Fifty Words a Minute: History of the Telegraph in Toronto

Black and white photo of a large room filled with machinery and equipment. Many windows are visible along the wall letting in daylight and lights hang from the ceiling above the machinery and work stations.

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

Social Creatures

Psychologists say video chatting is more beneficial to our mental health than talking on the phone.

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.

Window display for The Great Western Telegraph Company, 1916. Image: City of Toronto Archives
The federal government plans to have everyone in Canada connected to high-speed internet by 2030.

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!

WiFi Worries

Testing and regulating room, Canadian National Telegraph Company, Bay and Temperance Streets. Image: Library and Archives Canada

What’s a Telegraph?

The first commercial telegraph system was installed by inventors William F. Cooke and Charles Wheatstone on England’s Great Western Railway in 1838.

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.


[The telegraph is] a wonderful highway of thought.


Toronto Examiner
July 29, 1846

The best telegraph operators could tap out 40 to 50 words a minute in Morse code.

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.

Toronto, First Contact

Canadian National Telegraph Building, Wellington and Scott Streets, 1953. Image: Toronto Public Library

Dog Eat Dog World

Wireless broadcasting of Morse code debuted in 1880.

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.

Telegraph room of the Telegraph Building, 1904. Image: Toronto Public Library
The Toronto branch office was located on the 10th floor at 347 Bay Street in the 1950s.

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.

Office Life at the CNT


It was a nice place, I enjoyed it.


Marie Tudhope, Former CNT Operator

Telegram sent by the Canadian National Telegraph, April 14, 1958. Courtesy of Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, DI2014.118.17.

Oldie but a Goodie

Telegrams are still widely used today in other countries.

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,, Mar 14, 2020

CPI Inflation Calculator,

Delivering High-Speed Internet to More People in Southwestern Ontario,, Mar 9, 2020

Here’s why some Canadian internet providers have hiked prices despite coronavirus, David Paddon,, Apr 3, 2020

Historicist: “Talk by Lightning”, Chris Bateman,, Dec 24, 2016

In rural Ontario, the internet barely allows kids to learn and adults to work. Here’s a $1.2-billion pitch to fix it, Jason Miller,, May 30, 2020

‘Internet is the only lifeline they have’: Canada needs to confront ‘digital divide’ amid COVID-19 crisis, CBC Radio,, Mar 27, 2020

Lack of high-speed internet is harming rural areas during pandemic, Andre Moreau,, Apr 26, 2020

Marie Tudhope, Former CNT operator, 1946-

Morse is music to an old-timer’s ears, Bill Taylor, The Toronto Star, Oct 25, 2002

Psychologists say a video call is a good way to connect during quarantine, Matt Miller,, Apr 16, 2020


Some Canadian internet providers hiking rates despite financial fallout from coronavirus, Alexandra Posadzki,, Mar 31, 2020

Technology You Didn’t Know Still Existed: The Telegram, Luke Spencer,, Jun 2, 2015

Telegram service still in demand in Canada, News Staff,, Jun 18, 2013

Telegraph, Robert E. Babe,, Dec 3, 2012, last updated Mar 4, 2015

Toronto newspapers of the past (and present), Lily Ames,, Dec 2, 2011

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