Who Invented the Telegraph?

By: Yara Simón  | 
A close-up of a finger tapping a telegraph transmitter
The telegraph was a technological advancement for communication. menonsstocks / Getty Images

Imagine you’re back in the 19th century, and you need to send a message to someone on the other side of the country. You write down your message on a piece of paper, but instead of placing it in an envelope and waiting days or even weeks for it to reach its destination, you hand it to a telegraph operator. With a few taps on a fancy machine, your message magically travels through wires at the speed of electricity, zipping across cities, towns and even oceans in a flash.

In the world of communication, few inventions have had as profound an impact as the telegraph. The electric telegraph, also known as the telegraph system, revolutionized communication, providing an alternative to messengers and semaphores and providing a faster and more efficient means of transmitting messages over long distances.


The Birth of the Telegraph

While often credited as the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel Morse built upon earlier concepts and technologies in the field of telegraphy. In the early 19th century, he teamed up with Leonard D. Gale and Alfred Vail, a skilled machinist, to develop the electric telegraph. While Gale, a chemistry professor, advised Morse on the technical aspects, Vail financed the patents and helped improve the machine.

At the heart of the telegraph system was Morse code, which enabled efficient transmission of telegraph messages. Vail also helped Morse develop this system, which assigned a unique combination of dots and dashes to each letter and number. The sender would input the message on a telegraph key, which produced electrical impulses corresponding to the code. The impulses were transmitted through the wires to the receiving end. There, an operator would decode the electrical signals by listening to the clicks produced by an electromagnet and transcribing them into letters and words using the Morse code chart.


Morse’s telegraph gained significant recognition after he sent the first official message on May 24, 1844. He wrote: “What hath God wrought?” in a message that traveled between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. Companies like Western Union played a vital role in expanding the telegraph industry, facilitating rapid message transmission across vast distances.

Transatlantic Cable and Global Connectivity

The transatlantic cable, a series of undersea cables, enabled real-time transmission of messages across the Atlantic Ocean. A joint effort between U.S. businessman Cyrus West Field and British engineer Charles Tilston Bright, the transatlantic cable connected North American and Europe.

The project presented numerous challenges. The cable needed to be durable enough to withstand the harsh underwater environment while maintaining efficient signal transmission. Additionally, the immense distance and depth of the Atlantic Ocean posed logistical hurdles.


However, advancements in cable design, insulation and laying techniques pushed the project forward. Completed in 1858, Queen Victoria wrote a message to President James Buchanan:

The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest. The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem. The Queen has much pleasure in thus directly communicating with the President and renewing to him her wishes for the prosperity of the United States.

However, the success was short-lived. Issues, such as weak insulation, signal distortion and excessive cable tension resulted in inconsistent and low-quality transmissions. The cable was not operable a mere few weeks later.

Efforts to replace the cable started in 1865, but this second attempt also failed as the cable became damaged. By 1866, the Great Eastern ship laid the cable, connecting Europe and North America.


The Telegraph’s Impact on Media

The telegraph's introduction had a profound impact on the media. Prior to the telegraph, news traveled slowly and relied on physical transportation methods, such as mail and messenger services. With the advent of the telegraph, journalists could send and receive news across long distances almost instantly.

The telegraph also gave rise to the concept of wire services. Agencies like the Associated Press and Reuters collected news stories from reporters and transmitted them to subscribing newspapers via telegraph wires.


The telegraph led news agencies to develop a concise and efficient writing style to convey information quickly and effectively. The inverted pyramid, where the most important information comes first and the additional details follow, became a standard. Journalists still use this writing style today.

Expansion and Growth of the Telegraph

As the telegraph system developed, networks expanded, connecting cities, towns and even remote locations. The establishment of telegraph lines across America and Europe created an intricate web of communication, facilitating trade, commerce and cultural exchange. The telegraph's influence reached far and wide.


Beyond the Telegraph

While the telegraph system reigned supreme for many years, new inventions would eventually surpass its capabilities. The telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell, offered a more direct and personal form of communication. Later advancements, such as the internet, transformed communication on a global scale. Nonetheless, the telegraph's legacy lives on in the form of our interconnected world.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.