Because these penny papers
appealed to a mass public, news no longer needed to be respectable or even
significant. These journals shifted to a greater stress on local and sensational
news (especially crime and sex) and invented the so-called human-interest
story. With their big circulations and large advertising revenues, the
penny papers could spend huge sums for procuring news from all over the
country in speedy fashion. Inevitably, the news function won out over editorial
and political comment as the key component of the American newspaper.
All of the latest forms of transportation and communication
were utilized by the penny press, at great expense: chartered steamboats
and railroads, horse and stage expresses, harbor patrols, and carrier pigeons.
But the telegraph, more than all of these combined, made possible the rapid
transmission of news and large-scale cooperative news gathering on a regular
basis. The dramatic impact of the telegraph on national politics during
the first days of Morse's experimental line demonstrated the extraordinary
potential of the telegraph for news dissemination.
Two of the leading proprietors of penny papers played
prominent roles in early telegraph growth. William Swain, owner of the
Philadelphia Public Ledger, invested heavily in the Magnetic Telegraph
Company, the first commercial telegraph corporation. He served as one of
its first directors and later became its president in 1850. James G. Bennett
of the New York Herald became the heaviest patron of the telegraph,
spending tens of thousands of dollars on dispatches. In the first week
of 1848 he boasted of his Herald containing seventy-nine thousand
words of telegraphic content, at a cost of $12,381. The Mexican War provided
a public demand for news; at its outbreak a mere 130 miles of wire existed,
reaching only as far south as Richmond, Virginia. Bennett and others set
up a combination of pony express routes to complement the infant telegraph
system, and they beat the government mails between New Orleans and New
York. The biggest scoop of the war, the fall of Vera Cruz, was credited
to the Baltimore Sun, which received the news ahead of the War Department
and telegraphed the victory message to President Polk.
Bennett pioneered in the reporting of political speeches
as well. In November 1847, Henry Clay delivered an important address on
war policy in Lexington. The Herald arranged to run an express of
over eighty miles between Lexington and Cincinnati where the speech was
telegraphed to New York via Pittsburgh, and published in the next day's
edition. Obtaining the speech cost five hundred dollars. Bennett himself
wrote extensively on the subject of telegraphy. He predicted that all newspapers
must eventually publish and rely on telegraphic news or go out of existence.
Journalism was destined to become more influential than ever: "The public
mind will be stimulated to greater activity by the rapid circulation of
news. The swift communication of tidings of great events will evoke in
the masses of the community still keener interest in public affairs. .
. . The whole nation is impressed with the same ideas at the moment. One
feeling and one impulse are thus created and maintained from the center
of the land to its uttermost extremities."
Telegraphy made possible, indeed demanded, systematic
cooperative news gathering by the nation's press. The original Associated
Press consisted of six New York dailies. Until the early 1840s joint news-gathering
efforts had been temporary alliances with usually local scope; these were
not organized and regular attempts to report daily events. A frantic competition
among New York papers was interrupted only occasionally by these truces.
The AP formally originated in 1849 as the Harbor News Association, created
for the purpose of collecting "marine intelligence." Here we find the regulations
that caused so much controversy in years to come: "'No new member will
be admitted to the association unless by unanimous and written consent
of all existing partners but news may be sold to newspapers outside of
New York City upon a majority vote of all existing partners.'" Two years
later the seven members of Harbor News consolidated that service with the
Telegraph and General News Association, formed "for the purpose of collecting
and receiving telegraphic and other intelligence." By 1852 the AP consisted
of seven papers operating two complex systems of news gathering. Foreign
news came in through a harbor patrol in New York; the patrol also received
and forwarded dispatches with packets at Boston and Halifax. A domestic
news service operated out of New York under a general agent and staff.
Although an expanding telegraph network encouraged and
in turn was nourished by news gathering agencies, a good deal of friction
arose between the two groups. In l846, before it had even completed its
first line, the Magnetic Telegraph company knew the press would be potentially
its best customer. The directors decided that for messages exceeding a
hundred words, the price on all words over that number should be reduced
to one-third of the regular rate. But a provision allowing papers to maintain
charge accounts led to trouble, with several journals refusing to pay.
For their part, newspapers charged that long delays and many errors frequently
marred the telegraph service.
Disconnected and uncoordinated lines, the great expense
of early telegraphy, inadequate facilities, inexperienced operators, and
fierce competition for the use of the few existing wires made the period
between 1846 and 1849 a chaotic one for both press and telegraph companies.
Furthermore, the newspapers feared the incursion of the telegraph companies
themselves into the news gathering process. An open issue was who ought
to gather telegraph news. Operators sometimes supplied news messages free
to the press in an effort to popularize the telegraph; eastern operators
would also send items from a New York or Philadelphia morning paper to
the West. The formation and consolidation of the AP in this period was
essentially a response to the unsettled conditions in the young telegraph
Between the two sides there emerged an independent third
party: telegraph reporters. As early as 1847, a handful of these men sent
and received commercial reports between cities, selling them to newspapers.
Alexander Jones, one of the pioneers, wrote: "It became apparent that the
employees in the telegraphic offices could not be expected to collect news
at important points, and forward it. Their occupation confined them to
the immediate duties of their offices. Hence, the business of telegraphing
brought into requisition the Telegraph Reporters." Jones devised the first
systems of commercial and political ciphers for abbreviating news transmissions.
For about a year these reporters operated independently until they joined
the AP, with Jones as its first general agent.
Until he retired in 1851, Jones helped put the fledgling
AP on a sound financial and organizational footing. "We received and distributed
the news, paid all tolls and other expenses necessary to conduct the business.
We employed reporters in all the principal cities in the United States
and Canada and on receiving it in New York, would make about eight or nine
copies of it, on manifold - six for the New York press, and the remaining
copies for reforwarding to the press in other cities and towns. To this
had daily to be added the New York local and commercial news, etc." Under
Jones the AP began its climb, eventually becoming the most ubiquitous and
powerful news-gathering agency of the nineteenth century.
In 1800 there had been approximately 235 newspapers of
all kinds published in the United States, or about one for every 22,500
people; by 1899 the figures were 160,000 newspapers, or one for every 450
people. "At the end of the century," wrote one historian of the press in
1899, "journalism is the history of the world written day by day, the chief
medium of enlightenment for the masses, the universal forum of scholar,
sage, and scientist." Insofar as the invention and spread of the telegraph
provided the crucial catalyst and means for regular, cooperative news gathering,
it supplied the technological underpinning of the modern press; that is,
it transformed the newspaper from a personal journal and party organ into
primarily a disseminator of news.
Other technological developments helped reshape the nineteenth-century
press too. Steam presses in the 1830s and later rotary presses of the 1890s
allowed faster and larger press runs; linotypes developed in the 1880s
introduced automatic typesetting; photoengraving, beginning with halftones
in 1877, played an important part in the pictorial journalism and sensationalism
of the 1880s and 1890s. But the telegraph led the way not only to large-scale
news gathering and modern news concepts, but also to standardization, perhaps
the most remarkable characteristic of modern journalism. Simon N. D. North,
in his 1884 census report on the history and current state of the American
press, concluded: "The influence of the telegraph upon the journalism of
the United States has been one of equalization. It has placed the provincial
newspaper on a par with the metropolitan journal, so far as the prompt
transmission of news - the first and always to be chiefest function of
journalism - is concerned."
Although a broad consensus existed regarding the ways
in which the press had changed since the advent of the telegraph, there
was no agreement about their effect on the nation's cultural life. The
post-Civil War years brought the first rush of literature on the pathology
of mass communication, with which we are so familiar today. Here one finds
a clear prefiguring of the twentieth century ethical and behavioral critiques
of the mass media. Reproofs of "newspaperism" and the assorted evils of
modern journalism singled out the telegraph as the main culprit responsible
for the debilitating changes wrought in the press.
The London Spectator looked dubiously on the net
effect of electricity as an intellectual force. The crucial result had
been the pervasive diffusion of news, "the recording of every event, and
especially every crime, everywhere without perceptible interval of time
- The world is for purposes of intelligence reduced to a village." But
was this desirable? "All men are compelled to think of all things, at the
same time, on imperfect information, and with too little interval for reflection.
... This unnatural excitement, this perpetual dissipation of the mind"
was the legacy of the electric telegraph.
Across the Atlantic, American press critic W.J. Stillman
charged the telegraph with having "put out of the field the chief fruit
of culture in journalism. ... America has in fact transformed journalism
from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the
time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary
life, into an agency for collecting, condensing, and assimilating the trivialities
of the entire human existence. In this chase for the days' accidents we
still keep the lead, as in the consequent neglect and oversight of what
is permanent and therefore vital in its importance to the intellectual
A sentimental nostalgia for the standards of pre-Civil
War journalism reverberated in these complaints. The old style of personal
journalism, in which a single man's personality had thoroughly defined
what a paper stood for, had disappeared. The triumph of the reporter over
the editor meant the ascendancy of news over opinion. At the same time
the press's role in popular education had drastically increased. "In politics,
in literature, in religion the newspaper is accepted as an infallible guide";
the result could only be "a debauch of the intellect." "Newspaperism" created
a new and poisonous atmosphere that was "daily breathed into the lungs
of society." The modern newspaper, based on a huge system of procuring
telegraphic news, produced decadence.
Beard struggled to unlock the mystery of American nervousness,
arguing that "of all the facts of modern sociology, this rise and growth
of functional nervous disease in the Northern part of America is one of
the most stupendous, complex, and suggestive." His reasoning was sometimes
obscure, and his definitions of symptoms often imprecise to the point of
absurdity, but Beard took great intellectual risks because he thought that
the solution to the puzzle of modern nervous disorder would be the solution
to the enigma of sociology itself. Significantly, his central metaphor
for the human nervous system was the electric generator, supplying current
to a series of lamps. The force produced by such a generator is limited
and cannot be pushed beyond a certain point; if the number of lamps in
the circuit increases, there must be an attendant increase in the force
of the generator.
Similarly, the nervous system of man is "the center of
the nerve-force supplying all the organs of the body"; it can be decreased
or diminished but it is still limited. Thus, "when new functions are interposed
in the circuit, as modern civilization is constantly requiring us to do,
there comes a period sooner or later, varying in different individuals,
and at different times of life, when the amount of force is insufficient
to keep all the lamps actively burning; those that are weakest go out entirely,
or as more frequently happens, burn faint and feebly - they do not expire,
but give an insufficient and unstable light - this is the philosophy of
Beard held the telegraph to be a direct cause of nervousness.
He theorized two major ways in which the telegraph contributed to nervous
disorder. First, businessmen as a class suffered from the continuous exposure
to price fluctuations all over the world. But in a broader sense instantaneous
communication meant a terrific increase in the speed with which new truths
were disseminated and popularized, helping to overload circuits in individual
nervous systems. "Our morning newspaper, that we read with our breakfast,
has the history of the sorrows of the whole world for a day; and a nature
but moderately sympathetic is robbed thereby, consciously or unconsciously,
of more or less nervous strength."
In place of the enormous faith invested in the telegraph by the earliest observers, late nineteenth-century thinkers increasingly identified the telegraph and the modern newspaper as both symptom and cause of the frantic pace of industrial life. The disturbing challenge of the periodical press to classical notions of culture began to elicit troubling doubts about the ultimate cultural import of modern communication. This question later exploded with full force upon the arrival of the motion picture. Meanwhile, even the moral urgency manifested by the press critics was all but stripped from the final political struggle over the telegraph's status as a mature institution.
. . .
By 1900 the auspicious promise of the telegraph seemed quite distant, as antique as the original Morse instrument that gathered dust in the Smithsonian. It had developed as a private monopoly rather than a shared resource; though a common carrier, it was not a truly public means of communication. These institutional precedents would prove crucial to the future of American communication, particularly that of broadcasting. Although its presence was not directly felt in everyday life, the telegraph eventually touched most people indirectly through the mass press it helped create. It could not be an independent moral force, sublime or otherwise. Never again would new communications technology evince such a universal quality of hope. But newer media, on the horizon by the 1890s, would both amplify and extend all the cultural questions raised when the telegraph revolutionized the meaning of communication. Indeed, the motion pictures, a medium with a far more direct effect upon the everyday lives of people, would challenge the established definitions of culture itself.