175 Years of Telecommunications: The Origins of the Electric Telegraph in Canada

By Michael Feagan

During the spring of 1844, Samuel B. Morse sent the first American telegraph over an experimental line from Washington to Baltimore. The message was “What hath God wrought?” It was a biblical message that resounded in a triumphant and apocalyptic tone. This was appropriate for a new technology that would often be cited for eliminating space and time, fundamentally changing the way people communicated. By comparison, the first telegraphs between Canadian telegraphers were much more mundane. The first telegraphic conversation in Canada occurred nearly 175 years ago between Toronto and Hamilton on December 19, 1846. The conversation was over what time it was in both locations. As time zones had not yet been established, there was actually a seventeen minute difference between the local times in both locations.[1] Although more ordinary than Morse’s inaugural telegram, the first Canadian telegrams still highlighted the ways in which the telegraph challenged traditional understandings of time and space.

The first Canadian telegraph company was founded in 1846 by T. D. Harris, a Toronto hardware merchant, along with Gamble and Boulton law firm, and Toronto mayor William H. Boulton.[2] Together, this group funded the construction of a telegraph line connecting Toronto with Niagara via Hamilton and St. Catharines. The company was named The Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara & St. Catharines Electro Magnetic Telegraph Company. One of the greatest achievements of this company was the construction of a telegraph line across the Niagara River connecting Queenston with Lewiston, New York, and when Lewiston was connected with Buffalo, the city of Toronto would be brought into communication with New York City.

Traffic for the first telegraph company was not very high, only amounting to about ten to twelve dispatches a day, and the price was very high.[3] Similarly, the public seemed uninterested in a technology that was difficult to access. A writer for The Globe was mortified to learn that lectures on the recent developments in telegraphy held in Montreal did not receive greater attendance, and he could not find an explanation for the public’s apathy.[4] This lack of interest was likely a result of Canadian telegraphy not being envisioned with the general public in mind, and the public seeing the telegraph as a mysterious and ethereal technology. Describing telegraphy in biblical and ethereal terms was not uncommon and helped to perpetuate the idea of the telegraph as being outside the realm of so-called common people. The company’s slogan reinforced this theme: “He directeth it under the whole Heaven, and His lightnings unto the ends of the Earth.”[5]

Three telegrams from March 1847 illustrate the style used to communicate early telegrams and indicate how and why the telegraph was used. These three telegrams show a correspondence between Dr Paget and someone who signed as “The Champion” from Toronto, who were messaging Hamilton’s John Evans, about the death and funeral arrangements of a woman named Adelaide. One of the eye-catching facts about these telegrams is that they were handwritten, as typewriters were not yet invented. In fact, all three telegrams were written in slightly different styles, suggesting that three different operators received and wrote these telegrams. The content of these telegrams also suggests that Evans never responded via telegram, likely due to the cost. Death and funerals had been a constant subject for telegrams. This connection between death and the telegraph goes back to the telegraph’s inventor, Samuel Morse. It has been speculated by many that when Morse missed his wife’s death and funeral because he was away in Washington, D.C., slow communications helped inspire his passion for fast electric communications years later.[6] Regardless, these three telegrams are an excellent example of what the telegraph was like for Canadians 175 years ago.



The Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara, and St. Catharines Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company. Three telegrams sent from Toronto to Hamilton, two on March 4, one March 5, 1847 regarding a family death, bereavement, and funeral. (Images provided by Bonhams: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/11285/lot/14/).


[1] Jean-Guy Rens and Kathe Roth, The Invisible Empire: a History of the Telecommunications Industry in Canada, 10.

[2] A. W. Campbell, Telegraph Statistics of the Dominion of Canada for the Year Ended June 30 1912 (Ottawa: C. H. Parmelee, 1913), 8; Chris Bateman, Historicist: “Talk by Lightning,” https://torontoist.com/2016/12/historicist-talk-by-lightning/; Adam Ahrens, Fifty Words a Minute: History of the Telegraph in Toronto, https://www.heritagetoronto.org/explore-learn/telegraph-internet-pandemic-communications/.

[3] Rens, 10.

[4] The Globe, “The Electro-Magnetic Telegraph,” Nov. 11, 1846, 1.

[5] Rens, 10.

[6] Gabe Bullard, “The Heartbreak That May Have Inspired the Telegraph,” National Geographic, Apr. 26, 2016, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/160426-samuel-morse-wife-lucretia-telegraph-invention; Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers, Second Edition, Revised (New York London Oxford New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury USA, 2014).