Daring to Do Mighty Things: New York and the Ideas that Changed the World
1900 Portrait of Samuel Morris by Daniel Huntington - Courtesy of the New York State Museum

New York State is nearly 55,000 square miles, making it larger than 18 European countries. Keeping people connected over such a long distance was one of the greatest challenges early New Yorkers faced. Postal service by horse was often too slow to keep pace with developments as they occurred, especially as New York City became more connected to the international and domestic financial markets. In 1844, a professor from New York University, Samuel Morris, transmitted the first message over a telegraph he invented. So began the communications revolution that shaped the world for the next 160 years and made the digital communications revolution possible.

Seven years later after Morris’s first successful transmission a moderately successful New York entrepreneur, Ezra Cornell, started a new venture: the New-York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, which eventually became Western Union Telegraph. Cornell became familiar with telegraph technology when he oversaw the construction of the poles and wires that connected the first telegraph machines Morse invented.

New York State Stock Exchange Ticker, ca. 1860 Courtesy of the New York State Museum

Later, he experimented with burying Morse’s telegraph wires underground but condensation and poor insulation interrupted the electric current and prevented messages from being transmitted. By 1861, Western Union had completed the nation’s first transcontinental telegraph system. Use of the telegraph grew exponentially during the Civil War. For the first time in history, national leaders and the public could learn the outcomes of battles and the fates of their loved ones in almost real time. Lincoln, realizing the fullest potential of the technology, was the first President to draft a speech that would be ready for near instantaneous communication, the brevity of the Gettysburg Address made it easy to transmit over the telegraph and appear in thousands of newspapers the next day.

Western Union remained at the forefront of telecommunications until the widespread introduction and use of another New Yorker’s invention, Alexander Bell’s telephone. Shifting from personal to financial information exchanges kept Western Union profitable and relevant to 20th century business leaders and is still the primary mission of the company today.

1860 Telegraph Recorder - Courtesy of the New York State Museum
One of the last telegraph recorders in use, ca. 1900 Courtesy of the New York State Museum
Transatlantic Cable Fragment - Courtesy of the New York State Museum

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