first "Internet" went live in 1854.|
They didn't call it the Internet,
of course. The new marvel that connected ante-bellum Texas with the outside world
was known as the electric telegraph, the invention of Samuel B. Morse.
patented his design in 1837, only a year after the Alamo. In 1838, he offered
to give his new invention to the new Republic of Texas, but President Sam Houston
did not even extend Morse the courtesy of a reply.
Though snubbed by Texas,
Morse and assistant Alfred Vail went on to develop an alphabet code of dots and
dashes and strung wire between Washington and Baltimore. Over that line on May
24, 1844 Morse transmitted his famous first message: "What hath God wrought?"
Not quite a decade later, on Feb. 14, 1854, the Texas and Red River Telegraph
Co. opened for business in Marshall,
the first city in the state to have some semblance of the instant communication
now taken for granted in the age of Blackberries and Ipods.
telegraph line connected Marshall
with New Orleans via Shreveport, Alexandria, La., and Natchez, Miss. From New
Orleans, messages could be transmitted to other major American cities.
the seat of Harrison County could boast of being the most wired city in Texas,
it didn't last long. That same year, the company extended its wire to Henderson,
While East Texans could send and receive telegrams, the service did not
become available in Austin and San
Antonio until 1865, shortly after the Civil War. A year later, Western Union
began operations in the state, but Dallas
and Fort Worth did not go "on
line" with telegraph connections until 1872-1874. Corpus
Christi and Brownsville
had to wait until 1875.
Also in the first half of the 1870s, the military's
Signal Corps strung wire in West Texas and along the Rio Grande, allowing its
frontier posts to keep in touch with each other as well as headquarters in near
Texas began getting telephones in the 1880s, but for decades,
the telegram remained the prime medium for rapid-if-usually-brief communication.
Compared with sending a first class letter for a penny stamp, telegrams were expensive.
For a time, a person could get a telegram delivered inside a 25-mile radius for
25 cents, but service providers eventually started charging by the word.
led to an economy of words in composing messages. Senders omitted non-necessary
words, resulting in to-the-point communication. Adding to the terse nature of
these messages, telegraphers inserted the word "stop" between sentences.
No matter the cost, Texans sent a lot of telegrams. From Oct. 1, 1879 to July
1, 1880, more than a quarter million messages flowed through the wire from Western
Union offices across the state.
Never reluctant to miss out on a revenue
stream, Texas state officials tried to tax the telegraph company for each message
it transmitted in or out of Texas. The company refused to pony up, triggering
a law suit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before ending favorably
for Western Union.
In an even more obscure lawsuit, a bereaved Texas Ranger
sued the telegraph company for damages over what he alleged was too-slow delivery
of a wire informing him that his mother lay critically ill. Before he could reach
her bedside, she had died.
Though more than a score telegraph companies
had been chartered in Texas since ante-bellum times, by the third decade of the
20th century, Western Union had only one significant competitor in the state,
the Postal Telegraph-Cable Co. As of 1938, Western Union provided service in 228
of the state's 254 counties, maintaining 12,400 miles of poles and 80,700 miles
Western Union and Postal merged in the fall of 1943, leaving
Texas with more than 1,800 telegraph offices. During World War II, those offices
delivered thousands of telegrams informing Texans they had lost a loved one in
Telegrams also brought good news - babies born, congratulations
extended, jobs offered, safe arrivals and birthday wishes.
With the continued
growth of telephone service, by the 1970s receiving a telegram had become something
of a rarity. Western Union, as railroad companies providing passenger service
had already done, began scaling back. On Feb. 9, 1972, Western Union closed its
office in Marshall, an irony that
probably went unnoticed by a communications giant more concerned with the bottom
line than sentimentality.
A quarter century later, as email began to surpass
what came to be called snail mail as the primary means of written communication,
Western Union continued to provide telegram and commercial messaging services.
But by then, telegrams had become almost as rare as passenger pigeons - or trains.
last January 27, the company announced it would no longer transmit telegrams.
To invoke the now-archaic language of the wire, for Texas that meant "end era…Stop."