As we continue to evolve our communication networks during the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s look back at how Torontonians used to connect with the rest of the world.
This article is part of a new series, Heritage at Home (April to June 2020). We’ll share poignant stories that provide historical context to some of our current challenges, and also playful tales meant to entertain and chase away any confinement blues (at least temporarily).
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By Adam Ahrens, June 16, 2020
Ever since the quarantine started many of us have felt bored, claustrophobic, and very, very alone. We as humans need to converse with one another; we’re not meant to live in isolation like this for so long.
Thankfully, we have modern technology, the internet and FaceTime; which has supported not only our social needs and kept us informed with the latest news, but has also helped keep some parts of society afloat. I myself have used everything from Zoom for university classes, to Google Hangouts for work meetings, to Skype for socializing with friends. Today, having an online connection has become a necessity for physical, mental, and in some cases financial well-being.
Unfortunately, gaining access to a reliable internet connection is proving more difficult for some than others. Rural communities are having the most trouble, but urban communities are not untouched either. The issue of internet availability boils down to three major problems: increased costs on data, a lack of infrastructure, and high traffic.
The government is taking some action to address these issues in the form of some subsidies for low income families, and partnering with companies to build new infrastructure to reach remote areas. However, it will take time before the virtual gap is bridged for everyone. At the very least the pandemic has furthered discussions on just how integral the internet is to modern life.
With all this going on, I have been thinking about ways of connecting in the past – similar situations when Torontonians needed to communicate to the outside world and which led to the further development of our society. Inspired by my own family history, I’ve focused on the very beginning of telecommunications: the telegraph system!
For those of you not in the know, a telegraph is essentially a message represented by electrical signals running through a wire, which would then be printed by the receiving machine on a strip of tape for the operator to interpret. The type of telegraph most of us are familiar with is the system invented by then aspiring painter Samuel Morse.
In the early 1800s, long distance communications was a complicated and slow affair, achieved by a combination of steamboat, stagecoach, and horse-riding messengers in the United States. Personal messages, corporate correspondence, and general news could make it from coast to coast in around 10 days. It was because of this unreliability that Morse received late news about his wife’s passing in 1825 while working a commission. He dedicated his life thereafter to creating his own version of the telegraph as a faster and more reliable way of sending information.
Morse’s telegraph gained huge popularity upon its debut in 1844 due to its simplicity. All one had to do was to tap a key to open and close an electrical circuit over a wire between the two locations, in increments that correlated to the Morse alphabet. We know this today as Morse code.
July 29, 1846
By the mid-1840s, the U.S. had many telegraph companies that delivered telegrams across the country. Local news could now be relayed quickly from one city to another, which greatly benefited newspapers. It was this access to information that made Toronto newspapers want a wire set-up of their own.
This outcome was made possible by a collaboration between hardware merchant T. D. Harris and members of Gamble and Boulton law firm, including Toronto mayor William H. Boulton. They met with the Livingston and Wells construction company to discuss extending the telegraph line from Buffalo to Toronto. It was commented that the extension would require $14K more to build per mile than the existing line in New York, as the route between Toronto and Buffalo required towers to be closer together.
On December 19, 1846, the Toronto, Hamilton, St. Catharines, and Niagara Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Co. had its first conversation using the line with another office from Hamilton. You can begin to see how the need for connectivity led to the funding of new infrastructure; echoing our current situation with the government promise to connect everyone to WiFi.
I found in my research that from then on Toronto was one of several cities across Canada who bore witness to the ever changing landscape of telegraph companies competing with and absorbing one another. In 1852, Toronto’s own telegraph company was absorbed by the Montreal Telegraph Co. They in turn had a price war with the Dominion Telegraph Co. in 1868.
One year after the Great North Western Telegraph Co. established itself in 1880, the Western Union Telegraph Company from the U.S. managed to monopolize all telegraph communications in Canada by way of leasing lines from the Montreal and Dominion companies. It wasn’t until after 1885 that this hold was broken by the newly established Canadian Pacific Railway Telegraph Co.
Thirty years later, the federal government bought up several of these telegraph companies to create the Canadian National Telegraph Co., which became the major telegraph service provider along with Pacific Railroad Co. They later merged into the CNCP in 1980.
When describing actual offices of telegraph companies and what it was like to work there, little can be found online. Thankfully, I happen to be related to a former Canadian National Telegraph operator. My grandmother started at the Toronto branch in 1946, and spent several years working there before transferring elsewhere.
According to my grandmother, after initial training in the operation of the telegraph machines, new recruits were hired on to the CNT office. For the first few months they were paired with senior operators until they had sufficient working knowledge of the job. After that they’d be considered a senior operator, and either managed a particular circuit, or would fill vacant jobs wherever they popped up so long as they knew how to operate that particular machine.
As the use of Morse code was considered obsolete by this time, the new telegraph machines could transmit and decode telegraphs themselves. All the operator had to do if receiving a message would be to take the tape that was printed out, wet it in a cylinder of water, then paste it onto the telegram paper. It would then either travel along a conveyor belt to be sorted, or if it was urgent, an assistant would take it out of order to bypass the regular traffic. The telegram would then be sent to one of many distribution stations, and then be delivered to the recipient. When sending, the operator would have a stack of messages that they would type onto strips of tape, then feed through the machine which would read and send the message through the wire.
It could be expensive to send a telegram in those days. Back in 1946, an urgent ten word telegram would cost $0.37. That’s like sending a short text for $5.20 today.
Marie Tudhope, Former CNT Operator
You could even send your own telegram right now. For $18.95, Telegrams Canada will send a telegram of up to 100 words anywhere in Canada or the U.S.
I rather like that this is still possible today. To me, the telegram can be seen as a testament to how society can evolve and improve from our simple need to connect to one another. Given how that need is at its peak right now, there’s a possibility we might see such innovation and growth as when Toronto sent its first telegraph message to Hamilton.
Bell, Rogers, other telecoms remove internet data caps amid COVID-19, Nicole Bogart, ctvnews.ca, Mar 14, 2020
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Marie Tudhope, Former CNT operator, 1946-
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