In the early 1800s, sending a message over any distance was long-winded. Even with the development of the postal service, messages, letters and important instructions carried on horseback by coach, ships and early railroads could take days – even weeks to reach their destination. A far cry from today’s world of instant messaging and increasingly sophisticated communication technologies – all at the touch of a button. The invention of the electric telegraph transformed world communications. It also marked the first practical use of electricity.

Although a number of telegraph machines were invented and tested in the early 1800s, Samuel Morse, of Morse Code fame, was the first to invent and officially patent a recording electric telegraph in 1837. That same year, William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone invented and patented the first commercial electric telegraph. Telegraph machines like this one worked by sending patterns of electric current down a telegraph wire to a receiver, which pointed at different letters of the alphabet in turn, spelling out the sender’s message.

Cooke and Wheatstone gained early success when their telegraph system was successfully introduced on the railways to transmit messages, signals and, importantly, time. In the 1830s, each area of Britain operated on its own ‘local’ time, based on the sunrise and sunset. To operate safely, the railways, which were rapidly springing up all over the country, needed to run to a timetable based on a standard time system. Soon, local times were being synchronized by telegraph in more and more locations and timetables began running to standard ‘railway’ time. By 1855, this had been brought in line with ‘London’ or ‘Greenwich Mean’ time, telegraphed along cables the length and breadth of Britain.

Commercial telegraphy made a revolution in world communications possible, laying the groundwork for new uses in the second half of the century in military intelligence and personal communication. In 1866 a transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, transmitting messages between Europe and North America in just hours rather than weeks.


Did you know..?

In 1845, in the early days of Telegraphy, Cooke and Wheatstone’s machine was used to catch a murderer called John Tawell. A telegraph message sent from Slough station to Paddington enabled Tawell to be identified and arrested as soon as his train arrived.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

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