"Wiring a Continent"

The History of The Telegraph Industry in the United States, 1832-1866

by Robert Luther Thompson
Published by Princeton University Press 1947

This book is a scholarly history of early telegraphy in the United States.

The book begins with an excellent account of S.F.B Morse and the struggle to prove the practicality of the Morse system of telegraphy. After this excellent beginning, the book dwells on various financial dealings and intricacies of early telegraph business which I found quite boring. The typical wheeling and dealing of any type of high-risk business is covered in excrutiating detail. The book ultimately leads the reader to understand the emergence of the first major corporation in the United States which was formed by merging the numerous smaller telegraph companies that sprang up in the early years after the telegraph was proved practical. This corporation was the Western Union Telegraph Company.

In a welcome break from the wheeling and dealing, a chapter about the early relationship between the railroad and the telegraph makes for interesting reading. It is interesting to note that the railroad was hesitant to use the telegraph for many years, and yet the railroad was the last user of the Morse telegraph in the US. The following chapter covers the emergence of the Associated press which is also quite interesting.

The story of the transcontinental telegraph is well covered. Also the bizarre attempt to link North America with Europe via Siberia makes for fascinating reading.

The book includes several interesting plates and maps and an exhaustive appendix.

This book is not for the casual reader. With the few exceptions noted above this is an academic style history which makes for some pretty dry reading. Only real die-hard telegraph history buffs will really appreciate the majority of this book.

Greg Raven, January 11, 1995

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