Saturday, February 22, 2014

23. Communication in the 19th Century: the Telegraph

I'm currently taking a communication history class, and almost every lecture of it is like a little discovery for me. I had never studied the history of American journalism in so much detail, but I think it is particularly important to do so for anyone going into the field of mass communication. How did the present condition of the industry come into being? Are the ideas we are talking about now really new? How can we assess the present using comparisons with the past? How can we think critically about contemporary media? Studying communication history may help answer these questions.

During our last lecture we talked about communication in the 19th century and its highlights - the telegraph, yellow journalism, stunt reporting, and muckracking. These were very important for the development of communication, so I'd like to talk briefly about each of them. This post is going to be about a revolutionary invention:

The Telegraph
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Developed by Samuel Morse in 1837 in the United States, this invention became truly groundbreaking. It allowed people to send and receive messages nearly instantaneously - it only took a couple minutes for a message to arrive. Before that, national news were delivered via railroads, horses, and pigeons, while international news could only be delivered via ships, which took weeks to cross the ocean. The speed of mass communication was extremely slow, so the telegraph became a turning point in this sense, connecting people as nothing else could at that time.

Abraham Lincoln. Image via
The first telegraph line connected Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in 1844, and the telegraph service expanded rapidly in the next couple of decades. During the Civil War, the telegraph became a tool of Lincoln's leadership, allowing him to directly and actively communicate with the front. He used the telegraph as an information gathering tool as well a medium for counseling on strategy and giving commands.
Cyrus Field. Image via
But probably the most important achievement of the telegraph era was the transatlantic cable, laid by businessman Cyrus Field. It was supposed to connect North America and Europe; however, Field's first attempt in 1858 failed to establish stable communication between the continents. After several unsuccessful attempts, he was finally able to permanently connect the two worlds in 1866, and the contact hasn't been broken ever since. Even today, most communication between America and Europe is still carried via the transatlantic cable, while the telephone, radio, TV, and the Internet are all modern extensions of the telegraph. The famous telecommunications company AT&T still carries  it in its title as it was founded as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1885.

The invention of the telegraph brought many changes to the life of people and journalism in particular:

  • It made the postal service less important, as news no longer had to rely on physical transportation.
  • It altered newspaper content and style. With the adoption of the telegraph for gathering news, newspapers introduced the inverted pyramid style (which is still used today), where the most important information was placed at the top, in the lead paragraph, with the least important information at the bottom of an article. See its principle in the picture below.
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  • The telegraph mechanized and standardized news gathering, allowing newspapers to cut down their staff.
  • Newspapers shifted their emphasis from literary stories to hard news.
  • Newspapers had to cooperate to gather and distribute news. In 1856 five daily NYC newspapers formed the Associated Press(AP) that still exists today. It was founded as a way of cooperation for gathering unbiased news and selling it to other papers.  Today, it is one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the world.

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