History, Theory, and Practice of the Electric Telegraph

By GEORGE B. PRESCOTT, Superintendent of Electric Telegraph Lines. Boston: Ticknor and Fields. 1861. 12mo.
IT may be safely said that no one of the wonder-working agencies of the nineteenth century, of an importance in any degree equal to that of the Electric Telegraph, is so little understood in its practical details by the world at large. Its results come before us daily, to satisfy our morning and evening appetite for news; but how few have a clear knowledge of even the simplest rules which govern its operation, to say nothing of the vast and complicated system by which these results are made so universal! The general intelligence, at present, doubtless outruns the dull apprehension of the typical Hibernian, who, in earlier telegraphic times, wasted the better part of a day in watching for the passage of a veritable letter over the wires ; but even now, — after twenty years of Electric Telegraphy, during which the progress of the magic wire has been so rapid that it has already reached an extent of nearly sixty thousand miles in the United States alone,—even now the ideas of men in general as to the modus operandi of this great agency are, to say the least, extremely vague. Even the chronic and pamphlet-producing quarrel between the managers of our telegraphic system and their Briarean antagonist, the daily-newspaper-press, fails to convey to our general sense anything beyond the impression that the most gigantic benefits may be so abused as to tempt us into an occasional wish that they had never existed.
One reason of this general ignorance has been the absence of any text-book or manual on the subject, giving a clear and thorough exposition of its mysteries. The present is the first American work which takes the subject in hand from the beginning and carries it through the entire process which leads to the results we have spoken of. Its author brings to his work the best possible qualification, — a long familiarity with the subject in the every-day details of its development. His Introduction informs the reader that he has been engaged for thirteen years in the business of practical telegraphing. He is thus sure of his ground, from the best of sources, personal experience.
We shall not criticize the work in detail, but shall rest satisfied with saying that the author has succeeded in his design of making the whole subject clear to any reader who will follow his lucid and systematic exposition. The plan of the work is simple, and the arrangement orderly and proper. A concise statement is given of the fundamental principles of electricity, and of the means of its artificial propagation. This includes, of course, a description of the various batteries used in telegraphing. Then follows a chapter upon electro-magnetism and its application to the telegraph. This prepares the way for a statement of the physical conditions under which the electrical current may be conveyed. The author then describes the instruments necessary for the transmission and recording of intelligible signs, under which general head of “ Electric Telegraph Apparatus ” the various telegraphic systems are made the subject of careful description. A chapter is given to the history of each system, — the Morse, the Needle, the House, the Bain, the Hughes, the Combination, and others of less note. These chapters are very complete and very interesting, embodying, as they do, the history of each instrument, the details of its use, and a statement of its capabilities. The system most used in America is the Combination system, the printing instrument of which is the result of an ingenious combination of the most desirable qualities of the House and Hughes systems. Of this fine instrument a fullpage engraving is given, which, with Mr. Prescott’s careful explanation, renders the recording process very clear.
The next division of the work relates to subterranean and submarine telegraphic lines. Of this the greater portion is devoted to the Atlantic cable, the great success and the great failure of our time. The chapter devoted to this unfortunate enterprise gives the completes! account of its rise, progress, and decline that we have ever seen. It seems to set at rest, so far as evidence can do it, the mooted question whether any message ever did really pass through the submerged cable,— a point upon which there are many unbelievers, even at the present day. We think these unbelievers would do well to read the account before us. Mr. Prescott informs us, that, from the first laying of the cable to the day when it ceased to work, no less than four hundred messages were actually transmitted : one hundred and twenty-nine from Valentia to Trinity Bay, and two hundred and seven ty-one from Trinity Bay to Valentia. The curious reader may find copies of all these messages chronologically set down in this volume. Mr. Prescott expresses entire confidence in the restoration of telegraphic communication between the two hemispheres. It may be reasonably doubted, however, if direct submarine communication will ever be resumed. Two other routes are suggested as more likely to become the course of the international wires. One is that lately examined by Sir Leopold M’Clintock and Captain Young, under the auspices of the British Government. This route, taking the extreme northern coast of Scotland as its point of departure, and touching the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, strikes our continent upon the coast of Labrador, making the longest submarine section eight hundred miles, about one-third the length of the Atlantic cable. There is not a little doubt, however, as to the practicability of this route ; and as the British Government has already expended several hundred thousand pounds in experimenting upon submarine cables, it is not likely that it will venture much more upon any project not holding out a very absolute promise of success, What seems more likely is, that our telegraphic communication with Europe will be made eventually through Asia. Even now the Russian Government is vigorously pushing its telegraphic lines eastward from Moscow; and its own interest affords a strong guaranty that telegraphic communication will soon be established between its commercial metropolis and its military and trading posts on the Pacific border. A project has also recently taken form to establish a line between Quebec and the Hudson Bay Company’s posts north of the Columbia River. With the two extremes so near meeting, a submarine wire would soon be laid over Behring’s Straits, or crossing at a more southern point and touching the Aleutian Islands in its passage.
Two of the chapters of this work will be recognized by readers of the “ Atlantic” as having first appeared in its pages,—a chapter upon the Progress and Present Condition of the Electric Telegraph in the various countries of the world, and a description of the Electrical Influence of the Aurora Borealis upon the Working of the Telegraph. These, with a curiously interesting chapter upon the Various Applications of the Telegraph, and an amusing miscellaneous chapter showing that the Telegraph has a literature of its own, complete the chief popular elements of the volume. The remainder is devoted mainly to a technical treatise on the proper method of constructing telegraphic lines, perfecting insulation, etc. In an Appendix we have a more careful consideration of Galvanism, and a more detailed examination of the qualities and capacities of the various batteries.
As is becoming in any, and especially in an American, treatise upon this great subject, Mr. Prescott devotes some space to a detailed account of the labors of Professor Morse, which have led to his being regarded as the father of our American system of telegraphing. In a chapter entitled “ Early Discoveries in Electro-Dynamics,” he publishes for the first time some interesting facts elicited during the trial, in the Supreme Court of the United States, of the suit of the Morse patentees against the House Company for alleged infringement of patent. In this chapter we have a résumé of the evidence before the Court, and an abstract of the decision of Judge Woodbury. This leads clearly to the conclusion, that, although Professor Morse had no claims to any merit of actual invention,yet he had the purely mechanical merit of having gone beyond all his compeers in the application of discoveries and inventions already made, and that he was the first to contrive and set in operation a thoroughly effective instrument.
Mr. Prescott has produced a very readable and useful book. It has been thoroughly and appropriately illustrated, and is a very elegant specimen of the typographer’s art.