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The day the Pony Express died

Workers completed the trans-continental telegraph on 24 October 1861, ending the need for the Pony Express.

There was a working (albeit short-lived) telegraph cable across the Atlantic before there was one that connected San Francisco and Washington, DC.

On 24 October 1861, workers connected two telegraph lines in Salt Lake City, Utah, one originating on the east coast and one on the west. For the first time, the Western Union Telegraph Company could transmit a message “instantaneous[ly]” from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.

Prior to the connection, the eastern line ended in Omaha, Nebraska, and the western line, in Carson City, Nevada.

NYT clipping
“The Overland Telegraph. Completion of the Line to San Francisco. A Message from the Mayor of San Francisco to the Mayor of New-York.” 26 October 1861. NYT.

Before the Morse telegraph, with its dots and dashes, the fastest way to get a message from coast-to-coast was the Pony Express.

From St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, over 2,000 miles, a continual relay of the best riders and horses traveled day and night to deliver the mail. Two hundred riders, like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, rode at a full gallop for shifts of 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at relief stations along the route. Some riders had to brave vast stretches of rugged terrain, icy mountain passes, and dry, hot deserts. During the summer, the trip took 10 days; in the stormy winter, 12 to 16 days–approximately half the time needed by stagecoach.

The fastest recorded trip for the Pony Express was the delivery of “President Lincoln’s first inaugural address–seven days and seventeen hours.”

According to Jeremy Norton’s History of Information, “Twenty years earlier, in 1841, it took 110 days for the news of the death of President William Henry Harrison to reach Los Angeles, [traveling] by sea, around Cape Horn in a clipper ship.”

From months, to more than a week, to minutes. If there is any constant in communication technologies, it is that they get faster and cheaper.

On 26 October 1861, the Pony Express officially closed. It was perhaps the shortest of all bridge technologies, operating only from April 1860 until October 1861.

chart Atlantic cable, 1858
Chart of the submarine Atlantic Telegraph, 1858. Library of Congress.

About the trans-Atlantic cable: three years earlier, two ships had successfully completed laying a two-mile deep trans-Atlantic cable from Trinity Bay, Newfoundland to Valentia, Ireland, on 05 August 1858.

It would take another eight years, 27 July 1866, before the British ship Great Eastern completed laying the first permanent telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean. The distance, 1686 nautical miles.


#scitech, #communication
📷 Library of Congress
Daily posts, 2022-2023 (277/365)

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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