Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Telegraph & Private Life

When Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out his famous "What hath God wrought" message on the telegraph in 1844, he inaugurated a new era in communications. Business and finance, railroads and newspapers all saw the value of close-to-instantaneous information and used the tool accordingly. The telegraph was employed much less frequently for personal matters, but it proved invaluable during family crises.

In 1846 Rebecca reported to her relatives in Kentucky that her eldest brother-in-law Reuben Etting (1762-1848) was in fragile and declining health, but had his wife and children, except one son, close at hand in Philadelphia. Henry Etting, a career Navy man, had been appointed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but, Rebecca wrote, "The magnetic telegraph could recall the absentee in an hour, should he be required." What she means is that instead of someone going by train to New York to deliver the message (a five-hour trip at the least), a telegram could be sent and delivered to Henry in less than an hour, thus permitting him to return home in about half the time it would have taken previously. Having the entire family around a deathbed was a comfort to the dying and to the grieving. Also comforting was the possibility -- for the first time, thanks to the telegraph -- that even a son so far away might be able to get home in time to bid farewell to his father.

(This post is based on information about the telegraph in Daniel Walker Howe's wonderful book, What hath God wrought: the transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 696. Rebecca's letter to her sister-in-law Maria Gratz, dated Feb. 13, 1846, is published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Philipson, Arno Press, 1975.)

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