THE INTERNET OF THE OLD WEST

margaretbrownley-150x150Margaret Brownley

 

Scams, advertisements and demands from Prince “Wants Your Money” from some foreign country:  Sound like your e-mail? You’re close. Only back in the 19th and 20th centuries it was called the telegraph.  Not only did the telegraph create a quicker way to get junk mail, it changed the way Victorians lived, did business, received news and yes, even fell in love.

In his fascinating book, The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage tells us that there really is nothing new under the sun.  Meetings, chat rooms, games, and illicit affairs were just as prevalent 150 years ago as they are today.  And what, for that matter is a text message but a telegram, forcing people to be brief and to the point? (Tell that to your teen!)

If you think acronyms such as LOL and BTW are a modern concept, think again. Telegram security was an issue and secret codes were devised.  Government regulators tried to control this new means of communication, but failed. Sound familiar?

Though the telegraph was first conceived in the 1600s and an optical one developed in the 1700s, it took a tragedy to make the dream of fast communication over long distances a reality.

Samuel Morse: A Love Story

Samuel Morse was an artist commissioned to paint a portrait in Washington. Upon receiving a letter informing him of his wife’s sudden death, he returned to his New Haven home as quickly as possible, but he had already missed her funeral.  This had to be very much on his mind seven years later when he in a chance conversation aboard a ship he learned that electricity could travel along any length of wire almost instantaneously.  Unaware that others had tried and failed to create a fast way of communications using this method, he immediately set to work.    

What Hath God Wroughtanimationtelegraph?

It took Samuel Morse 12 years to perfect his invention and many trials and tribulations, but he was convinced that this new way of communicating would allow a husband to reach a dying wife’s bedside or save the life of a child.  He thought it might even prevent wars.  His hard work and perseverance paid off.  On May 24, 1844, he sent the telegraph message “what hath God wrought?” from the Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, Maryland.

No longer was it necessary to communicate solely through trains, mail or horse.  Even Morse himself couldn’t have imagined how telegraphic communications could change society.

Boon and Bust for Outlaws

Then as now, the first to embrace the new technology were criminals. The first telegrams sent were horse bets and lotteries.  A man named Soapy Smith opened a fake telegraph office in Skagway, Alaska during the gold rush of 1897. The wires went only as far as the wall. The telegraph office obtained fees for “sending” messages from gold-laden victims. Though outlaws such as Butch Cassidy routinely cut wires or jammed telegraph keys to prevent lawmen from tracking them down, the telegraph eventually helped put an end to the train robberies that plagued the west. 

Wired Romances

Western Union might have been the first equal opportunity employer as women telegraphers were prevalent.  The ratio of men to women in the New York office in the 1870s was two to one.  Women operators were often chaperoned but that didn’t stop women from forming relationships with partners in distant offices.  As a result, wire romances bloomed and one couple even married by telegraph. However, not all online romances had a happy ending.  In 1886, The Electrical World magazine ran an article titled The Dangers of Wired Romances. That same article would no doubt be just as timely today.

Tom Standage writes that time traveling Victorians arriving in today’s world might be impressed with our flying machines but they would be unimpressed with the Internet. They did, after all, have one of their own.

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Margaret Brownley
Margaret has published more than 46 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and two-time Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! She has written for a day time soap and is currently working on a new series. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.
Updated: February 15, 2010 — 6:08 pm

43 Comments

  1. Fantastic blog, Margaret. I had no idea junk mail existed in the 1800’s! I totally love the parallels to today, keeping it short and using acronyms.

    Victorian internet….I love it! oxoxoxoxox

  2. Hi, Margaret! A very entertaining post! “Spam” by telegram…who’d a thunk it? I have often wondered what Pony Express riders would think of email! I love the Old West of the mid to late 1800’s. What a time to be alive! The world changed so much in a relatively short space of time. Thanks for writing about my favorite era!

    gcwhiskas at aol dot com

  3. Interesting stuff! The military used the Morse Code system too.

    I toured Thomas Edison’s home and museum in Fort Myers, FL. It was amazing what he went through to perfect his inventions: tires, light bulbs etc.

  4. Hi Margaret,I enjoyed reading your post,I wonder what Mr.Edison would say if he could see how far we come since his time,probably lay back down an close the lid,lol,I think things have progressed so fast that most of us are not able to keep up with it all,(ME)I think I should have been born back in the 1800’s,anyway I enjoy reading about that time period,thanks for the great post!

  5. Laurie,
    You might be interested to know that the Morse Code isn’t dead yet. In fact I heard it in the market yesterday. Yep, someone got a text message and her phone beeped: 3 shorts, 2 long, and 3 shorts. That just happens to be Morse Code for SMS–short message service. …_ _…

    Hey now you know something your kids don’t know.
    Thanks for writing

  6. What a great topic, I knew about Samuel Morse inventing the telegraph but I had no idea in what ways the telegraph was used. It seems you couldn’t escape the junk mail anywhere. I really like your book cover.

  7. Vickie,

    Knowing Thomas Edison, I think he would have embraced today’s technology. The reason I think this is because he was partially deaf. He considered his hearing problem a great advantage in his work as a telegraph operator. He was fast and efficient and quickly rose to the top of the company. He wasn’t distracted by noise like other workers and could give his full attention to the clicks of the telegraph. He even courted the woman that was to become his second wife by Morse Code. If he were alive today he would probably propose marriage with a text message.

    Take care and thank you for writing!

  8. Great blog!

  9. Interesting information. Wouldn’t you know that what God helped Samuel Morse create for good, Satan would use for evil. Great information. Thank you.

  10. What a fascinating post today. I enjoyed learning about the junk mail and knew about the morse Code which was great.

  11. Great post, Margaret. I never knew there was a love-inspired slant to the invention of the telegraph. I had read about the female telegraphers but didn’t know of the romances across the wires. There truly is nothing new under the sun, is there?

    I’ve heard great things about your book and would love the chance to win a copy.

    Blessings!

  12. The Dangers of Wired Romances???????

    I love this, Margaret. It’s ‘I met him on the internet’ for the 19th century. 🙂

  13. And isn’t ‘What Hath God Wrought’ what they said when they detonated the first atomic bomb?

    Telegraph? Nuclear weapons? An interesting comparison.

  14. Mary, is that what they said when they detonate the bomb? I didn’t know that.

  15. Interesting post Margaret, you know I never thought about people getting junk mail back in those days. I would have thought they were lucky just to get their mail! I didn’t realize they had wired romances back then although I new they had mail order brides! I am just amazed at this information.

    I have been hearing a lot about your book lately and I would love to read it. It looks like a wonderful read.

  16. Very interesting–who knew that junk mail wasn’t a new concept??

    Your book is on my “To-Read” list. I would love the chance to win a copy!

  17. Margaret, this is fascinating. I never considered romance via the telegraph before! How clever. It would make a wonderful story. My brain is whirling. The telegraph did change the world, and I’m sure the people who lived back then were overjoyed at the fast way they could communicate with their friends and family.

  18. Margaret, this was just fascinating stuff! I was riveted! Think of the interesting western plots for stories that could be had here, a gold mine!
    I suppose the telegraph pretty much did away with the Pony express. Just like computers did away with telegrams (anyone remember those?)

  19. That was very interesting about the criminals and betting over the telegraph… Once again learned sometime new and interesting from this blog! Thanks for sharing! 😀

  20. Hi Margaret, Thanks for the fascinating post! Until now, I thought telegraphs were old fashioned. Nope! We’ve come full circle with texting 🙂 I heard today on the radio that kids are saying, “brb” instead of “be right back.” It won’t long before “lol” will be in the dictionary

    I actually like texting. It’s great for quick questions w/ easy answers, like “wats 4 dnr?” The writer in me winces at the abbreviations, but I like the efficiency.

  21. What an incredible post, Margaret. I had no idea LOL, BTW were things already invented. And that’s really something about the text messaging, something that I can’t stand to do. I’m forever getting my thumb out of order.

    But you’re right, my daugher lives by this.

    Great post. 🙂

  22. Karen,

    I’m not sure what acronyms they actually used. Anyone out there know? Anyone have an old telegram lying around the house?

  23. Great blog. Now I want to know more about the dangers of wired romances. And speaking of technology, I would love to be around a hundred years hence to see what new wonders will come into everyday life. I keep looking for a flying car.

  24. I think there’s a romance novel in two people who knew each other through the telegraph.

    Could they send their messages…if they worked for the telegraph…for free? I mean it’s not like Verizon would record the minutes.

  25. Who would have thought lol. If the telegraph was the first step to the internet, imagine where we’ll go from here! I wonder if he got part of his idea from smoke signals lol.

  26. I think the ways people have developed communication techniques are mind-boggling.

    I always reckoned telegraph operators had to be people of giant integrity. Imagine the dirt or private stuff you might find out about somebody and having to keep it secret.

  27. Very interesting post. Guess where there is communication thereare spammers!

  28. I would love to win a copy, I really like to read about the old west and the way people had to travel and live. I would’nt mind living back in those days as the world was slower and time didn’t go by so fast.

  29. very cool post!
    i love the background about how the morse code came about
    i’m learning so much from this blog 🙂

    thanks for the chance at “a lady like sarah”
    i’ve been eyeing that one 🙂

  30. Another thought on modern communication . . . does anyone think about how little paper we now have? No old love letters, no old diaries. Everything is electronic–email, blogs, etc.. I love my computer, but it’s strange to think how quickly all those words can disappear.

  31. I really enjoyed your post and it’s funny because my husband is always telling people that text messages are just like sending a message over a telegraph.

  32. What a neat post, Margaret! My son’s class recently visited the Wells Fargo Museum, where one of the displays was about Morse Code and the telegraph; how times have changed and yet not!

  33. This was a very interesting post! How interesting that love played such a role. Of course my granddaughter says love is why she texts.

  34. This is a super interesting post! I had no idea HOW the telegraph came into play! How unfortunate for Mr. Morse but what a great way to lead us into the technology we have today!

    I’d love to be entered to win this book! I’m not read anything by Margaret before.

    faithfulgirl4[at]gmail[dot]com

  35. Avatar

    How interesting. The old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” is certainly true. Had not heard of the phony offices before. No matter what the technology, the crooks will find some way to try and take advantage of it.
    I never realized Samuel Morse was an artist. Had always assumed he was a scientist.
    Have a good weekend.

  36. Very interesting post! Amazing to think of a time when getting any piece of communication was cause for excitement. While today it’s just an everyday thing.

  37. Great blog! Too many times books forget to include these wonderful means of communications. Wonder if they had identity theft as well?

  38. As a historian there is one item not mentioned that makes me question some of the claims.

    COST. Sending a telegram was VERY expensive. Senders paid by the letter hence abbreviations and very short messages.

    As one of Soapy Smith’s great-grandsons I enjoyed reading about the fake telegraph office in Skagway. It has its comical side as anyone taking a cruise in southeast Alaska will see 100 miles of hard-core nature between Skagway and the capitol of Juneau. Soapy opened his little scam office in 1897 but Skagway did not see a real telegraph line arrive until 1901.

  39. How fascinating….It never ceases to amaze me what I learn here. Reading Historical Novels is the BEST way to learn my history…and so much more fun that my boring history classes in grammer school!!!

  40. Margaret,
    What a great post! I love it when I learn another layer of a known historical event.
    Would love to win a copy of your book, A LADY LIKE SARAH. If it is written at the interest generation of your post, it will be a fun read.

    A J Hawke

  41. Hi Jeff,
    Never thought to “meet” one of Soapy’s relatives. I always envy people who have interesting ancestors. You bring up a good point about the cost. This, of course, wasn’t an issue for the thousands of operators who communicated freely with one another up and down the wires. Thanks for writing.

  42. Fascinating! I have a copy of Standage’s book, it’s great. Interesting post.

  43. Looking forward to reading through more. Excellent post.Really thank you! Would like more.

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