The Telegraph

by Pessimists Archive

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” And he was hardly a lone voice that questioned, feared, or outright opposed the telegraph after it was introduced in the mid-1800s. It was humanity’s first taste of mass communications, and immediately triggered the same concerns about information overload, frivolous communications, loss of privacy, and moral corruption that today we blame on the internet. In this episode, we trace today’s concerns back to their origins.


• Tom Sandage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers

The Ocean Telegraph–Relative Benefits and Evils, The New York Times 1858

Letters vs. Telegrams, The New York Times 1885

The Use and Abuse of Ocean Telegraphy, The New York Times 1872

• Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life

• David Hochfelder’s The Telegraph in America: 1832-1920

• James Schwoch’s Wired into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier

• Thomas C. Jepsen’s My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in Telegraph Office 1846-1950

• Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstances

• Clive Thompson’s Collision Detection post about Wired Love” 

• The New York Times story about a telegram that was believed to swing an election.

Telephone and Telegraph, Vocational Guidance Films – 1946

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