OMG! Txtng in 1800s PGH

Securing the Steam-Age Internet

Back before most people had indoor toilets, Pittsburghers were texting and encrypting business emails.

Here’s a sample: Maudlin bigamy angel cart.

That’s a secret text message to sell 50,000 gallons of oil in the speculative futures market, and do it fast.

Electronic messages back then were called telegraphs.

It was the start of the telecommunications industry, the Internet, the information age.

Before the telegraph, messages could travel no faster than people — unless you had a really loud voice and a really big megaphone. Or, a reliable pigeon to tie notes to.

Then, as now, some people argued that we didn’t need to communicate any faster. If we did, it would change the world we live in. And so it did.

A portrait painter saw the need.

Death Motivates Invention

He received a week-old letter in Washington, D.C., saying that his wife was ill back home in Connecticut. A day later, a second letter came saying she was dead.

He immediately suspended his painting of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French hero of the American revolution, and rushed home.

“Rush” back then was limited to how fast a horse could gallop and pull a carriage. When he got there, his wife was already buried. He never got over it. It shifted his vocation from painter to communications pioneer.

Lucretia Morse, as painted by her husband, Samuel. Her death caused him to give up painting and create the first Internet.
Lucretia Morse, as painted by her husband, Samuel. Her death caused him to give up painting and create the first Internet.

We are talking of Samuel Morse, the man who devised the Morse code as he pushed development of the idea that messages could be conveyed as fast as lightning over wires strung across the world. That was the late 1830s.

After working with others to develop adequate batteries and relays, and endless litigation over patents and other rights, Morse sought $30,000 from Congress for a proof-of-concept line to run 40 miles between Washington and Baltimore.

Samuel Morse
Samuel Morse

Lawmakers scoffed. Perhaps money for the study of mesmerizing would be better, they suggested, or perhaps Congress should explore Millerism. That was a religious movement professing to know the precise date of Judgment Day.

But, Morse had the important support of the patent commissioner, a Yale classmate. There also were the famous political people whose portraits he had painted, such as former Presidents John Adams and James Monroe.

Still, it appeared the Senate would adjourn before approving the allocation. Morse went to bed defeated. His Yale classmate persevered.  Late into the night,  Morse’s allocation was moved ahead of 100 others. The Senate approved the expense, the next to the last thing it did that session. 

Lineman repairs telegraph wire about 1863. The glass insulators are still commonly sold at flea markets and antique shops for home decorating.
Lineman repairs telegraph wire about 1863. The glass insulators are still commonly sold at flea markets and antique shops for home decorating.

What God Wrought

Bureaucrats kept a wary eye on the painter’s project. He switched from running the telegraph wire underground to erecting poles along railroad rights of way, but within a year a message as fast as lightning was successfully sent. The message was: “What God hath wrought.”

Well, it was man not God, but the Biblical message was chosen by the patent commissioner’s teen-age daughter. Still, it showed Morse and his supporters knew what was coming.

Two years later, Pittsburgh joined the first Internet when a telegraph line finally reached here. 

Before that, news from Philadelphia or Baltimore came three days after the fact. It took 12 days to get information from New Orleans, where Pittsburgh did much of its business. The fastest ship from England could bring July 25 news from Liverpool and it could arrive in Pittsburgh on August 14.

This particularly mattered to local businessmen and investors now that others near telegraph lines were getting information so much sooner.

Pittsburgh’s initial lightning message on Dec. 29, 1846, was kind of related to what God hath wrought.

It reported local troops were about to go downriver to help take what became California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico away from Mexico. And make the land our own..

It was the nation’s “manifest destiny” to go from “sea to shining sea” rather than from “sea to Oklahoma.” It makes a better lyric and inspired the Mexican War Streets housing development on the North Side.

How Messengers Were Supposed to Look



How They Really Looked

Before there were smart phones, electronic text messages were delivered to your door by these gentlemen.

Working Out the Kinks

Telegraphy was all about startups, questionable technology, lawsuits and questionable need.

We get the idea from movies that telegraph operators were supposed to listen to dots and dashes and translate. They did that, but not at first.

The first offices, often in hotels or in the new train stations going up, had a printer that rolled out the Morse code onto a paper tape. The clerk was supposed to read the tape, translate it and write out the message for delivery to its intended recipient. Then he would send the same message back to verify receipt and hand it to a messenger to deliver.

After a few months, Anson Ager, the first  clerk in the Pittsburgh office, was scrambling to unjam the tape reel as a telegram came in.

He realized he didn’t need the printed code. He could just listen to the tapping and translate it. Other clerks throughout the Northeast soon came to the same realization. The printers got shunted off to the side.

By 1850, a 15-year-old messenger boy was permitted to practice Morse code in the Pittsburgh office on Sunday evenings. He was there alone when a telegraph came in for the regional head of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The boy slowly tapped the message back to verify receipt, translated it and then rushed the message to the businessman’s home. 

Andrew Carnegie, right, a year after he became a telegraph messenger, with his brother, Thomas.
Andrew Carnegie, right, a year after he became a telegraph messenger, with his brother, Thomas.

The boy was Andrew Carnegie. The man was Thomas Scott, who hired Carnegie three years later as a railroad secretary/telegrapher. Scott trained Carnegie in the ways of business and Carnegie rose rapidly in one of the nation’s biggest companies. Soon he was head of the railroad division. Scott also advised Carnegie on investments. They started him on the way to becoming the world’s richest man.

Putting It Into Code

In1885, the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette ran a story on something important today: Internet security.




The Queer Dispatches Received by the Telegraph Operators — Oil Exchange Secrecy — Country Shippers Fond of System Work — A Few Examples

“The number of cipher telegraph dispatches handled every day in this city,” said a telegraph operator yesterday “is very large. I think in proportion to its size Pittsburgh handles more mysterious messages than any city in the country.”

The Oil Exchange is where most of the private cipher dispatches are received and have their origin.

(Oil refining began in Pittsburgh after uses for petroleum products and oil wells were developed.)

The telegraph business there is about entirely carried on in cipher. Fortunes are made and lost every day by cipher.

(The practice continues today with all oil company business automatically encrypted).

. . . The reports from oil scouts in the field to their firms, the regular business dealings of the firms in various places, and the market reports are all carried on in secretive characters. Those familiar with a system translate the reports as rapidly as they can write.

“Here is a telegram for a broker in this city,” he continued, spreading out his message on the desk:

“Maudlin, bigamy angel cart.”

“Now, that isn’t a nonsensical arrangement of words,” he went on., “but is an order to sell short 50,000 barrels of oil at once.  .  . I have told you the meaning of the cipher because this week the broker took up a new system, rendering useless the system of this message sent last Thursday.  .  . Their ciphers are not sent to save expenses, but wholly for secrecy.”

(He  goes on to explain the codes used in stock quotations, which are intended to minimize telegraph bills, before chuckling at the so-called country shippers.)

“Of late the country shippers to this city have got to using cipher. The idea of mystery, I think, is what tickles their fancy. Many a commission merchant every day cusses the man who invented cipher dispatches. It is amusing to see the produce men of the city get their telegrams and study them out. At times they will puzzle over a dispatch for an hour or more only to find some farmer has shipped a half-dozen barrels of potatoes and a dozen heads of cabbage. . .”

(The story concludes by noting that cipher usually was used in international cables. It was not a matter of national security. It was cost. Someone had to pay for  telegraph lines strung across the Atlantic floor. A dispatch to London from Pittsburgh cost about $10 a word in today’s money.)

At the time the story was written, Alexander Graham Bell’s device was making its way into the homes of wealthy Pittsburghers.

Hello, operator please connect me with the telegraph office.
Hello, operator please connect me with the telegraph office.

The telephone allowed direct voice communication between two people. Of course, both had to have a telephone.

Pittsburgh’s first telephone directory consisted of six pages. It was just names, the names of subscribers. You called the operator to connect you.

Eventually, every home and business had a telephone. Was that the end of the telegraph industry?

Not by a long shot. It continues to be relevant even today. Check that story out here.

Oh, don’t think too highly of Samuel Morse. A New Englander raised in a strict Calvinist home,  he was quite self-righteous. Morse wrote stridently in support of slavery as the will of God. He also railed against Catholicism and immigrants. He wanted America to be great again.

Soldier writes a message to telegraph back home.
Mom, send money (stop) All is well (stop) Don’t forget to feed dog (stop).


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