In the Museum collection is the first telegram to be received in Whanganui. Received at 3.40 pm on 3 November 1869, the telegram was addressed to the settlers of Wanganui and the district and was sent by then Premier William Fox. The message reads, “I congratulate you on the completion of the telegraph. May it strengthen the Bonds of Union + promote the prosperity of the Colony.”
The first government-owned telegraph line in New Zealand was established between Christchurch and Lyttelton in 1862, and the first lines in the North Island appeared two years later. Initially the North Island line was for military use only, to assist with the land wars of the time. By 1866 it had been purchased by the provincial government and incorporated with the wider public telegraph system.
The telegram, or electric telegraph, was revolutionary for its time. Previous attempts at communication were slow and cumbersome, limited to the speed a human could travel on foot, horse, or boat. The invention of the electric telegraph, however, hugely altered the face of global society and economy.
From the first days of electricity in the 18th century people have been finding ways to use it to improve our lives; communications benefited greatly. Various attempts had been made to use electrical currents to send messages but none were very successful until 1837 when William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone started experimenting. They devised a machine on which a series of needles was attached to a board, each of which could turn clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on the electromagnetic charge it received. The operator would choose the direction of the current and the needles would turn to point to corresponding letters on the diamond-shaped board.
This system was gradually refined and simplified until only one needle was required. Numerals were then added to the repertoire. This format was closely followed by Morse code with its familiar dots and dashes, and some telegraph machines were developed with printing capabilities so the message was automatically printed for later deciphering and delivery. Improved communication methods removed the message from the object carrying it and enabled it to move much faster, requiring only someone on the receiving end to transcribe it and ensure its delivery.
Almost instant communication saw the rapid growth of business and organisations, which in turn encouraged society to embrace telegrams for a more personal use. To keep costs down, the message had to be short and to the point – the average telegram was less than 15 words – and required the language to be free of any local or regional colloquialisms which could be misinterpreted.
The speed with which information could travel the globe changed the face of news reporting. Many newspapers began bearing the title of “Telegraph” indicating they received their news timely and accurately. Misinformation still got through, however; the New York Sun and Honolulu Evening Bulletin published on 15 April 1912 both reported receiving telegrams stating all passengers aboard the Titanic had been saved.