Published by EH.Net (December 2019)

Benjamin Sidney Michael Schwantes, The Train and the Telegraph: A Revisionist History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. xix + 199 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4214-2974-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Tomas Nonnenmacher, Department of Economics, Allegheny College.

In John Gast’s painting, American Progress (1872), the figure Columbia serenely floats westward between early settlers and a railroad, while Native Americans and wild animals retreat from the progress she represents. In her hands she holds a schoolbook and a telegraph wire, the latter being strung along the railroad tracks as she advances. This image conveys a perfect complementarity between the railroad and the telegraph, the technological forces connecting the nation and driving manifest destiny.

Benjamin Sidney Michael Schwantes (Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University) provides a “revisionist history” of the narrative of an easy marriage between the railroad and the telegraph by highlighting the great variability in the use of the telegraph by railroad managers over both time and place. For technological and organizational reasons, railroad managers were hesitant adopters of the telegraph for the purposes of dispatching trains. Many managers held on to older systems of dispatch long after the telegraph was a viable alternative. Some managers went so far as to advertise aversion to using the telegraph; “No Trains Run by Telegraph” was the text on one such advertisement in the mid-1860s.

Chapters One through Three cover the development of the railroad and telegraph chronologically, roughly covering a decade each from 1840 through 1870. Schwantes compares the evolution of the industries in the United States and the United Kingdom. After an early failed attempt by Samuel Morse to sell the telegraph to the U.S. Post Office, the telegraph needed the railroad much more than the railroad needed the telegraph. Building telegraph lines across open country or even along roads was an expensive proposition. Railroad rights of way offered a much easier means to build and maintain a telegraph line. Railroad managers saw the telegraph as unreliable at best and dangerous at worst.

William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, the British telegraph entrepreneurs, targeted railroads early in the development of their system. Cooke published pamphlets extolling the virtues of railroad telegraphy in 1838 and 1842. Because British rail lines were more densely used, managers there experimented with dispatching trains with the aid of the telegraph in the early 1840s. This British system evolved into a block signaling system, in which only one train was allowed to travel within a block of track at a time. This system was costly and could only be used on the most densely traversed lines. With lower volumes than their British counterparts, American managers used schedules and rule-based practices to dispatch trains.

By 1851, two major American railroads, the New York & Erie and the Pennsylvania, began experimenting with the telegraph to manage operations. While these experiments are often cited as the beginning of the use of the telegraph by the railroads, they were only the beginning. Schwantes points out that some of the larger trunk and busier local lines used the telegraph at the beginning of the Civil War, but only as a supplement to managing trains with rules and timetables. The Civil War changed this dynamic. Private and military rail lines increasingly used the telegraph to deal with the large increase in traffic and the subsequent congestion on the lines.

Chapters Four through Six are organized thematically and cover the railroad’s use of the telegraph after the Civil War. The adoption of the telegraph by railroads continued, but at a slow and irregular pace. The “American system” of train dispatching was a hybrid of schedules, rules, and telegraphs. Switching to the costly block method of train dispatching used in Britain was not a financially viable option for many railroads. The relationship between Western Union and the railroads complicated matters further. Western Union controlled by contract many of the rights of way along rail lines. Railroads became unwilling pawns in the battle for control of the telegraph system between Western Union and Jay Gould. Gould strung together two competing systems with the help of railroads that hoped to break the power of Western Union. In both cases, however, Gould sold out to Western Union, ultimately gaining control of the company.

As part of the contract between railroads and Western Union, telegraphers employed by the railroads not only sent the business of the railroad, but also sent Western Union messages and acted as station postmasters. Schwantes argues that the multitude of roles caused these workers to burn out quickly, particularly on busy lines in which they had the high-stress job of tracking and coordinating the movement of many trains over the course of a day. These telegraphers formed the Order of Railroad Telegraphers (ORT) to represent their interests to the railroads. Membership in this order reached 9,000 by 1890 and 37,000 by 1907. The ORT lobbied Congress for a law that would regulate their working conditions. These efforts culminated in the Hours of Service Act of 1907, which limited the hours that railroad telegraphers and dispatchers could work to nine hours in a twenty-four hour period. While a victory for labor, the Act led railroads to experiment with use of telephone dispatching, which did not require special telegraph training. By the beginning of World War I, many of the busier lines had switched to telephone dispatching. In an unsurprising parallel to the reticence of some managers to adopt the telegraph over schedule and rule based systems, some managers resisted adopting the telephone and maintained their use of the telegraph.

There are many directions in which this book could be expanded. Chapter Four on “The American System,” for example, is chock-full of interesting insights on the spread of the telegraph, railroad accidents, and the relationship between Western Union and the railroads. But it is unclear precisely how quickly and where the American system spread and was used. While it seems clear that block signaling was superior to the American system, relative safety statistics are scant. And the relationship between Western Union and the railroads could supply a book’s worth of insights. These are inevitable quibbles with a book of this length and do not diminish its well-crafted story.

In summary, this is a short, well-researched, and very readable overview of the relationship between trains and telegraphs in the United States. It overturns a narrative of a seamless complementarity between the two, highlighting the endless tensions and great variability in usage.

Tomas Nonnenmacher is a Professor of Economics at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. He is coauthor of Institutional and Organizational Analysis: Concepts and Applications, with Eric Alston, Lee Alston and Bernardo Mueller.

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