Today marks a unique date in the history of long-distance telecommunications: the sesquicentenary of the transcontinental telegraph. It's been 150 years since wires were strung up between the coasts, and October 24, 1861 saw California's chief justice, Stephen J. Field send a message from San Francisco to Washington DC and President Abraham Lincoln, connecting the two coasts electronically for the very first time.

This was hardly the beginning of telegraph tech: the optical telegraph had been used throughout Europe in the early years of the 19th century, and various forms of electronic telegraph were tinkered with until 1844, when Samuel Morse invented the version that would eventually criss-cross the nation.

Even after that, the first connections were isolated and spotty, which is what made that connection 150 years ago so important — it stretched from one end of the country to the other. While today's news stories remember the poetic message between the chief justice and president, that wasn't the first message on the new line. It was far more pragmatic:


The 1860s and 1870s saw the telegraphs expand across land and water, finally encircling the world by 1902 — and the networks remained a primary form of communication into the mid-20th century.