Artists are involved in the creation and sending of messages. Art objects are signifiers whose messages often have aesthetic value. The form or content of many artworks are inherently about communication. In the Electronic Visualization MFA program, we create and study art objects that use electronic techniques and often electronic network communications methods. Therefore, I chose to visualize a collection of ephemera around the history of an early network communications technology, the telegraph.
The invention of the telegraph is often attributed to Samuel F. Morse. In the United States, Morse and Alfred Vail developed and implemented practical telegraph systems in the 1830s and 1840s. By the early 1870s, a worldwide telegraphic network was in place and used commercially to send private messages. These station-to-station communications were often relayed directly to the intended recipient in the last miles by private messenger. Payment for telegraph services often (though not always) utilized an adhesive stamp as a receipt.
Exegesis (or why you should collect telegraph stuff)
In the U.S. telegraphic services began and remained always private commercial entities. By contrast, the U.S. postal system began as a network of private local posts and eventually became a government service. In other countries however, telegraph services were monopolized by government agencies, and to this day in many countries, the post, telegraph, and internet services are run by ministries of communication of their respective governments. Therefore it is mainly from the U.S. perspective that internet history is unconnected from worldwide telegraph and postal services development. For most of the world, these services are very connected. They are parallel in the case of postal services and are the very direct antecedent of the internet in the case of the telegraph.
Close to Home
Telegraph lines were often installed and used by railroad networks which developed at the same time as telegraph networks. Thus it is not surprising the railroads themselves entered the telegraph business. Certain Postal Telegraph-Cable Company stamps are inscribed I.C., which stands for Illinois Central (Railroad). Illinois Central tracks and telegraph lines ran south from Chicago (or north from Cairo, Illinois, depending on your perspective). Nevertheless the railroad tracks themselves remain in use today, east of Michigan Ave.
Certain U.S government revenue (tax) stamps were inscribed “telegraph”. It was used to pay tax on telegraph services during the U.S. Civil War. It is not payment for a service. Instead it indicates payment of a tax on a service.
Following is a selection of other United States telegraph company stamps and paper ephemera, and an international selection:
This 2007 Paris to Toronto telegram is probably generated by an internet-based service that operates as a novelty reference to the bygone era. In the U.S. Western Union officially sent its last telegram in January 2006.
N.B.: In cases where the stamps are not inscribed “telegraph” I trusted the sourced references (image websites) but made sure the authors referred to them as telegraph or telegraph revenue stamps and ephemera.
Scott 1991 Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps. Scott Publishing. Sidney, Ohio. 1990.
Miller, Rick. The Road Less Traveled: Telegraph Stamps. Linns Stamp News. http://www.linns.com/howto/refresher/theroad_20031013/refreshercourse.asp Date of last access: September 5, 2008.
Electrical Telegraph. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_telegraph Date of last access: September 5, 2008.
A Brief Historical Sketch of the Illinois Central Railroad. Illinois Central Historical Society. http://www.icrrhistorical.org/icrr.history.html Date of last access: September 5, 2008.
Other websites, as referenced by the image URLs.