On January 6, 1838, painter Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) gave his first public demonstration of his new telegraph system. Within a few years, telegraph lines were strung across the United States and the Atlantic, completely changing the nature of long distance communication. By the end of the nineteenth century telegraph lines could be found in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. It was the first method of high-speed communications, a concept that has been expanded greatly since 1838.
Before the invention of the telegraph, postal services and messengers were the only common methods of sending information over long distances and even across oceans. Such methods required days or weeks for messages to reach their recipients.
Before Samuel Morse’s development, other inventors had created methods of sending messages quickly. However, all the previous methods had been complicated. Semaphores, smoke signals, reflecting mirrors, and other systems required clear, line-of-sight weather conditions. Several inventors created methods of sending messages by using electricity but the early systems were complicated and expensive.
Samuel Morse and his assistants developed a very simple method that was much cheaper than previous inventions. The telegraph sent an electric signal across a wire to a receiver at the other end. All the system needed was a key, a battery, wire and a line of poles between stations for the wire and a receiver.
The operators did have to learn a new code, soon dubbed the “Morse Code.” The code assigned letters in the alphabet and numbers a set of dots (short marks) and dashes (long marks) based on the frequency of use; letters used often (such as “E”) got a simple code, while those used infrequently (such as “Q”) got a longer and more complex code.
The use of telegraphs spread quickly. The Western Union Company was formed and started selling the communications service. In the process, the company strung wires across the country making it the first nationwide telegraph company. Telegraph systems spread across the world, as well. Extensive systems appeared across Europe by the later part of the 19th century, and by 1866 the first permanent telegraph cable had been successfully laid across the Atlantic Ocean; there were 40 such telegraph lines across the Atlantic by 1940.
The electric telegraph transformed how wars were fought and won and how journalists and newspapers conducted business. The telegraph also had a profound economic effect, allowing money to be “wired” across great distances.
You can read more about Samuel Morse and the telegraph in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Morse.