Modern English use of the word telegraph can be divided into three categories. The first refers to the Nineteenth Century communication device patented by Samuel Morse. The second common use denotes the figurative and/or literal act of telegraphing. As the telegraph machine has grown obsolete, contemporary meanings of the verb more often involve figurative connotations, although one can physically telegraph actions using the body itself, as in the context of boxing, where an opponent’s moves can often be predicted by slight hand movements prior to the full-out blow, thus “telegraphing” the next move. Finally, the word remains widespread as an element of many newspaper names, such as the British broadsheet paper The Daily Telegraph, or the Irish evening paper The Belfast Telegraph. In this context the word at one time represented a shift away from an editorial emphasis and implied that a newspaper was extremely current, and that its editors took advantage of what was then the newest technology. Now newspapers that retain this technological anachronism in their mastheads are more often than not editorially conservative.

The United States issued patent number 6,420 to NYU Literature of Arts and Design professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse for his telegraph register on May 1, 1849. [1] Morse was an accomplished painter who came upon the idea of using an electromagnet to send and receive signals along a length of wire aboard the Sulley en route to the U.S. following a European visit. At this early date he had already settled upon the name for his invention, from the Greek words for “writing at a distance.” The first wire was laid between Baltimore and Washington D.C., and the first message to be sent along this route was the Bible passage from numbers 23:23 “What hath God wrought?” [2] This was not Morse’s choice - his original message at an earlier demonstration of the device was “Attention universe, by kingdoms right wheel.” [3] Morse’s original invention allowed for the message to be printed out on a ticker. Morse created a code wherein the dots and dashes correspond to letters in the English language. This cipher, which is still widely used today and is known as Morse code, can be though of as an early form of digitization, as all words, numbers and punctuation are comprised of two “dot” and “dash” symbols. The code itself does not require a machine to be conveyed, as dramatically evidenced by American prisoner of war Jeremiah Denton, who during a North Vietnamese television broadcast interview secretly blinked the word “T.O.R.T.U.R.E” in Morse code to U.S. audiences. [4]

In the chronology of communications technology evolution in the United States, the telegraph is situated between the Pony Express and the Telephone. The telegraph greatly affected the safety and growth of the railroad industry, was used extensively by the War Department during the Civil War, as well as by private industry. [5] The telegraph industry itself produced many successful firms, the most famous being the Western Union Telegraph Company. Undersea cables lead to worldwide use of the technology, and despite the rise of the telephone, the telegraph remained an inexpensive means of communication, peaking in use during the 1920’s. By 2005, only 20,000 telegrams were sent a the cost of about $10 a message, and in January of 2006 the last telegram was sent when Western Union, now a subsidiary of First Data Company, discontinued the service. Most of these final telegrams were efforts on the part of the senders or receivers to be the historical last users of a technology which indeed had a very long run compared to other forms of communication. [6]

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the verb use of the word telegraph first simply as the act of sending a telegram, the then goes on to offer the additional definition “To give a clumsily obvious hint or premature indication of (something to come). [7] This use seems to most often refer to a physical act, but like the invention itself, the term straddles the domains of physical and cerebral. Only in the purely figurative sense is there no physical element, such as in the case of literary foreshadowing. The telegraph requires a physical infrastructure, as well as machines at either end of the line. The message itself undergoes several transformations from words to physical taps on the machine, then to electrical impulses, then to sounds in the telegraphs operators earpiece or ticks on paper, and then finally back into words. With some exceptions, this entire process is also mediated at either end by telegraph operators who can translate the code. This can be represented as:


The telegraphed message resembles an early incarnation of the digital. Like the digital domain, telegraph code consists entirely of two kinds of symbols, and the on/off dichotomy of the digital could easily be substituted for the dot/dash duality of Morse code.

Thus the telegraph message, as well as telegraphed human intent, are both a kind of meta-medium, as they undergo various transformations. These transformations can even take place within the human body. Marshal McLuhan points out the similarity between the telegraph and two human bodily functions: the nervous system and the gland system. [8] His hormone metaphor deals more with the social implications of brief news cycles, but the nerve-ending image is well suited for the technology.

The fact that so many newspapers around the world incorporate the word telegraph into their titles stems from the transformation of the newspaper industry from an editorial-based news provider to a faster-paced “wire service” based press. McLuhan calls this the difference between the literary press and telegraph press and he points out that “With the telegraph the entire method of gathering and of presenting news was revolutionized. Naturally the effects on language and on literary style and subject matter were spectacular.” [9] Indeed this can be seen in the widespread use of the word, and the prevalence of stories attributed to wire services such as the Associated Press. The technology changed the even the grammatical content of messages; Western Union charged more for punctuation symbols than a four-letter word, leading thrifty users to adopt the “stop” convention to indicate the end of a sentence. [10]

Karlis Kanderovskis
Winter 2007