July 25th, 1837 – The First Commercial Telegraph

Today-In-History

The first commercial electrical telegraph, the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph, was co-developed by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. In May 1837 they patented a telegraph system which used a number of needles on a board that could be moved to point to letters of the alphabet. The patent recommended a five-needle system, but any number of needles could be used depending on the number of characters it was required to code. A four-needle system was installed between Euston and Camden Town in London on a rail line being constructed by Robert Stephenson between London and Birmingham. It was successfully demonstrated on July 25th, 1837. Euston needed to signal to an engine house at Camden Town to start hauling the locomotive up the incline. As at Liverpool, the electric telegraph was in the end rejected in favor of a pneumatic system with whistles.

Scientific Identity, Portrait of Charles Wheatstone

Wheatstone (left) and Cooke (right)

Cooke and Wheatstone had their first commercial success with a system installed on the Great Western Railway over the 13 miles (21 km) from Paddington station to West Drayton in 1838, the first commercial telegraph in the world. This was a five-needle, six-wire system. The cables were originally installed underground in a steel conduit. However, the cables soon began to fail as a result of deteriorating insulation and were replaced with uninsulated wires on poles. As an interim measure, a two-needle system was used with three of the remaining working underground wires, which despite using only two needles had a greater number of codes. But when the line was extended to Slough in 1843, a one-needle, two-wire system was installed.

800px-Cooke_and_Wheatstone_electric_telegraphFrom this point the use of the electric telegraph started to grow on the new railways being built from London. The Blackwall Tunnel Railway (another rope-hauled application) was equipped with the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph when it opened in 1840, and many others followed. The one-needle telegraph proved highly successful on British railways, and 15,000 sets were still in use at the end of the nineteenth century. Some remained in service in the 1930s. In September 1845 the financier John Lewis Ricardo and Cooke formed the Electric Telegraph Company, the first public telegraphy company in the world. This company bought out the Cooke and Wheatstone patents and solidly established the telegraph business.

As well as the rapid expansion of the use of the telegraphs along the railways, they soon spread into the field of mass communication with the instruments being installed in post offices across the country. The era of mass personal communication had begun.


 

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