Long distance communication and transportation have historically been struggles in America. Long roads, bad roads, and many times no roads at all have slowed the movement of people, goods, and ideas all over. Fortunately, Americans turned this challenge into an opportunity with new inventions and industries that have improved our lives in many ways.
It’s easy today to take long distance calling, good highways, and next day delivery for granted, but these were all distant dreams in the 19th century. As new inventions were created and became available for use, they had dramatic impacts on the every day lives of ordinary Americans- sometimes in ways you might not expect.
Maybe it was just pure luck, but Pennsylvania happened to be at the heart of many 19th century technological advances that made transportation and communication possible over long distances. Conestoga wagons, invented by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, made travel easier on the region’s rocky, rutted, and muddy roads (and also where there were no roads at all). No surprise that generations of settlers moving out west made Conestoga wagons the vehicle of choice to move their families and possessions westward across the continent. Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Hudson Railway was one of the first American railroad companies and was the first to operate a locomotive on rails in the United States in 1829. The Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered in 1846, became the largest railroad in America and helped move freight and good all over the country.
One story from Pennsylvania’s innovative past you may not have heard of comes to us from Lancaster County. In the late 1840s, both the curious and the suspicious were introduced to a rudimentary new technology: the telegraph. We all know that the telegraph was the basis for our modern electronic communication networks, but the first people to see a telegraph had mixed feelings about the new machine.
Just a year after Samuel Morse tested the first experimental telegraph in Washington D.C., the first commercial telegraph was completed between Harrisburg and Lancaster. According to an 1897 lecture by telegraph pioneer William Bender Wilson, the line raised the eyebrow of more than one Pennsylvania Dutch farmer when operators were finally able to get everything working properly:
“During the short life of the line it created quite a stir in the sister counties of Dauphin and Lancaster. The copper wire conductor, stretched tightly between poles, gave the wintry blasts the opportunity of producing somewhat musical, weird and fantastic sounds that could be heard for some distance, to the great discomfort of the rustics. The public mind having somewhat of a superstitious bend, many people in the neighborhood of the line, alarmed by the sounds proceeding from the wire as the wind swept over it, would walk a very considerable distance out of their way, often placing themselves at great inconvenience, particularly after sundown, to avoid passing under or near it. Many dismal stories were told of its supernatural powers, and one woman actually fenced in a pole to prevent her cow rubbing against it, fearing that the milk might be spoiled.”
Some Pennsylvanians like Wilson were quick to embrace the telegraph and set to work building more lines and integrating telegraph communication into government and business routines. The U.S. Army was an nearly adopter, and had a large telegraph corps ready for action by the time the Civil War began. But some locals didn’t quite understand the uses and limits of telegraph technology. As Wilson recorded, there were also people ready to take advantage of their misunderstanding to trick their neighbors:
“David Lechler, a well-kept and humorous man, was the proprietor of ‘The North American House,’ where the office in Lancaster was located, and made the telegraph the basis for playing many pranks upon the public. At this day few can credit the curiosity and credulity which characterized the people in connection with the telegraph, and how few had even an idea of the principles governing it. Lechler, discerning the trend of the mind of the people, turned it to advantage in fun-making, and undertook to unfold the mysteries to those who visited his house. It was his great delight on market mornings together a crowd of countrymen and women in the barroom, and then explain to them in Pennsylvania Dutch the wonders of the great invention. There was no story that he could invent or apply, or that credulity would accept in connection with the telegraph that he did not relate. As soon as his harangue had raised the curiosity of his hearers to the highest notch he would hurriedly enter the room where the telegraph office was located and immediately returning, would show a pair of hose, a handkerchief or a newspaper which he had previously punctured with holes, as specimens of the telegraph’s possibilities, at the same time gravely saying: ‘I received these in just forty seconds from Philadelphia.’ There were none to doubt Lechler’s word or to take into consideration that the line did not extend to Philadelphia, but all, with open-eyed wonder, tried to account for the articles passing over and around the cross-arms [of the telegraph poles] They were satisfied, however, with Lechler’s explanation, that the process was the inventor’s secret which he dared not divulge.”
The pranks and falsehoods that Lechler pulled over the people of Lancaster sound to me a little like the humbuggery that P.T. Barnum was famous for in New York City and all over the east coast in the mid 19th century. If you ever get a chance to read Barnum’s autobiography, you can find dozens of stories like this one, though Barnum was always deceiving other for profit or personal gain. I’m sure Barnum would have been impressed with Lechler’s telegraph prank, though he would have been disappointed that he didn’t make any money off of the trick. The telegraph was one of many new inventions of the 19th century that clever/deceitful operators were able to use to fool the general public- sometimes for a laugh and sometimes to make a buck (to learn more look up Ajeeb the checkers playing robot or the legions of patent medicine inventors of the day).
Despite misunderstandings and misrepresentations, it wasn’t long before telegraph lines criss crossed the United States. William Wilson began his career as a messenger boy for the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company in 1852, and a few years later began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad as an expert telegrapher. During the Civil War he served in the United States Military Telegraph Corps and opened the world’s first military telegraph office in Harrisburg, PA. When Wilson died in 1919, telegraphs and telephone lines linked practically every town and village. And a few years after that, radio would come to prominence and connect everywhere that lines couldn’t go.
New technology, especially when its not widely understood, can be seem equally wondrous and dangerous. The first few years of the telegraph were no exception for many Pennsylvanians. Lots of people today are pretty anxious about new technology too- from drones to internet hacking and the government surveilling our every move. I wonder how historians will write about the impact of technology on early 21st century America?