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Published: 6/27/2006

Era of instant communication has been building for 160 years

Maumee telegraph-equipment collector Byron 'Barney' Stickles notes that the telegraph was long relied upon by railroads. Maumee telegraph-equipment collector Byron 'Barney' Stickles notes that the telegraph was long relied upon by railroads.
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We've come a long way in our effort to communicate, but maybe not as far as we think.

It's only natural for Americans to strive for instant communication, instant information. Collectively, we spend many billions of dollars to equip ourselves with the latest computers, cell phones, and handheld communications devices such as the BlackBerry.

But in reality, the ability to transmit information thousands of miles instantly has been with us for more than 160 years. Much of America was "online" in the 1840s - not on the Internet, of course, but on telegraph lines.

This long and evolutionary journey started in the 1830s when inventor and painter Samuel F.B. Morse began working on telegraphy and the Morse Code, the system of dots and dashes that stood for letters and numbers.

On May 24, 1844, Morse tapped on a telegraph key and sent his famous message from Washington to Baltimore: "What hath God wrought?" By 1846, a number of big cities had telegraph service, and two years later, Toledo - thanks to its being a railroad hub early on - went "online."

One of the first customers was The Blade, which had been founded in 1835, two years before Toledo was incorporated as a city.

On Feb. 14, 1848, The Blade proclaimed: "The magic wires are here and we are in connection. We shall be able henceforth to furnish our readers with the latest news - the daily condition of the eastern market, and all that kind of practical intelligence which is now eagerly sought after by the business world."

However, its first story via the telegraph was a one-paragraph item about a murder in New York.

Within two months, the great quantity of fresh news brought by telegraph enabled The Blade, until then a tri-weekly paper, to publish daily (except Sunday).

But the newspaper often suffered from a 19th-century version of computer crashes. Dozens of times in 1848, The Blade carried such terse messages as: "No report by Telegraph to-day from New York or Buffalo. Wire's broken."

Beginning in the late 1870s, the telephone, a monumental invention, gradually diminished the importance of telegraphy.

But even until recent decades, the telegraph continued to be used by railroads. "Those were the days of real communications," said Byron "Barney" Stickles, of Maumee, a retired railroad freight agent, dispatcher, and general agent.

Mr. Stickles, a collector of telegraph equipment, also noted that the telegraph had many other uses over the years - including transmitting sports scores and horse-race results to Toledo's many bookie joints generations ago, and transmitting Toledo Mud Hens game reports from the former Swayne Field to The Blade in the 1920s.

The Blade used a "secret sounder relay" device that silenced the clicks so they couldn't be heard by the prying ears of other reporters at the game, he explained.

For many years, communications revolutions occurred at intervals of about 30 years. Telephones came into use three decades after the first telegraph lines, and three decades after the telephone came the first ship-to-shore radios (commercial broadcasting didn't start until 1920).

And three decades after the advent of radio, regular television broadcasting started, in 1939 (networks began a decade later).

But after World War II, the pace of communications change quickened.

Mobile phones, called auto-radio telephones, were a big hit with companies by 1947 - they arrived in Toledo for test purposes in 1946, and the first "official" call was made in early 1947 by Mayor Lloyd Roulet. The first crude fax machines were in use in the early 1950s (followed by better and faster faxes in the 1960s), direct long-distance dialing started in 1959, commercial communications satellites in 1965, personal computers in the late 1970s, the first cell-phone services in the early 1980s, and widespread e-mail by 1993.

Often the newer technology displaced older technology and left some companies behind, such as Western Union. Too bad. Who could forget telegrams, especially singing telegrams?

If the past is any indication, the future will bring more sophisticated communications technology. But it won't be more "instant" than the "magic wires" of the 1840s.

Homer Brickey, The Blade's senior business writer, was a telephone operator for Columbia Gas Co. in the early 1960s, and helped pay for college by working at a pre-electronic cord-and-jack switchboard.

Contact him at:

homerbrickey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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