Historicist: "Talk by Lightning"

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Historicist: “Talk by Lightning”

Toronto was connected to the outside world for the first time 170 years ago this week.

toronto telegraph telegram

The first two telegraph companies in Toronto were located side-by-side in the Coffin Block (named for its shape) at Front, Wellington, and Church Streets. The Coffin Block was replaced by the Gooderham flatiron building. Image from Toronto Public Library, B 11-25b.

On December 19, 1846, just a few days before Christmas, a conversation took place at Toronto’s City Hall that forever changed intercity communication in Canada.

It wasn’t what was said, but rather how it was said.

Through a series of electronic taps—Morse code—a small group of Toronto businessmen on Front Street East held a pioneering conversation with a telegraph operator in Hamilton, a distance of about 70 kilometres.

Before the invention and widespread adoption of the telephone in the 20th century, the ability to converse between remote cities in anything approaching real time was viewed as a remarkable technological achievement.

The telegraph was first demonstrated in the United States by artist and inventor Samuel Finley Breeze Morse in September 1837. Armed with a patent, the U.S. government commissioned Morse to build a telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore in 1843.

“WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT,” the famous first message transmitted over the wire, was a Bible verse from the Book of Numbers. It was sent from the U.S. Capitol and received at Mount Clare rail station on May 24, 1844, as a series of dots and dashes.

In the years that followed, telegraph lines were strung between many major American cities, allowing news and information to travel from centre to centre in just minutes.

Newspapers benefited immensely from the new technology. A story could break in New York and the papers in Boston would hear about it in moments. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the newspaper owners in Toronto agitated for access to the growing network.

The Toronto Examiner, a leading local paper in the mid-1800s, called the telegraph “a wonderful highway of thought.”

“Eighty or ninety miles of wire laid down would enable us to hold an hourly conversation with all the principal cities from Lake Erie to Boston, thence west and south to Washington. Toronto conversing with Washington,” it exclaimed.

The first Canadian telegraph company was a joint venture between hardware merchant T. D. Harris and members of a Church Street law firm, Gamble and Boulton, which counted Toronto mayor William Henry Boulton as a partner.

In October 1846, construction company Livingston and Wells met with Harris, Gamble, and Boulton to discuss the possibility of extending a cable from Buffalo, over the falls at Niagara, up to Toronto via St. Catharines and Hamilton.

Livingston and Wells had built the line from New York City to Buffalo and quoted the cost of constructing the Toronto extension at $14,000 more per kilometre than the New York line because the poles needed to spaced closer together.

The Toronto, Hamilton, St. Catharines, and Niagara Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company was incorporated on July 28, 1847, with T. D. Harris as president and Clarke Gamble director. Remarkably, in just five months, the telegraph was operational between Toronto and Hamilton.

It worked like this: An operator tapped letters of the alphabet as dots and dashes into a device called a key. This Morse code was sent electronically along the telegraph wire and automatically printed onto a strip of paper tape at the other end.

Morse’s famous first message would have been rendered as follows (the slashes indicate word breaks):

.– …. .- – / …. .- – …. / –. — -.. / .– .-. — ..- –. ….

After decoding the message, it was up to the receiving operator to take the appropriate action: craft a response, pass along the message, or raise the alarm in the event of an emergency. (SOS in Morse code is … — …)

The first telegraph exchange in Canada took place on December 19, 1846. The first message, sent from Hamilton and received in Toronto, was a question:

“Who is in your office?”

James Lesslie, the published of the Toronto Examiner, was present that day with William Atkinson, a saddler, and Noah Piper, a prominent copper and tinsmith.

The reply from Toronto and the following exchange was conducted:

Toronto: “Three persons, Messrs. Atkinson, Lesslie, and Piper.”

Hamilton: “Is Mr. Gamble or Mr. McClure present?”

Toronto: “No.”

Hamilton: “What o’clock is it?”

Toronto: “Twenty-five minutes past eleven.”

Hamilton: “You must mean twelve.”

Toronto: “No, it is half past eleven.”

Hamilton: “Is that the town time?”

Toronto: “Yes.”

Hamilton: “Well, advise Mr. Gamble that Messrs. McNab and Dawson will speak with him at half past one.”

(Listen to the exchange in Morse dots and dashes above, or hear it with the corresponding text here.)

It’s interesting that the first conversation would immediately descend into confusion over the time of day. Before the introduction of standard time in Canada, each city kept its own local time based on the observed position of the sun.

Town time was based on the hyper-local observations made in each major town and city. It’s clear from the confusion the Hamilton end that the city was operating on a substantially different time to Toronto.

Interestingly, it was inventions like the telegraph and the spread of intercity and transcontinental rail lines that ultimately ended Canada’s local town times.

The country’s first telegraph exchange ceased for lunch and resumed an hour or so later, as planned. Around 1:30 in the afternoon, the telegraph in Toronto sprang to life.

Hamilton: “I have just returned from dinner.”

Toronto: “Is anyone with you in the office.”

Hamilton: “No. How does your machine work?”

Toronto: “First rate. How does yours?”

Hamilton: “Rather stiff.”

(With corresponding text.)

According to John Ross Robertson quoting a Toronto Examiner story, an in-depth exchange that included Toronto mayor William Boulton and Clarke Gamble took place that afternoon with the Hamilton president of the Board of Police and other officials.

“A number of business communications were transmitted and answered, and private messages were sent free from both places,” the paper reported.

“The rapid completion of this part of the line is very gratifying, and we learn that there is a probability of Toronto holding a conversation with Buffalo and all the cities on the line to New York and Boston, about the opening of the New Year.”

In 1847, the Montreal Telegraph Company established a telegraph link between Toronto and Montreal out of an office on Front Street East near Church Street.

The Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara and St. Catharines Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company had its permanent office in the same building, directly beside the Montreal Telegraph Company.

“A partition was run across the Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara, St. Catharines Electro-Magnetic Company’s office and a portion of the room set apart for the public in which to write their messages,” recalled R. F. Easson, an employee of the company, to historian John Ross Robertson.

“Wickets like those in the post office were cut in the partition, one for the Electro-Magnetic Company and the other for the Montreal Telegraph Company.”

toronto telegraph telegram

The telegraph room at the Toronto Telegram newspaper office in 1904 or 1905. As the technology became more widespread, newspapers installed their own telegraph facilities for transmitting and receiving news reports. Some newspapers, like the Telegram and the UK Daily Telegraph, put the name of the technology in their names. Image from Toronto Public Library, B 4-73b.

Easson also described how the telegraph operators read the daily news from U.S. cities to waiting Toronto journalists:

“A large table was placed in the middle of the floor, at which sat the reporters when they came in the afternoons to copy the reports as the operator read them from the tape of the instrument,” he said.

“The operator, in reading off the news, had to talk loudly and enunciate very plainly so that all might hear, and, in the summer season, when the windows were up, the less important dealers and huxters in the grain business often gathered around the windows and doors to listen and pick up such information as they could gather respecting changes in the English markets.”

For the first time, Toronto was electronically connected to the outside world.

The Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara and St. Catharines Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company was absorbed by the larger Montreal Telegraph Company in 1852 and the Front Street offices combined.

As the technology improved, sound could be transmitted over the telegraph wire, and wireless broadcasting of Morse code debuted in the 1880s. Eventually, radio voice broadcasts became the dominant method of long-distance communication in the 20th century.

Today, the site of Canada’s first telegraph conversation is marked with Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque on the outside wall of the St. Lawrence Market.

Additional material from Landmarks of Toronto, John Ross Robertson, 1914 and the October 6, November 11, December 12, 1946 and January 13, 1847 editions of The Globe.


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


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