Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The History of the Telegraph in Chicago, Illinois.

The idea of using electricity to communicate over distance is said to have occurred to Samuel F. B. Morse during a conversation aboard ship when he was returning from Europe in 1832. The U.S. Government wanted a communication system along its entire Atlantic coast and offered a prize of $30,000 ($767,000 today) for a workable proposal.

By December 1837, Morse had enough confidence in his new system to apply for the federal government's appropriation, and during the next year he conducted demonstrations of his telegraph both in New York and Washington.
However, when the economic disaster known as the Panic of 1837 took hold of the nation and caused a long depression, Morse was forced to wait for better times. It was during this period that Morse visited Europe again and tried not only to secure patent protection overseas but to examine competing telegraph systems in England. After meeting Charles Wheatstone, the inventor of one such electric telegraph system, Morse realized that although his main competitor had built an ingenious mechanism, his own system was far simpler, more efficient, and easier to use.

Morse had hired the ingenious construction engineer Ezra Cornell to lay the pipe carrying the wire, and although Cornell did his job superbly, one of Morse's partners, Congressman F. O. J. Smith, had purchased wire with defective insulation. Too much time had been wasted laying bad wire, and with the project on a rigid deadline, something had to be done quickly. Cornell suggested that the fastest and cheapest way of connecting Washington and Baltimore was to string wires overhead on trees and poles. The desperate Morse gave the go-ahead, and the line was completed in time for the dramatic and spectacularly successful link between the Supreme Court chamber of the Capitol building and the railroad station in Baltimore.

Morse electrically transmitted his famous message "What hath God wrought?" from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844.
An 1844 Telegraph Key by Alfred Vail used to tap out Morse Code for messages.
Soon, as overhead wires connected cities up and down the Atlantic coast, the dots-and-dashes method that recorded messages on a long moving strip of paper was replaced by the operator's ability to interpret the code in real time and transcribe it into English letters as he heard it. Telegraph lines soon extended westward, and within Morse's own lifetime they connected the continents of Europe and America.

The telegraph, which received its first practical demonstration in 1844, came to Chicago in 1848. Telegraphy made possible instant communication with the East Coast, and eventually with the entire country.

Daily newspapers began publishing next-day accounts of speeches, elections, and battles, all furnished by telegraph. During the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a telegram from the mayor brought fire-fighting equipment from Milwaukee; when it was over, citizens lined up at a makeshift Western Union office to inform alarmed friends and relatives that they had survived.
July 25, 1850 - A Telegraph Communication
Chicago quickly became the eastern terminus of “western” communication and by the 1880s was the nation's second city in sheer volume of messages. The telegraph in turn promoted Chicago's economic growth. It proved critical in managing the long-distance railroad routes which made Chicago a vital link between the Midwest and the East Coast.
Each telegraph company ran their own wires directly to each subscriber. Depending upon the area, there could be a dozen telegraph companies laying lines from the same poles.
Chicago companies, serving far-flung markets by rail, could coordinate their operations by telegraph. Small-town storekeepers could obtain price information or place orders with their Chicago suppliers. In 1858 the Chicago Board of Trade began receiving market news from New York City by telegraph, while the board's grain and commodity prices, now telegraphically disseminated, propelled it to national prominence as a grain market. Traders could complete deals by telegraph.
Telegraph Poles; Looking East from Clark Street, Chicago. May 10, 1869.
Completion of the Transcontinental Railway Celebration.
Chicago's resources, and its importance as a center of national telegraphic activity, made it the home of Western Union's central division, and the city attracted and fostered a wealth of engineering and entrepreneurial talent. Chicago became a center for manufacturing telegraphic (and later telephonic) equipment when the predecessor of the Western Electric Company relocated from Cleveland in 1870.
State and Lake, pre-1871 Chicago Fire.
Most railroad stations served as telegraph offices, so residents of most neighborhoods and suburbs could send important messages anywhere in the metropolis. To get in touch with a group of employees near suburban Riverside, for instance, George Pullman instantly proposed sending a telegram. On the other hand, Evanstonians seeking information on the Great Chicago Fire were frustrated because the local telegraph office was closed.
70-foot telegraph poles were part of the cityscape in the early days.
In 1865, the Chicago Fire Department contracted to build fire alarm boxes employing telegraphic signals. Located throughout the city, they allowed citizens to report fires quickly.

The period from 1866 through 1900 was the apex of Western Union’s telegraph power. Yearly messages, nationally, sent over its lines increased from 5.8 million in 1867 to 63.2 million in 1900. Over the same period, transmission rates fell from an average of $1.09 to 30¢ per message. Even with these lower prices, roughly 30¢ to 40¢ of every dollar of revenue were net profit for the company. Western Union faced three threats during this period: increased government regulation, new entrants into the field of telegraphy, and new competition from the telephone.

In 1869 private line service became available in Chicago, and the American District Telegraph Company soon offered affluent Chicagoans a home service allowing them to summon a firefighter, private policeman, or messenger. Telegraphic communication with other Chicagoans was facilitated by the company's network of neighborhood offices and messengers.

In 1880 the Chicago Police Department began using call boxes on the streets. Citizens could report crimes, though only after obtaining keys to the boxes, which were selectively distributed; relatively few crime reports were made. More important, the boxes facilitated official communication among the police. Patrolmen were obliged to make hourly “duty calls,” and were thus subject to stricter supervision. They could also summon a paddy-wagon in the event they made an arrest. The call boxes used an innovative combination of telegraphic signaling for routine messages and the telephone for unusual messages, a design adopted by police departments throughout the country.
Telegraph operators with Barclay telegraph instruments, 1908.
The telegraph flourished into the 1920s, but the Great Depression hit the industry hard, and it never recovered to its previous position. Additionally, the telegraph diminished in relative importance as telephony grew more widespread. 

By 1940 Chicago had more than one million telephones in use, and 90 percent of fire alarms were telephoned to the Fire Department. Portable two-way radios finally rendered police call boxes obsolete, while other forms of telegraphy were largely superseded by more advanced electronic communications.

Additional Reading: Chicago and Evanston Telephone Exchange History including name code meanings.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Great pictures and great history.

  2. Especially interested in the tree tops and poles solution to Morse’s early wiring problems.
    Images that tell a story.


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