"The Telegraph A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States" by Lewis Coe, a review by Gregory Raven

McFarland & Company, Inc. 1993
TK5115.C54 1993

This book is a general history of the telegraph from the perspective of its development in the United States. Lewis Coe was himself employed as a telegrapher on the Rock Island Railroad. Mr. Coe is also a member of the Morse Telegraph Club, and some of the material in this book was drawn from the quarterly publication Dots and Dashes, which is its official publication.

The book begins with a brief history of the precursors of the electromagnetic telegraph, meaning various methods of visual signalling. Coe has done more than the usual research on this subject, having previously published the excellent "Great Days of the Heliograph" which covered the use of reflected sunlight as a means of communication. The suprising overlap of visual and electromagnetic signalling techniques in the 19th century is explained, and the story proves to be quite fascinating.

Moving on to the early beginnings of electrical signalling, the efforts of European scientists and inventors are prominently acknowledged. This second chapter titled "Quick as Lightning !" is interesting in that its intention is to discuss numerous telegraphic topics while simultaneously avoiding the discussion of Morse. It seems as though this chapter's purpose is to document many important facts to get them out of the way before proceeding with the rest of the telegraph's history. It is very interesting reading, however, it is important to note that this book is not a chronological history.

"Father of the Telegraph" is the story of Samuel F.B. Morse and his contributions to telegraphy. This has to be the most balanced presentation of this subject I have encountered. Most histories tend to paint Morse as the sole idea man and implementor of the telegraph. Morse had plenty of help, as Coe describes in detail. Probably the most significant contributor was Alfred Vail, both financially and technically. Coe gives Vail as much credit as possible, with the caveat that it will never be known just how much Vail contributed due to the contractual agreement whereby all credit was assigned to Morse. Coe's chapter on the invention of the Morse telegraph is very readable and balanced. It is interesting to note that Morse is more generally known as an a distinguished early American painter. Included at the end of the chapter is a list of Morse's best known paintings and their current location.

The remainder of the book covers various facets of the history and application of the telegraph. Also included is a chapter that explains how the telegraph worked from a very practical point of view. Coe's experience as a telegraph operator allowed him to write in detail on subjects a non-operator historian simply could not touch. "Learning the Trade" is short, but is a fascinating explanation of how Morse code was taught to prospective operators. The history of the transcontinental and undersea telegraphs are well covered, as well as the association of the railroad and the telegraph.

Coe concludes his book with a chapter on the emergence of wireless communications, and finally the explanation of the replacement of the manually operated telegraph with modern automated technologies. A short discussion of the collecting of telegraph instruments is included and is accompanied by several photos of instruments in Mr. Coe's collection.

I consider "The Telegraph" the best general history of Morse telegraphy that is available today. Unlike books written by academics the text is highly readable, and yet the facts presented are well documented. An appendix and bibliography are included. Coe's experience as a telegraph operator obviously added much to the book, and his insights into the training and life of a telegraph operator are much appreciated. This book should prove entertaining and informative to anyone interested in any aspect of the telegraph, and I highly recommend it.

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