There are many things in modern life that we cannot live without now like electrical power, the telephone or the internet. Despite all of the technology that goes into that there is still an old world piece of technology that makes it all possible, the wooden pole.
We know them as utility poles and thanks to them our electricity is delivered to our homes, cable TV and the internet can come into our home and for some of the more seasoned readers here the telephone has come to us as well thanks to these poles. It is an inexpensive way to bring these luxuries to the people and they are high enough in the air that they are safe from human interference.
The use of poles began in 1843 when Samuel Morse wanted to connect Baltimore, Maryland and Washington DC with a telegraph line. He had perfected the telegraph at his Relay, Maryland workshop and the government was interested in this new technology awarding him a contract to construct a line. At first he buried a lead-sheathed line in the ground but after only seven miles he found so many problems with the line that he was forced to dig it up. The rocky geography of what is today Patapsco State Park made the process difficult so Morse came up with another plan. He placed an advertisement in local newspapers seeking seven hundred chestnut posts with most to be 20 to 30 feet tall to take his new line into the air. The project cost about $30,000 (about $800,000 today) so it was fortunate for Morse that he was working under a government contract. What Morse had planned was the world’s first utility poles.
The telegraph was one of the great inventions of the world. It brought near-instantaneous communication to the masses and soon telegraph lines began springing up all over the country using utility poles to carry them. There were benefits to having the lines above ground mostly that it made repairs much easier. Cities that became connected to the telegraph began to experience commercial benefits as news could be obtained nearly instantaneously and to pool all of this new information a group called the Associated Press was formed.
The first transcontinental telegraph was completed in October 1861, six years before the transcontinental railroad was completed. It was a marvel of then-modern engineering. 27,500 poles were used to carry over 2,000 miles of iron wire. It traversed the Rocky Mountains and cost nearly $500,000 (about $14,000,000 today) to complete, or between $100 and $200 per mile. One of the first messages was sent from California Chief Justice Stephen Field to President Abraham Lincoln re-affirming California’s commitment to the Union cause. When Samuel Morse first laid his telegraph line a message from California to Washington took about 110 days to deliver, the telegraph delivered it in only seconds. Grapevines as the people began calling the network of wires became more and more common and with news coming in over the telegraph it was common to hear someone say that they heard it through the grapevine.
Of course keeping the line in working order was difficult. Not only were marauding Confederates during the Civil War a problem, which forced the transcontinental line to be moved out of Missouri onto a more northerly course near Chicago, but more increasingly hostile Native Americans who did not want to see any more encroachment on their land and saw the telegraph poles were easy targets. This of course says nothing about the difficulties in keeping the line operational in the Rocky Mountains. It was also expensive to send a message, $1 a word (about $27 today) but despite all of this the most efficient competition of the time, the Pony Express, ceased operations two days after the telegraph opened for business.
Despite the difficulty in maintaining the line and the cost of using it the telegraph opened up numerous economic opportunities like stock markets in many cities and led to prosperity in many of those cities that were linked in the network like Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. The southern states were slower in bringing in the telegraph and the technological divide helped to fuel the sectional differences between North and South.
The telegraph also was becoming popular in Europe and several leading scientific minds of the time proposed a trans-Atlantic cable. A trans-English Channel cable had already been laid and was proving to be a huge success. An underground cable was laid linking Ireland and Newfoundland in 1858 but thanks to a lack of understanding of what happens at a depth of 2.5 miles it lasted for only three weeks. The first official telegram using this was a message of congratulations sent from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan. It took 16 hours to complete transmission of the message but despite that the people of the United States were jubilant. An American invention had proved its worth.
The electrical industry was in its infancy and engineers on both sides of the Atlantic had their own competing theories about the most efficient way to use this new technology. This lack of understanding, along with the poor handling of the cable and use of substandard material led to a quick demise of the original cable. In their defense of course it’s not like someone had thousands of miles of ready-made cabling laying around a warehouse in Plymouth. Like with any new technology everyone learned and improved over time.
A more permanent line, using much more durable material, was completed in 1866. Communication from London to Washington could be completed now in minutes rather than the 10 days it took to cross the ocean. New technology, from Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone to Guglielmo Marconi’s radio to Tim Berners-Lee’s internet have since made the telegraph obsolete but if it were not for the telegraph who knows what may have happened. After all with all of those poles already in place it made placing the infrastructure for the telephone much easier and cheaper. And despite those modern advancements the telegraph remained in operation until 2013 when a state-run service in India ceased operation.
Over time, probably because of the fungal blight, chestnut wood fell out of favor and yellow pine became the go-to wood to be used for the utility poles. New utilities, like telephone wires, replaced the telegraph lines over time and where the railroad or a road was constructed the utility poles dotted the line. New utilities like electrical cables and cable TV were eventually added. In some urban environments it is more expedient to bury the lines underground but it is not hard to spot these poles even to this day, though steel is becoming more prevalent in their construction here in the United States. So, the next time that you need to call someone just think about all of the work that went into making that call possible and all of the wood that was used and is still used today to make it all possible.