The Great-Granddaddy of Emailing

This relic from our collection is a Morse, or electric, telegraph.

Before the advent of the telegraph, the most useful means of long-distance communication were smoke signals or semaphore. With advances in the science of electricity and magnetism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many people experimented with using electricity to transmit communications.  Some successful projects were realized in Europe in the 1820s and 1830s, but in 1837, two separate groups finally conceived the telegraph.  Cooke and Wheatstone in England created a model which was used on British railways through the nineteenth century, up until the 1930s.  Samuel F. B. Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, patented the Morse telegraph in the United States.  In 1844, Morse sent the first telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore.

Samuel F. B. Morse

Samuel F. B. Morse

By 1861, cross-country lines had been laid, and by 1866, transatlantic lines were run.  This long-distance transmission almost instantly changed the face of communication.  Instead of waiting days or weeks for news to arrive, information could be exchanged in a matter of minutes.  The instrument pictured here was donated in 1930 by John C. Rountree.  He was an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad and used the instrument throughout his employment there, from 1875 until 1924, when he retired.  According to his obituary, he always wore a “sand sombrero” and was a well-known figure in the Main Line.

Detail of Morse telegraph

Detail of Morse telegraph, owned and operated by John C. Rountree from 1875 to 1924

Morse code was utilized by telegraph operators, consisting of a series of dots and dashes representing letters. Originally, a marker of some type was used to record the codes, and then a series of embossed symbols, and quickly, operators began sending by key and receiving by ear.  This meant that the operator was essentially able to recite in English what was coming through the telegraph in Morse code.

Samuel K.  Zook

Samuel K. Zook

Samuel K. Zook is best known as a Civil War general, and is buried in Montgomery Cemetery, owned by the Society.  Before his military days, he was a telegraph operator.  He helped to string lines from Norristown to Philadelphia, and worked with crews as far west as the Mississippi River.  Before the war, he was operator and manager for a variety of different telegraph companies, and even contributed some important improvements to the design of the telegraph.


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