Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Telegraph reporting in Canada and United States

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
Telegraph reporting in Canada and United States


It is not surprising that an agent so useful as electricity should, at an early period of its application to telegraphic purposes, have been forced into requisition by the conductors of newspapers. “The ordinary channels of information,” as it is the custom in another place to term the newspapers, would, without the aid of the electric telegraph, present a very different appearance from that which they do at present. Electricity has, in fact, done for the press of our day what the art of printing accomplished for knowledge in the middle ages.

The agency of the electric telegraph was first employed in a regular and systematic manner by the newspaper press on the other side of the Atlantic. Ever on the look out for means of saving time or labour, the astute Americans saw when the first line of telegraph was erected between Washington and Baltimore, what facilities the new system would afford for the collection and transmission of news, and they at once set to work to discover some mode by which they might obtain the maximum amount of information for a minimum charge. To accomplish this task a vast amount of ingenuity was displayed, and some of the bitterest controversies which have distracted the Union have been those which have been carried on between “the gentlemen of the press” and the managers of the various telegraphic lines in the United States.

Persons of sanguine disposition, who believe that every great discovery in science is always made in the interest of peace, will be disappointed to find what an important part the electric telegraph has played in connection with war; and it is somewhat curious that the earliest news conveyed by telegraph to the press of America was the launch of a sloop of war at the Brooklyn Yard, and that the first regular organisation for the purpose of telegraph reporting was formed for obtaining news of the progress of the war in Mexico. A daily horse-express was run between Mobile and Montgomery, a distance of 200 miles, in order to anticipate the arrival of the mail, and forward the news by telegraph to New York and other places. In 1847 the complete and efficient organisation of what is termed the “Associated Press of New York” was established, with “telegraph reporters” and agents in every important city or port in the United States, as well as in Canada, England, and other countries. The charge for sending messages by telegraph was at first much higher than is at present the case, and the great object of the associated reporters was to devise some means of getting as much as possible for their money from the telegraph companies. As the result of much anxious deliberation and forethought, they at length prepared a complete system of short-hand or cipher which, while it was perfectly unintelligible to the clerks of the telegraph, was, when translated by those possessing the key, found to possess remarkably elastic properties. A message of ten cipher words would expand to fifty or sixty, or even a hundred, when translated. Some of the words sent were of enormous length, and made up of syllables, each of which had a hidden meaning, and when in combination defied all the dictionaries of the civilised world. There came, however, a limit to human endurance on the part of the managers of the telegraphs, and they ordered that no word sent by the Associated Press should contain more than five letters, that the letters in every message should be counted, and the whole divided by five for the number of words, and charged accordingly. The new society did not rest content with protesting against the tyranny of “Fog Smith,” as they nick-named the manager of the New York and Boston line, but they ransacked the dictionaries for the purpose of finding a sufficient number of words of five letters to serve the purpose of a new cipher system, and some thousands of short words were very speedily selected, and were sent over the line, possessed of even greater expanding powers than those under the former system.

From the many thousands of cipher words which were adopted we will extract a few, in order to convey an idea of the system as adopted by the “telegraph reporters.” It was required to send to different parts of the Union the particulars respecting the flour or wheat markets. The first word of the message which would be sent commencing with a consonant would express the “condition” of the market; the second word beginning with a different consonant would indicate the “price,” while a third word which began with a vowel would tell the “quantity sold.” Every word sent had, of course, its distinctive meaning attached to it; thus “babe” signified “western is firm with moderate demand for home trade and export;” “back” told that “the market is a shade firmer, but that owing to absence of private advices, buyers and sellers do not meet;” for “bake” we read “markets dull; buyers do not enter freely at the higher rates demanded;” “bacon” was “dull, but if anything a shade firmer,” and “basin” meant “there is a speculative demand at better prices.” The prices were required, and for these words commencing with the letter “C” were used. Thus “camp” stood for 5.18, “car” 5.75, “carp” 6.31, meaning, of course, dollars and cents, and when it was required to add half cents to the quotation, the letters “ed” were added, so that “camp ed” was made to stand for 5.18½, and so on. The quantities of corn or flour sold were stated by words commencing with the letter “A,” as abaft, abuse, above, abash, abate, abide, and others, each of which had its correlative numbers assigned to it in the system. One instance will suffice to show how rapidly these cipher messages expanded when translated. A message of nine words, “bad, came, aft, keen, dark, ache, lain, fault, adopt,” told the following interesting facts: “Flour market for common and fair brands of western is lower, with moderate demand for home trade and export. Sales 8000 barrels. Genesee at $5.12. Wheat prime in fair demand, market firm, common description dull, with a downward tendency; sales, 4000 bushels at $1.10. Corn, foreign news unsettled the market; no sales of importance made. The only sale made was 2500 bushels at 67 c.,” or a total of sixty-eight words. “Fog Smith” once more issued his edict, and decided that no English word should be spelt with more than three letters, but by this time there were competing lines of telegraph in existence, and the able manager “locked the door after the steed was stolen.”

On the extension of the telegraph system, arrangements were made for sending reports of the proceedings in Congress, and for this a more comprehensive and ingenious system of ciphers was adopted, but founded upon the same principle as that employed for commercial news, and an immense number of congressional phrases and forms of speech were represented by their particular cipher. Thus “bacon” was equivalent to saying that “a report was brought up from the Committee on Agriculture;” and “bawl” that “an interesting debate followed, in which several honourable senators took part.” The fact of a report being brought up from the committee on military affairs, was represented by the word “bad,” and the word “bribe” signified that a Bill to reduce and graduate the price of public lands was taken up and discussed; in fact, almost every variety of judicial, diplomatic, and executive phrase was provided for in a voluminous and alphabetically arranged code of ciphers. When the scrap of news was received from Congress, the cipher words were not only translated into their legitimate meaning, but they were very largely amplified, being treated in many cases as a clergyman would deal with a small text for his sermon. Some occasional mistakes have occurred by this practice, which have been ludicrous, and sometimes highly inconvenient. On one occasion when a measure was under discussion, the telegram stated that a certain Whig orator addressed the senate, but the wires of the telegraph being interrupted, no portion of the speech came to hand. The recipients of the message considered what were the probable objections which a Whig would have to the Bill in question, and a very violent speech against it was duly printed the next morning. Unfortunately the honourable senator had spoken and voted in exactly the opposite direction. On another occasion the want of due attention to the cipher word caused a serious mistake. Among the words which were adopted in the system was “dead.” Its equivalent was, “after some days’ absence from indisposition, the honourable gentleman reappeared in his seat.” Now it happened that the venerable senator John Davis had been unwell, and had again taken his place in the senate, and the telegram sent was “John Davis dead.” The words of the message were not translated but adopted literally; and immediately the sad event was communicated all over the Union of the death of Davis, who, on the following day, had the privilege vouchsafed to but few persons, of learning what was the opinion of posterity upon his private life and public career. In this country Lord Brougham, and more recently the Duke of Buckingham, have had the privilege of reading their memoirs under circumstances similar to those of senator Davis.

It is, however, in connection with the foreign news that the most strenuous exertions and greatest activity is displayed by the telegraph reporters of America. They have fast sailing yachts, which put out to sea to meet the European steamers, board them, carry off the heads of the latest news, and speedily transmit the latest intelligence over the continent. Among the earliest of these attempts, was the obtaining and transmission of the news taken out by the Europa. The foreign news by that ship was forwarded from New York at ten minutes past eight in the morning, received at New Orleans, two thousand miles distant, by the telegraph lines, and hung up in the Merchants’ Exchange by nine o’clock on the same morning. The mode adopted was to direct the agent of the Associated Press at Liverpool to prepare a synopsis of commercial news up to the latest moment of departure of the steamer, in such a form as to be ready for transmission the moment the steamer reached New York. Some “news boatmen” were ordered to cruise in the harbour and watch for the steamer; and as soon as she came up to quarantine, the bag of news was handed to one of the boatmen, who immediately made all possible speed with oar and sails to the city, and then to the telegraph office, with the prepared message. By this means the news is not unfrequently received at New York some time before the steamer is alongside the quay. On one occasion great anxiety was felt respecting the safety of the Atlantic, one of the American line of postal steamers. News was brought by the Africa, that the Atlantic was safe, and the pleasing intelligence was known in all parts of the country long before the ship that brought the news had come to her moorings. The intensity of delight with which the news was received is thus described by Mr. Jones, one of the earliest members of the Associated Press. He says:—“At last the news came. It was read aloud to them—‘The Atlantic is safe!’—when there arose loud and enthusiastic shouts of joy. It flew from mouth to mouth, from one extremity of the city to the other, along the shipping, among the ship-yards and ship-builders, among those who had worked on the missing vessel. It flew abroad to the suburban towns. It became a theme of exultation at the hotels and theatres. In some of the latter the managers came on the boards and announced to their auditors, ‘The Atlantic is safe!’ which was followed by the rising of the whole audience to their feet, and giving the most deafening and enthusiastic applause. In our whole experience in telegraph reporting we recollect no instance in which a piece of news gave such universal delight. No battle ever won in Mexico diffused greater satisfaction in New York than the safety of the noble ship Atlantic.”

These endeavours to anticipate by the telegraph the receipt of news by the ordinary means are not, however, confined merely to the neighbourhood of New York and Boston. A fast-sailing yacht has recently been provided, which is stationed near Cape Race on Newfoundland, for the purpose of intercepting the ships in the Atlantic and obtaining from them the highly-prized “latest news.” The steamers crossing from England or Ireland make for Cape Race, and when they approach the cape, they run up a signal or fire a gun to attract attention. The newsmen are on the alert, and start off with the yacht to the large steamer. A tin canister or box made water-tight, and to which a flag is fixed which can be seen at considerable distance when in the water, is thrown overboard, and this contains the latest news made up at Liverpool or Galway. The yachtsmen make for the small flag, pick up the box, and make all speed to St. John’s, Newfoundland, from which place the news is immediately telegraphed to all parts of Canada and to the United States, a distance of more than a thousand miles. The news is carried across a country great part of which is little more than a savage wilderness, over lofty hills, deep swamps, and almost impenetrable woods. It passes by submarine telegraph from Newfoundland to the American continent, over a portion of the lines to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and thence to Portland, state of Maine, where the American system of telegraphs commences. The news from Europe thus precedes the arrival of the steamers by several days.

When the Whig Convention met in Philadelphia in 1848, great anxiety was felt as to the result of the proceedings in the nomination for the Presidency, the chances lying between General Taylor, Mr. Scott, General Scott, and Judge McLean. As the telegraph across the Hudson river was not completed, a mode was devised of supplying the deficiency by means of a system of coloured flags, which were to be displayed and repeated by signals at different parts. A white flag was to denote that the choice had fallen on General Taylor, red and different colours for the other candidates. It so happened, however, that, unknown to the telegraph reporters, the brokers and stock-jobbers of Philadelphia had also a system of telegraphing the prices of stocks and upward or downward movements of the money-market by the use of coloured flags. One of their men on a commanding position waved his white flag, as a signal to one of his own confederates at a distance. It was mistaken by one of the signalmen of the reporters who forthwith rushed to the telegraph office, and the wires in every direction were giving out the exciting news, that General Taylor had been nominated by the important convention. Portland, and some other towns—favourable to the gallant candidate—“blazed” away with salutes of a hundred guns, and gave vent to their gratification in the usual approved forms. In this case the telegraph, unfortunately, went “a-head” of the fact.

Greater experience, and improved modes of working the telegraphic lines, have now removed many of the difficulties which, at an earlier period of their establishment, restricted their use for the purposes of the daily press, both in the United States, and in this country. Even a President’s message does not now offer any difficulty to the conductors of the telegraphs, and column after column of these long and prosy official expositions of the political principles of the government at Washington are carried safely along the slender wires to all parts of the country. On the same day as that of its delivery, the message at Washington, has been placed on board the steamers starting for Europe from New York or Boston. Speeches of some great American orator on the Kansas question, or the appropriation of some plot of waste land in the Far West—and in which are included dissertations on the creation of the world, the Deluge, the origin of evil, the decline of the nations of antiquity, the marvellous growth and development of the American people, some very “tall” compliments to the “Eagle” and the “Star Spangled Banner;” and glowing prophecies of the destiny of the great republic—travel as easily along the silent highway of the electric fluid to the newspaper-offices of New York and Boston, as the prices of bread-stuffs. The ragged urchins of New York who vend the daily papers at two cents, are aiding in carrying out that which Congress, reporting in favour of the first telegraph line constructed in America, said, “From a feeling of religious reverence the human mind had hardly dared to contemplate.”

E. McDermott.