Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

Old-Fashioned Telegraphs

The Musket Telegraph

There are many people living who can remember when there were no telegraphs such as we have now. The telephone is still younger. Railroads are not much older than telegraphs. Horses and stagecoaches were slow. How did people send messages quickly when there were no telegraph wires?

When colonies in America were first settled by white people, there were wars with the Indians. The Indians would creep into a neighborhood and kill all the people they could, and then they would get away before the soldiers could overtake them. But the white people made a plan to catch them.

Whenever the Indians attacked a settlement, the settler who saw them first took his gun and fired it three times. Bang, bang, bang! went the gun. The settlers who lived near the man who fired the gun heard the sound. They knew that three shots following one another quickly, meant that the Indians had come.

Every settler who heard the three shots took his gun and fired three times. It was bang, bang, bang! again. Then, as soon as he had fired, he went in the direction of the first shots. Every man who had heard three shots, fired three more, and went toward the shots he had heard. Farther and farther away the settlers heard the news, and sent it along by firing so that others might hear. Soon little companies of men were coming swiftly in every direction. The Indians were sure to be beaten off or killed.

This was a kind of telegraph. But there were no wires; there was no electricity; only one flint-lock musket waking up another flintlock musket, till a hundred guns had been fired, and a hundred men were marching to the battle.

Telegraphing by Fire

The firing of signal guns was telegraphing by sound. It used only the hearing. But there were other ways of telegraphing that used the sight. These have been known for thousands of years. They were known even to savage people.

The Indians on the plains use fires to telegraph to one another. Sometimes they build one fire, sometimes they build many. When a war party, coming back from battle, builds five fires on a hill, the Indians who see it know that the party has killed five enemies.

But the Indians have also what are known as smoke signals. An Indian who wishes to send a message to a party of his friends a long way off, builds a fire. When it blazes, he throws an armful of green grass on it. This causes the fire to send up a stream of white smoke hundreds of feet high, which can be seen fifty miles away in clear weather. Among the Apaches, one column of smoke is to call attention; two columns say, "All is well, and we are going to remain in this camp;" three columns or more are a sign of danger, and ask for help.

Smoke signal


Sometimes longer messages are sent. After building a fire and putting green grass upon it, the Indian spread his blanket over it. He holds down the edges, to shut the smoke in. After a few moments he takes his blanket off; and when he does this, a great puff of smoke, like a balloon, shoots up into the air. This the Indian does over and over. One puff of smoke chases another upward. By the number of these puffs, and the length of the spaces between them, he makes his meaning understood by his friends many miles away.

At night the Indians smear their arrows with something that will burn easily. One of them draws his bow. Just as he is about to let his arrow fly, another one touches it with fire. The arrow blazes as it shoots through the air, like a fiery dragon fly. One burning arrow follows another; and those who see them read these telegraph signals, and know what is meant.

Telegraphs in the Revolution

Our forefathers sometimes used fire to telegraph with in the Revolution. Whenever the British troops started on a raid into New Jersey, the watchmen on the hilltops lighted great beacon fires. Those who saw the fires lighted other fires farther away. These fires let the people know that the enemy was coming, for light can travel much faster than men on horseback.

Have you heard the story of Paul Revere? When the British were about to send troops from Boston to Lexington, Revere and his friends had an understanding with the people in Charlestown. Revere was to let them know when the troops should march. They were to watch a certain church steeple. If one lantern were hung in the steeple, it would mean that the British were marching by land. If two lanterns were seen, the Charlestown people would know that the troops were leaving Boston by water. Revere was sent as a messenger to Lexington. He sent a friend of his to hang up the lanterns in the church steeple.

"Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,

By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,

To the belfry chamber overhead,

And startled the pigeons from their perch

On the somber rafters, that round him made

Masses and moving shapes of shade,—

By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,

To the highest window in the wall,

Where he paused to listen and look down

A moment on the roofs of the town,

And the moonlight flowing over all."

Long before Paul Revere got across the water in his little boat, the people on the other side had seen the lanterns in the tower. They knew the British were coming, and were all astir when Paul Revere got over. Revere rode on to Lexington and beyond, to alarm the people.

The lines above are from a poem of Longfellow's about this ride. The poem is very interesting, but it does not tell the story quite correctly.

Paul Revere's lanterns were used at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. There is a story of a different sort of telegraph used when the war was near its end. It is told by a British officer who had not the best means of knowing whether it was true or not. But it shows what kind of telegraphs were used in that day. This is the story:—

Old North Church


A British army held New York. Another British army under Cornwallis was at Yorktown in Virginia. General Washington had marched to Yorktown. He was trying to capture the army of General Cornwallis. He was afraid that ships and soldiers would be sent from New York to help Cornwallis. But there were men in New York who were secretly on Washington's side. One of these was to let him know when ships should sail to help Cornwallis.

But Washington was six hundred miles away from New York. How could he get the news before the English ships should get there? There were no telegraphs. The fastest horses ridden one after another could hardly have carried news to him in less than two weeks. But Washington had a plan. One of the men who sent news to Washington was living in New York. When the ships set sail, he went up on the top of his house and hoisted a white flag, or something that looked like a white flag.

On the other side of the Hudson River in a little village a man was watching this very house. As soon as he saw the white flag flapping, he took up his gun and fired it. Farther off there was a man waiting to hear this gun. When he heard it, he fired another gun. Farther on there was the crack of another, and then another gun. By the firing of one gun after another the news went southward. Bang, bang! went gun after gun across the whole State of New Jersey. Then guns in Pennsylvania took it up and sent the news onward. Then on across the State of Maryland the news went from one gun to another, till it reached Virginia, where it passed on from gun to gun till it got to Yorktown. In less than two days Washington knew that ships were coming.

When Washington knew that British ships were coming, he pushed the fighting at Yorktown with all his might. When the English ships got to Chesapeake Bay at last, Cornwallis had already surrendered. The United States was free. The ships had come too late.

A Boy's Telegraph

The best telegraph known before the use of electricity, was invented by two schoolboys in France. They were brothers named Chapp? (shap-pay). They were in different boarding schools some miles apart, and the rules of their schools did not allow them to write letters to each other. But the two schools were in sight of each other. The brothers invented a telegraph. They put up poles with bars of wood on them. These bars would turn on pegs or pins. The bars were turned up or down, or one up and another down, or two down and one up, and so on. Every movement of the bars meant a letter. In this way the two brothers talked to each other, though they were miles apart. When the boys became men, they sold their plan to the French Government. The money they got made their fortune.

Mail carrier


About the time they were selling this plan to the French Government, a boy named Samuel Morse was born in this country. Fifty years later this Samuel Morse set up the first Morse electric telegraph, which is the one we now use.

In the old days before telegraph wires were strung all over the country, it took weeks to carry news to places far away. There were no railroads, and the mails had to travel slowly. A boy on a horse trotted along the road to carry the mail bags to country places. From one large city to another, the mails were carried by stagecoaches.

When the people had voted for President, it was weeks before the news of the election could be gathered in. Then it took other weeks to let the people in distant villages know the name of the new President. Nowadays a great event is known in almost every part of the country on the very day it happens.