When the Telegraph Lines Connects Pennsylvania

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Many of the most memorable inventions of the 19th century aided transportation and communication, as seen in this 1876 Currier & Ives print. Library of Congress.

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.

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Conestoga wagons were also known as covered wagons or prairie schooners to settlers moving to the American West. Landis Valley Farm Museum.

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.

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Telegraph lineman in Kentucky, circa 1916. Library of Congress.

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.”

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The first four members of the United States Military Telegraph Corps in Harrisburg, 1861. Library of Congress.

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.”

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Telegraph office in the White House, 1902. Library of Congress.

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.

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Postal telegraph messengers in Indianapolis, 1908. Library of Congress.

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?

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Soap Sandwich (James Thurber on Daytime Radio)

Radios became extremely popular and widespread in the late 1920s and especially the 1930s, in no small part because of soap operas. Writing a decade later, this is what writer James Thurber had to say about the new kind of entertainment that still dominates daytime entertainment:

“A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.”

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Cast of the “Ma Perkins” radio show, a popular soap opera. Image source: otrcat.com
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James Thurber (right). Image source: xroads.virgina.edu

Thurber was a humorist and writer in the same vein as Mark Twain. He was most famous for his articles and drawings in The New Yorker, but my favorite work from him is The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), which features “Soapland,” the best history and commentary on the soap opera that I’ve ever seen. Definitely worth a read!

There is a section in Internet Archives called “Old Time Radio” where you can listen to thousands recordings from the early years of radio. There are tons of good soap operas available here too. Listen and see if you agree with Thurber’s description!

War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)

My first experience with War of the Worlds was pretty frightening, to say the least. It was in second grade, and I was sick with pink eye on Halloween day. I was home with Dad, and for reasons I can’t remember why anymore, we decided to watch the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. Though I thought I was brave enough for an ‘old people’ movie, I never made it to the end. Too scary for me. And to this day, I haven’t ever gone back and finished the film. Maybe I never will, who knows?

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A lot of accounts of the famous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds sound like my own experience with the terrifying tale of alien invasion. There are a lot of newspaper headlines from the next day that read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama on as Fact,” or something similar, painting a picture of masses of listeners confused, scared, or some mix of emotions that resulted in general panic and outrage. As a result, fire was added to ongoing debates about radio and its influence on society, and Orson Welles earned a reputation as a dramatic actor that would help him have a long and storied career.

Orson Welles
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Now, there seem to be two schools of thought about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and its reception: 1- it scared tons of people, or 2- it didn’t scare anyone at all. Its easy to search the internet for sensational headlines about the War of the Worlds panic, and there are still a lot of accounts of millions of Americans who believed that invasion was upon them. In 1940 Hadley Cantril, a big name at the time in radio research, co-authored a book with Herta Herzog and Hazel Gaudet called The Invasion from Mars. Using data from the American Institute of Public Opinion, the book claimed that over one million people believed that the broadcast was a report of a real-life invasion and was not made-up at all. Continue reading “War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)”