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“The Builder: A Biography of Ezra Cornell,” by Philip Dorf, Macmillan, NY, 1952. Ezra Cornell is best known as the founder of Western Union and of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. This biography, based on an extensive collection of letters and papers at Cornell University, includes a detailed telling of the early days of the telegraph from Samuel FB Morse's patent in 1840 to the formation of Western Union on Nov 1, 1855. Thereafter, Cornell was the largest stockholder, but professional management ran the company.

Ezra was born Jan 11, 1807, to Elijah, a Quaker who followed the pottery trade. Business brought Elijah and family to Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, but Erza mostly grew up in the region near Cortland south of Syracuse, NY–in the towns of Homer and DeRuyter. Ezra began his career as a carpenter, later became a contractor and settled in Ithaca. He entered the telegraph business as a contractor for Morse's government financed demonstration line between Baltimore and Washington in 1844.

Morse began his quest for the telegraph in 1832, after word of his wife's pending death was delayed. He was a painter with no technical background, and hence relied on Professor Leonard Gale for science and Alfred Vail for mechanical assistance. A key player was Francis Ormond Jonathan Smith, Congressman, and Chairman of the House Committee on Commerce.

The demonstration line was to be buried in lead conduit with four cotton insulated copper conductors. Cornell contracted to install the conduit, but it admitted water shorting the wires. Wooden poles (30 to the mile) was the alternative. Insulator technology was developed, finally arriving at “a simple glass knob patterned after the knob on a bureau drawer.” Copper wire was used at first, but steel was found to better withstand foul weather. Repeater technology was primitive initially using 150 lb electromagnetic coils. The line was completed to Baltimore on May 24, 1844.

The final split of patent royalties was Morse, 9/16; Smith, 4/16; Vail, 2/16; and Gale, 1/16. After the US government declined an offer to buy the technology, Smith resigned his position in Congress and became a full time promoter seeking investors to build lines using the Morse system in return for royalties and a share of the profits. He negotiated the right to approve any licensees, and hence became the dominant business force.

The Morse company was known as the Magnetic Telegraph Co. Following the railroad model, mainlines were constructed between major cities, with connecting branch lines serving smaller communities. The system resulted in prompt completion of a network that reached St. Louis in late 1847 (before the arrival of railroads). (According to Hodes [Rising on the River: St. Louis 1822 to 1850, Patrice Press, 2009, p 485], O'Reilly's St. Louis & Louisville line reached the Eastern bank of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis on Dec 18, 1847.) Affiliates of the New York Central reached St. Louis in 1856; of the B&O in 1857 (although promoters had sought support for a St. Louis railroad since at least 1847). The west bound Pacific Railroad drove its first spike in St. Louis on July 4, 1851.

In the early days, money was short. Cornell worked telegraph exhibitions in New York and Boston, but payment was uncertain. Eventually he subscribed to stock in the New York-Philadelphia line and was named superintendent of construction, but he retained the right to pursue his own telegraph interests.

The first investor company was organized in Utica, in May, 1845, by businessmen Theodore Faxton and John Butterfield for a line from New York to Buffalo by way of Albany. The line was completed on September 9, 1846. Cornell was technical advisor and later became superintendent, resigning in 1847. A second one went to Henry O'Reilly, a businessman from Albany, who was authorized to build a line from the Seaboard line to Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and beyond to St. Louis on the Mississippi and cities on the Great Lakes. The third major line from New York to Boston was built by FOJ Smith as contractor. Morse licensees were granted exclusive territories. Others built competing lines but without a license from Morse, they could use only less efficient equipment.

O'Reilly set about creating a network of telegraph lines far exceeding the provisions of his contract. In 1846, the Morse patentees decided to declare the O'Reilly contract void on the grounds that he had failed to completed the Harrisburg line within the time allotted. On this basis, another Morse line from Buffalo to Detroit was assigned to Livingston and Wells, contractors of the New York/Albany line, and Detroit to Milwaukee was assigned to John Speed, a business associate of Cornell in Ithaca. Milwaukee-Chicago opened Jan 15, 1848; Chicago-Detroit, Apr, 1848, but the Buffalo-Detroit connection was delayed by lack of subscriptions attributed to the threat of lawsuits from O'Reilly. Cornell took it over as otherwise his Detroit-Milwaukee line lacked an Eastern connection.

O'Reilly took his suit all the way to the Supreme Court, who in 1853 ruled part of the Morse patent overly broad and invalid. The patent makes clear that Morse's invention included not only Morse code and a sounding system, but in particular a repeating system, essentially large relays, that transferred the dots and dashes to a second circuit with its own battery. Hence, repeaters spaced every 15 to 20 miles, amplified the signal allowing transmission over long distances. The fact that Morse code is amenable to this crude system of amplification was fundamental to its practicality. O'Reilly lost his lawsuit, and soon left the telegraph business. His story is told by Dexter Perkins in Rochester History, v 7, 1945 (

In February, 1848, Speed and Cornell also took an interest in the New York & Erie line which ran from New York through Ithaca to Dunkirk, NY paralleling the Erie Railroad, shortening the path of the New York-Albany-Buffalo line, which followed the New York Central Railroad. The line was completed in July, 1848. However, the line had been constructed on a shoestring and was unreliable. It sank into bankruptcy and Cornell bought the line out of receivership in 1852. He financed the deal by selling the Erie Railroad the right to use the Morse system on their private telegraph line. The railroad and the telegraph company also exchanged the right to use each other's poles and lines when necessary for improved reliability. The new company was named the New York and Western Union Telegraph Co.

The hodgepodge of competing lines resulted in cutthroat pricing, lines that were poorly maintained, and too often poor service from disgruntled employees. Finally on Nov 1, 1855, the various interests came together to create the Western Union Telegraph Co. Immediately competition between lines ceased and profitability improved.

After years of being almost penniless and away from home tending to telegraph business, Cornell finally had the pleasure of secure income in Western Union dividends. He retired to Ithaca to spend time with his family. He returned to farming specializing in breeding high value cattle. But he soon noticed the absence of veterinarians in the Ithaca area. He became interested in improving the practice of agriculture. With his neighbors, he formed a Farmer's Club to discuss developments. The club subscribed to agriculture journals and studied new developments. He was elected to the state legislature, and was able to secure federal land grants under the Morrill Act and state support for Cornell College, founded in 1864.

Western Union prospered in the following years building the transcontinental telegraph with government support in 1861. The telegraph proved its value in the Civil War contributing greatly to the conduct of the war and especially communications between the President and his commanders. At the end of the war Western Union got miles of additional telegraph lines that were constructed by the army. Western Union also became one of the largest corporations and played a role in later labor strife. An arrangement with the Associated Press resulted in the distribution of news and market pricing by telegraph.

Western Union stock became a hot investment, and Cornell, its largest shareholder made good use of his wealth to improve life in Ithaca. In the end, he invested much of his fortune in a short-line railroad, which sank into bankruptcy. Ezra Cornell died of pneumonia on December 9, 1874.

This book is the most detailed telling of the early telegraph and especially the phase from invention of the telegraph to creation of a national network and the formation of Western Union. One can note later phases of Western Union yet to be told: 1) the growth stage when Western Union grew to be a great corporation, 2) the Jay Gould days when it was a pawn of the robber baron, 3) acquisition by AT&T, 4) the teletype and telex era, 5) decline as other communications methods came to dominate, and 6) the age of money grams. For those who want to know why we have telegraph and wire roads in parts of the US, this is an interesting read. Photographs. Index.
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