There were a lot of amazing engineering feats in the 19th century, but one of the greatest in terms of technology and impact on our lives was the invention of the telegraph, in particular, the incredible feat of laying long distance cables on the ocean bed. It is probably most famous for being able to catch criminals, but the main interest was in providing trade information, which inspired so many merchants to invest in such a costly and high risk venture. Whilst overland cables were easy enough to set up, and networks in mainland Europe and America were soon established, communication still took weeks – notice of Lincoln’s assassination took 12 days to reach London, via the new news service of Reuters.
Gillian Cookson’s book, The Cable tells the story of the battle to connect Britain to America, a revolution that paved the way a century later for our modern media. As such, it is significant that one of the first to see its potential was Julius Reuter, who made several attempts to establish a news agency in Germany, so leapt at the chance to make use of the first telegraph between “Berlin and Aachen, which opened in 1849, to deliver news and prices between Berlin, Vienna and Paris. Where there were gaps between the new telegraph systems of France and Belgium, he rushed the messages by pigeon, which was faster than by trains. Political and other news was an important commodity, but Reuter’s main business was trade information, prices and rates, where speed and accuracy were of the essence, and which he sold to newspapers and to commerce. He made a huge success of being ahead of the game, and moved his base to London in 1851, on the eve of the opening of the Channel cable.”