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[Detail] U.S.S. Alert. Photographer - W H Jackson, 1901 or 1902

2) The Telegraph and Telephone Industries

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first telegraph message approximately forty miles from the Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland's Mount Clare Railroad Station. Morse's collaborator, Alfred Vail, translated the question, "What hath God wrought?" in the station and sent it back to Morse on an electrical current that sparked the nineteenth-century communications revolution.

Electromagnetic telegraphs provided a fast, reliable means of communication for an expanding nation. The Western Union Telegraph Company was formed in 1856. Five years later, telegraph lines stretched across the continent and connected more than 2,200 offices. The telegraph machines transmitted personal and national news as well as military orders throughout the Civil War. They also reduced railroad accidents by determining the position of trains on the tracks.

In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell began experimenting with multiple telegraphs that could simultaneously send and receive several messages. After he failed to earn a patent for his work, he turned his attention to using telegraph lines to transmit the sound of human speech. Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, successfully constructed a telephone on March 10, 1876. Bell spent subsequent years competing with Western Union over the right to market his machine. Searches on the terms telegraph and telephone produce images of telegraph offices such as the "Richmond & Backus Company Office," of early telephones (including a model of Bell's original phone), of a telecommunications cable, and of telephone operators.

Meanwhile, the Special Presentation, "The Telephone and the Multiple Telegraph," in the American Memory collection The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, details Bell's experimental efforts.

  • How do you think that these machines altered both the landscape and the business world?
  • Why do you think that Western Union competed fiercely with Bell to provide telephone services?
  • How did the design of the telephone change over time? Why do you think that the design changed?
  • How did photographers depict telephone workers and their products?