Abstract: The New York Telegraph Act of 1848 and the Culture of Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. Telegraph Industry

Richard R. John


My paper compares and contrasts the business strategies of the first two generations of telegraph promoters. My thesis is that changes in the political environment encouraged very different business strategies. The first generation (led by Amos Kendall and Francis O. J. Smith) focused initially on selling the patent of telegraph inventor Samuel F. B. Morse to the federal government, and, when this failed, on using Morse's patent to fend off competitors. The second generation (led by Hiram Sibley) responded to the new political environment that had been created by the New York Telegraph Act of 1848. To render the post-1848 industry profitable, Sibley forged close links with railroads, which had the effect of stabilizing markets and limiting competition. The combine that he established—Western Union—received a further boost when Sibley secured a federal grant to build a transcontinental telegraph line. The paper concludes with some observations about the parallels between the de-politicization of the telegraph industry in historical writing and the de-politicization of the telegraph as a channel of communication by contemporaries—with a focus on the press, social science, and the visual arts.