Marshfield, November 1927: The rise and fall of the telegraph
By Kris Leonhardt
As the Marshfield AP press wire closed for the evening on a cool Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m., Herman Voight rose from his station and made his way through his office door.
A telegraph operator for the past 17 years, Voight had interpreted thousands of messages using an electromagnetic machine developed in the early 1800s.
Prior to the telegraph’s introduction, messages had to be physically delivered to their intended recipient. Once developed at the hands of Samuel Morse and a team of various inventors, communication was instantaneous.
Much like the invention of text messaging today, the telegraph, although a little more complicated, allowed for constant contact with individuals or areas that had been previously out of reach.
The first telegraph message came in 1844 and was a government-sponsored electrical signal over wire between Washington D.C. and Baltimore.
The message, delivered through a specific series of dots and dashes indicating specific letters of the alphabet, was, “What hath God wrought?” The code, created by Morse and Alfred Vail, would later be known as Morse code.
Telegraph line would rapidly spread across the United States and eventually across the Atlantic to Europe. Once the “wire” was received at the station of the telegraph operator, the recipient would decipher the marks embossed on the paper tape and turn them into a message.
As the operators gained more experience, they became more adept at reading the signals coming through and could relay the message by sound. This led to the introduction of the “sounder,” which took away the need for paper, allowing the operator to decipher by sound.
Seventeen years later, Western Union became the first nation-wide company to operate the telegraph, making it capable of wiring money anywhere in the country. Telegraph operators could be found in post offices, railroad stations, and, most notably, newspaper offices.
The telegraph greatly changed the way newspapers conducted business. Where it once took weeks to deliver news from other areas of the country or overseas, it now took minutes.
This is why Herman Voight had come to the city of Marshfield. Voight, previously employed in Iowa, had transferred to the railway hub to run the telegraph press line here. Entering the office at 7:15 a.m., Voight would receive and decode a steady stream of communications sent over the press line until he donned his jacket to leave.
The continuous clicking of the telegraph machine spelled out thousands of messages on news from across the nation and abroad. Voight, a dedicated employee, never missed a day. However, on this particular November day, Voight would rise from his position for the last time. A machine, introduced just two years prior, would now fill his job on the press wire.
Teletypewriters and the invention of the Telex machine had made it possible to install equipment to send and receive messages on their own. Over time telephones, fax machines, and later computers and smartphones would remove the need for the telegraph machines as well.