The Business of the Telegraph

Ezra Cornell's story is the story of the telegraph in America. Always confident of its great commercial future, he enthusiastically demonstrated it, enlisted capital, and built lines. Although doing so frequently left his family destitute, he always took a large part of his pay in stocks, and invested in the first telegraph company, which connected New York and Washington. He built lines from the Hudson to Philadelphia and from New York to Albany, as well as lines in New York, Vermont and Quebec, and west to Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. He was involved in the rapid construction of subsidiary lines, especially in the midwest, where the telegraph preceded rather than followed the railroad.

The early days of the telegraph industry were tumultuous. Many companies were formed, operated briefly and died. Stronger companies managed to survive despite conflicts, deception, and numerous lawsuits. Service on the hastily built lines was frequently unreliable. In 1851, the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was organized in Rochester by Hiram Sibley and others, with the goal of creating one great system with unified and efficient operations. Meanwhile, Cornell had bought back one of his bankrupt companies and renamed it the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company. Originally fierce competitors, by 1855 both groups were finally convinced that consolidation was their only alternative for progress. The merged company was named The Western Union Telegraph Company at Cornell's insistence. Western Union rapidly expanded operations to most parts of the United States and Canada. While Cornell now took a less active role, he continued to have great faith in the telegraph. He held on to his Western Union stock, and for more than fifteen years was the company's largest stockholder.

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diary Ezra Cornell Pocket Diary, 1856. Autograph manuscript.

Oct. 5, 1856
Recd the appointment of superintendent of the New York, Albany & Buffalo Magnetic Telegraph Co. at a salary of $1750 per annum with directions to enter on duty at once.
(Collection Finding Aid)

Telegraph business records.
Includes Articles of Association, Tariff of Charges, telegraph office rules; telegraph message to Ezra Cornell, Ezra Cornell's stock certificate, Directors' Statement , and telegraph cards.
(Collection Finding Aid)

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