'Wings of Wire' from Household Words


In the 1840s, three huge scientific, technical and engineering innovations helped Britain dominate world trade. Steamships made Britain the leading maritime power; on land, railways transformed society and the economy; and the electric telegraph started the communications revolution. 

This description of the new telegraph in operation comes from Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens (1812–1870) that ran from March 1850 to May 1859. Dickens himself describes the marvel in his leading article of the 7 December 1850 issue, ‘Wings of Wire’. Its lively reportage evokes the Victorians’s keen excitement for, and desire to embrace, the world of new technology. 

In 1837 William Cooke (1806–1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875) had developed a way to control magnetic needles at the end of a wire using electric currents. By making the needles point to letters, messages could be sent instantly, whatever the length of wire. The first working system sent signals between Euston station and Camden town in north London in 1837. The telegraph then developed rapidly alongside the railway network, carrying messages and controlling signalling. 

In 1851, a cable was laid across the Channel; in 1866, across the Atlantic; and by 1878, there were three links to India. News, intelligence and commands could be dispatched immediately, electronically, instead of taking days or weeks on a piece of paper. It started the modern era of instant mass communication, developing into the phone network and ultimately the internet.

Full title:
'Wings of Wire'
7 December 1850, London
Household Words, Charles Dickens [editor]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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