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 to 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. He rushed home.
“Rush” back then was limited to how fast a horse could gallop while pulling 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.
We are talking of Samuel Morse. He devised the Morse code as he pushed the idea that messages could be conveyed as fast as lightning over wires strung across the world. This 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, D.C., and Baltimore.
Lawmakers scoffed: Perhaps money for the study of mesmerizing would be better. Perhaps Congress should explore Millerism. That was a religious movement professing to know the precise date of Judgment Day.
But, Morse had important support. The patent commissioner was a Yale classmate. There also were the 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.
What God Wrought
Bureaucrats kept a wary eye on the painter’s project as he switched from running wire underground to erecting poles along railroad rights of way. But, within a year, a message as fast as lightning was sent. “What God hath wrought.”
It was man, not God. The grandiose 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 connected to the first Internet.
Before that, news from Philadelphia or Baltimore came three days after the fact. It took 12 days to get information from New Orleans. Pittsburgh did much of its business there. 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 because people near telegraph lines were getting information so much sooner.
Pittsburgh’s initial lightning message was sent on Dec. 29, 1846.
It reported local troops were about to go downriver to help take what became California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico away from Mexico.
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. It also inspired the Mexican War Streets housing development on the North Side.
How Messengers Were Supposed to Look
How They Really Looked
Working Out the Kinks
Telegraphy was all about startups, questionable technology, lawsuits and uncertain 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 telegraph offices typically were in hotels or in the new train stations going up. Each 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. He’d send the same message back to verify the contents, Then, he handed 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. Printers got pushed aside.
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.
The ambitious 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. Carnegie rose rapidly in one of the nation’s biggest companies. Soon he was the head of the railroad division. Scott also advised Carnegie on investments. That 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 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. Use of code continues today with all oil company emails automatically encrypted).
“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. . . “
At the time the story was written, Alexander Graham Bell’s device was making its way into Pittsburgh businesses. That was thanks to Thomas Edison and T.B.A. David, a local telegraph executive. They envisioned a talking telegraph.
The telephone allowed direct voice communication between two people. Of course, both had to have a telephone.
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 today. Check that story here.
Of course, there is more to the story of Samuel Morse.
Aside from being an accomplished painter and a communications pioneer, Morse wrote stridently in support of slavery as the will of God. He also railed against Catholicism and immigrants.
Just saying. When in front of a wizard, look behind the curtain.