Technological Progress and Romantic Legend

It was on this day, October 24, 1861, that the Western Union Telegraph Company successfully completed the first transcontinental telegraph link between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. This vital communication link was completed in a remarkably short time; only a little more than a year before had Congress offered an annual subsidy of $40,000.00 to any company that could complete the project of linking the Eastern telegraph network, which extended as far west as Saint Joseph, Missouri, and the Western telegraph network, which extended as far East as Virginia City, Nevada.

The completion of the link between East and West was crucial in helping to ensure that California and the West remained in the Union. Prior to the connection of the two telegraph networks, the fastest that information could move across the continent was the speed of a fast rider on a fresh horse, about ten miles an hour. At a stroke, information could travel that great distance in minutes. It took more than a week for the text of Lincoln’s first inaugural address to reach California. It took less than fifteen minutes for the text of his Gettysburg address to be transmitted over the telegraph to San Francisco.

The telegraph link also spelled the end for the legendary Pony Express. The short-lived Pony Express began operation April 3, 1860 about the time that Congress was debating a telegraph subsidy, and ceased operation abruptly upon completion of the telegraph link. In the scant 18 months of its existence, the Pony express embedded itself in the mythology of the Old West with lore and color that the telegraph could never hope to match. Such is progress.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We can communicate an idea around the world in seventy seconds, but it sometimes takes years for an idea to get through a quarter-inch of human skull.

— Charles F. Kettering

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