Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Telegraphy: The Time-Space Governmentality, Part II

Posted on | January 22, 2011 | No Comments

This continues the argument started in Part I

What Hath God Wrought?

It is generally acknowledged that Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph, but the painter and NYU professor can nevertheless be credited with its rapid development and commercialization. Morse first became enamored with the idea of transmitting “intelligence” by electricity on a transatlantic trip from Europe in 1832 after the topic of electromagnetism came up during a dinner conversation. Unaware of the difficulty others had getting a signal to travel over wires, he set out first to develop a code that could represent alphanumerical symbols with short and long bursts of electrical current. Inspired by his new communication code, Morse set out over the next five years to assemble the right technology to transmit it. By 1838, he was traveling to Washington, London, and continental Europe to gain support for innovations to make the telegraph work better.

Morse obtained a $30,000 grant from the US Congress in 1842 to construct a telegraph line using simplified technology that made and broke a circuit producing dashes and dots of sound that a trained operator could interpret and send.[9] He hired Ezra Cornell, the future head of Western Union and founder of Cornell University to design and build a machine that would lay the telegraph cable underground. Morse and Cornell built the line between Washington DC and Baltimore (but not underground) during 1843 and Morse sent the famous message “What hath God wrought?” on May 24, 1844. Morse’s system of a transmission system plus a learnable code helped standardize an economic, workable telegraph model.

The basic components of the Morse code were electrical signals sent through the network and interpreted by the human receiver as a “dot” or a “dash.” These were standardized in International Morse code with set time durations to distinguish between the two elemental code signals.[10] The dot was set as a very minimal duration while the dash was equal to three times the duration of the dot. The time between each element, character, and word was also important. The time between each dot or dash was one dot while the time between each character was three dots. The time between words was supposed to equal seven dots. No electrical current flowed through the telegraph line during the idle time between elements, characters, and words. The telegraph was very labor intensive and furthermore, required very particular and demanding skills. [11]

While most considered the telegraph a novelty at first, its fame grew and it began to attract private capital. In May of 1845, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed and soon lines were being built from New York to Boston, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and points further west. The initial fee: twenty-five cents for ten words.[12] Morse’s telegraphic code quickly became the standard language of the telegraph and it attracted the attention of many new companies. Some licensed his patents while others tried to implement rival technologies like Royal Hause’s printing telegraph. By 1851, over 50 different US companies were in operation.

The transport of electrical signals over metallic wires resulted in almost instantaneous transmission across large distances for the first time. Despite high prices, it was often much more economical than a communication system dependent on the available modes of transportation, such as steamships and locomotives, stagecoaches, and even the famed “Pony Express.” News traveled quickly, prices of goods synchronized between different geographical areas, and the West was tamed as descriptions of outlaws were quickly distributed. By 1900, in the era of J.P. Morgan, the modern mentality had incorporated new modes of space, time, and institution.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2022, Oct 11). Telegraphy: The Time-Space Governmentality, Part II.


[9] Clarke, A. (1974) Voice Across the Sea. New York: Harper & Row. p. 22. Morse information. This is Arthur C. Clarke of satellite and sci-fi fame.
[10] The International Morse code was most prevalent of its variants.
[11] My familiarity with the technical aspects of the telegraph was enhanced by the website of Jared Hall entitled “A Brief History of Data Communications”. Last Revised in December 1996.
[12] Standage, T. (1998) The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. NY: Berkley Books. pp. 25-55.

This is will be continued in a future posts on Ezra Cornell and Western and another on Lincoln and the Telegraphic War.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global communications.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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