Telegraphy Goes to War
This is the third in a series of four posts on the memoirs of T.B.A. David, an unheralded man involved in many historic events. He introduced Pittsburgh to telephones, typewriters, and the word “hello.” In this segment, he advances war-time communication, and is treated by a “mad scientist.” Of course, I venture down a few curious sidetracks. (This post stands on its own, but if you want to read others in the series, see menu at left.)
Soon after the election of Mr. Lincoln, I was asked . . . to keep a close watch on what transpired along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. . . I got to know what operators were loyal men, and having a very thorough general knowledge of conditions throughout the state. . . I was put in charge of all wires in Western Virginia. . . I built the first Telegraph line following an army.
In view . . . of how necessary and useful the Telegraph was in the war, it will surprise some to learn that regular army officers opposed its use at first, believing the system of couriers was more suitable.
. . . I personally “took the field” with a company of detailed soldiers, followed the army from Clarksburg to Rich Mountain battlefield, and thence to Beverly, and on to the top of Allegheny Mountain.
I was on Rich Mountain battlefield the morning after the battle. Although this battle was but a small affair when compared with those that followed in the war, it was a new and trying experience.
The day was cold and rainy. Lying on the ground under the porch of the only house (which was being used as a hospital) were wounded men covered with blankets, and around were pathetic evidences of the surgeons’ work.
The faces of the soldiers who stood about showed plainly the impression that was being made: that this was to be no holiday affair.
Some rebel prisoners passing my tent were awakened to the fact that the Government was in dead earnest, for, seeing the wire, one exclaimed, “My God, fellows! Here is a Telegraph office!”
With Lincoln in the Situation Room
In 1862, I was ordered to Washington . . . I saw Mr. Lincoln several times, when he had come over to the War Department Telegraph Office to learn “the situation” . . .
The result of my visit was my being ordered to St. Louis to reorganize the Military Telegraph in . . . parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri . . .
Probably at no period of my life did I have so trying experience as at this time. . .
I was constantly menaced by the fear that at the supreme moment the Telegraph might fail. The lines were all within territory infested by “Bushwhackers” (outlaws attached to, or in sympathy with the rebel army), and subjected to their depredations.
This, added to the other causes of interruption, made it that I always went to bed with an anxiety that disturbed, if it did not prevent sleep.
His anxiety hints at what befell him after the war.
In 1864, . . .Western Union Telegraph Company, having grown to such proportions that closer supervision was needed, I was tendered the position of Superintendent of one of the divisions. (The company had been nationalized by the government and later returned to stockholders). The Secretary of War being assured that I would still be able to give good service to the war, consented to accept my resignation, which bore the following endorsement:
“I respectfully ask that Captain T. B. A. David’s resignation be duly accepted. Capt. D. was the first to take the field in the U. S. Military Telegraph Service after the breaking out of the rebellion. He has served to the present time with great ability and with untiring energy and devotion in promoting the public service.
It Doesn’t Take a Weatherman
I entered upon my work as a superintendentof the Western Union Company February 1st, 1864, at Columbus, Ohio, but a year later I moved to Pittsburgh. In those days, we used voltaic (acid and zinc) batteries, and one of the several and varied duties of a superintendent was to determine. . . what the weather would be . . . in order that. . . the batteries might be increased or diminished as the conditions demanded.
I had experienced all of the trials incident to Telegraph lines in bad weather, and had watched storms and wind currents with no little interest for years. . . I did gather enough information to enable me . . .to make as fair a guess . . . at what the weather might be on the following day, by reckoning from the weather conditions at certain distant places.
Telegraphers to the west could telegraph weather reports to him. He knew their weather was headed his way.
I cannot say that we did better than the “Weather Bureau” does today, but I am sure we did as well. . .
Suffers a ‘Nervous Breakdown‘
. . . In 1869, I withdrew to engage in other business. In 1872, I was stricken with nervous prostration, and for two years was unable to do any work.
There were times when I thought I would be bereft wholly of reason. The doctors gave me no relief, nor any considerable encouragement, and I had about come to the conclusion that my days of usefulness were over . . .
Terms such as “nervous prostration” and “nervous breakdown” are no longer used. You can find them on old gravestones, along with “hysteria.”
They once referred to a wide variety of severe mental problems. Modern labels include depression or anxiety.
Considering his war-time service, it seems likely today he would be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Treatment for that typically involves counseling and drugs.
If T.B.A. David had those options, he wasn’t satisfied with the result.
. . .The late William Coleman advised me to consult Dr. Brown-Sequard, then regarded as the highest authority on nervous disorders, who was on a visit to this country, which I did, and had to undergo some heroic treatment, in which an iron, at white heat, was used repeatedly. . .
Yes, you read that right! T.B.A. David’s anxiety was treated by repeatedly burning him with white-hot irons applied to various points on his body.
Does that sound barbarous? Does it sound like quackery?
Well, remember, doctors today poison us with radiation and chemicals to stop our overactive cells — cancer cells. Like T.B.A. David, such patients are considered heroic. What will people a century from now say about that?
The ‘Mad Scientist’
I should note that Dr. Brown-Sequard is considered something of a medical genius, albeit an eccentric one. That’s the polite term. You can call him crazy, if you like.
He did a lot of wild experiments, often on himself. I’ll give you one example: Dr. Brown-Sequard once covered himself in varnish to learn about skin, and to see what would happen.
“I am dying,” he dutifully wrote in his notes.
A student assistant reportedly saved him with sandpaper. Seriously. Sandpaper.
He is known by medical students today as the guy who first postulated the idea of hormones.
That, and his observations of spinal injuries, was enough to assure him a bronze bust or two at medical colleges. But he never stopped going — toward the edge.
As age took its toll, he injected secretions from dog testicles into himself. His voice broke like an adolescent as he declared it a Fountain of Youth.
No, just kidding. His voice sounded like an old man’s. But, he wrote his findings in a scientific paper — one of 500-plus papers he published in his time.
Newspapers jumped on board. People all over started getting injections of doggy juice. That took balls.
One was James “Pud” Galvin, an aging Pittsburgh/Allegheny City . . .ahem, ballplayer. He got his performance-enhancing shot at a local hospital. “Pud” pitched a shutout and hit two home runs. (See details on that and more on the doctor’s long career in links at the end of this post).
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
Before we move on, you should know that you likely have encountered the good doctor in horror movies and books.
As you might imagine, he is thought to have inspired many to write “mad scientists” into their stories.
In creepy Victorian London, Dr. Brown-Sequard lived next door to the man who wrote “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Robert Louis Stevenson never said he based the story on his, either, neighbor. He did say it was inspired by a nightmare. I wouldn’t sleep well either, with such a neighbor.
Back to Work
Our Forrest Gump of the 1800s doesn’t say the doctor’s white-hot irons cured him. However, he did get back to work. It was work that changed Pittsburgh.
When passing from the hands of Dr. Brown-Sequard, he warned me never again to take up any business that would tax me severely.
Puzzled to know just what to turn to, as all business is trying, I finally decided to return to Pittsburgh and establish a system of local Telegraph, which would put all of the larger manufacturers in communication with each other by means of Printing Telegraph instruments, through a central office.
Up to this time all communication between them was by mail or by personal interview. This was in 1874. . . The manufacturers readily took up with the plan, and within a few months the system was in full operation.
Getting on the Telephone
This business associated him with Thomas Edison and other such start-up people. All were working to create talking telegraphic equipment, which came to be called telephones.
Edison was a former telegraph operator like T.B.A. David. Edison got virtually all his research & development money from Western Union.
So, T.B.A. David often was right next to Edison. But, he could get sidetracked.
. . . I had to visit New York frequently, and . . . wandering up Broadway, my attention was attracted by a notice in a window of a mechanical writing machine.
Having some taste for mechanics I went in and spent most of the afternoon with the inventor. The next day I was again in that neighborhood and was invited in to be told of the distress they were laboring under, and it ended in my leaving the room the owner of fourteen machines.
What I was to do with them when I got home troubled me for they were wholly outside of my business. It was only after great effort that I was able to dispose of them, mostly to preachers.
That is how the “Typewriter” was introduced to Pittsburgh.
This was at the beginning of writing machines. I don’t know what T.B.A. David’s machines looked like, but some early ones were inspired by pianos. They even had ebony and ivory keys.
None of the designs were particularly useful. T.B.A. David apparently was just trying to help out one in a multitude of typewriter tinkerers.
Over the next two decades, useful writing machines were developed and went into full production. Kittanning had a big factory, producing what came to be known as the Pittsburg Visible Writing Machine.
Now Then, Pittsburgh previously looked into that and the QWERTY keyboard we still use today.
But, T.B.A. David and Edison were more interested in machines that talked. We’ll get into that in the final post in this series.