‘The old, old story–in a new, new way’: A brief introduction to American telegraph literature

In America in the 1870s, a new genre of literature began springing up in periodicals and trade journals. Telegraph fiction was typically written by those working in the profession as telegraph operators, and centred upon daily life in the telegraph office. It was still a relatively new innovation in telecommunications–one which few outside of the profession properly understood–but the electric telegraph offered new and novel ways of constructing identity and shaping fictional narratives. 

Trade journals such as The Operator and The Telegrapher, along with periodical magazines like Harper’sScribner’s, and Atlantic Monthly, began printing stories centring upon telegraph operators. The growing number of young, unmarried women in the telegraphic workforce inspired a flurry of romance stories, which often involved two operators falling in love over the wire. In 1880, William John Johnston, editor of The Operator, published a novel which he marketed as ‘the old, old story–in a new, new way’: Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer. 

Title page from Wired Love

The primary purpose of telegraph fiction, according to Johnston, was to ‘afford comprehensive and instructive insight into the mysteries of the electric telegraph, and of the inner life of that great and growing fraternity, the telegraphists, in reference to whose highly interesting history so little is known to the outside world.’ So, the aim wasn’t to appeal just to those already in the profession, but to open the telegraph office to the world, and in doing so, create a new genre of contemporary literature.

In these stories, telegraph operators are seen experimenting with their identity on the wire, using the virtual realm as a means of enacting a different gender; committing fraud; forming friendships; catching criminals; and preventing accidents. While the narratives themselves are not exactly exceptional for the period–usually culminating in a marriage or death (or both!)–they nevertheless offer an intriguing insight into the opportunities and anxieties produced by increased connectivity and a growing female workforce. 

Excerpt from Strand Magazine, Vol. 11 (1896)

The woman telegraphers in these stories are often shown to be intelligent, resourceful, and skilled–their job requiring them to be an electrician, translator, communicator, and clerical worker all at once. In a story entitled ‘Carrie: The Telegraph Girl’ by Captain Jack Crawford, the story’s eponymous heroine uses her electrical skill to thwart an attempted railway robbery. Upon hearing the robbers entering the station, Carrie hides in the loft, taps into the railway’s telegraph line, and secretly sends messages to the neighbouring railway station to warn them of the intrusion. Other stories involve private wires being installed for lovers to communicate in secret, and passengers on a train tapping their conversation in Morse code so as not be overheard and understood by those around them.

However, this novel form of literary expression was short-lived, as telegraphic technology and its precarious workforce was soon superseded by new communications devices, such as the teletype and the telephone. In the 1900s, typists and telephonists would become the next breed of information workers to intrigue the outside world.

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