The surprising message of Lancaster’s first commercial telegraph

“What hath God wrought!”

You may recognize those words. They were the historic first message sent via the telegraph. That message was sent by none other than Samuel Morse, inventor of both the electromagnetic telegraph and Morse Code, on May 24, 1844, to officially open the Baltimore–Washington telegraph line. The phrase is found in the Bible specifically the Book of Numbers (Numbers 23:23).

The first telegram. Professor Samuel Morse sending the dispatch as dictated by Miss Annie Ellsworth
The first telegram. Professor Samuel Morse sending the dispatch as dictated by Miss Annie Ellsworth.

A year earlier, in 1843, Morse and Alfred Vail received funding from the U.S. Congress to set up and test their telegraph system between Washington and Baltimore. Vail, Morse’s colleague, received Morse’s message in Baltimore and then successfully returned it back to Morse in the national Capitol Building’s Rotunda.

With this successful test of the telegraph in 1844, the potential for worldwide communication was instantly changed. Plans to build commercial telegraph lines were quickly developed. The first contract awarded was to provide service between Lancaster and Harrisburg with a project completion goal of January 1, 1846.

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The telegraph comes to Lancaster

Construction began on November 10, 1846, when the “first foot of wire was erected on a fine, star-lit morning, upon a pole adjoining the outer bridge at Lancaster.” Wires were strung on crude chestnut poles about a hundred yards apart, with wrappings of gummed cloth on the crossarms for insulation. Sixteen days later, on Thanksgiving night, the wire reached its destination in Harrisburg.

On January 1, 1846, the first telegraph instruments arrived in Lancaster, to be operated by Henry O’Reilly, a friend of Morse. The relays were wound with heavy wire and weighed almost 250 pounds each. However, attempts to send a message were unsuccessful until on January 8, when an accidental adjustment to the instruments resulted in a sudden clatter of dots and dashes. It was at that moment that the first message over a commercial telegraph line was sent.

So what was that message?

It read, “Why don’t you write, you rascals??”

Roadside marker in Pennsylvania commemorating the first commercial telegraph message. It reads, "Why don't you write, you rascals?"
Roadside marker in Pennsylvania commemorating the first commercial telegraph message.

Despite an enormous amount of interest and excitement about the telegraph, there wasn’t much profit. On its first day, Harrisburg received ten cents. Lancaster performed even worse, earning only six and a quarter cents. None of the messages on that first day were business-related, simply curiosity seekers fascinated to see how a name would appear written in dots and dashes.

Technophobia

Not everyone was curious, though. Many were terrified of the new technology. One man said he saw a pigeon electrocuted after landing on the wires. Other people reported that birds were often found dead beneath the cables.

Those who lived near the wire complained of a humming sound as if “some divinity held conversations with the winds.” Travelers kept as far away as possible from the humming wires out of fear of being zapped dead.

One frighted woman carefully put a fence around the telegraph pole near her home to prevent her cow from touching it. She claimed the cow had rubbed against the pole spoiling the animal’s milk and bewitching the beast. Others carefully watched from a distance to see if it would happen again.

Others were simply confused when it came to the telegraph’s capabilities. Visitors to the office at the North American Hotel were told by a mischievous hotel proprietor that objects like handkerchiefs, newspapers, and stockings could be sent along the wires.

Ahead of Its Time

The primitive line was plagued with frequent problems with the instruments only remained in adjustment for a few minutes at a time. After two months, the line went out of business. The company sold the copper wire to pay the operator’s expenses and waited for more public support of telegraphic communication.

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