(As published in Robertson County [Tenn.] Times in January 2007 by J. Mark Lowe - Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
Today, we have cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, and even blackberries, but the first method of electronic communication was the telegraph. Thomas Edison is most famous for inventing the light bulb, phonograph and moving pictures. He was granted 1,093 patents for his inventions. But 150 of these patents related to telegraph technology. Edison started his career as a telegrapher. At age 15, in 1862, he started work in a small town Western Union office. As his skill grew he moved to higher profile jobs. By 1869 he had positioned himself in the telegraph service and manufacturing business.
After the Civil War, as American business expanded across the globe, telegraph was essential as a communication tool. Congress held hearings to consider making the postal telegraph system part of the Post Office. Other companies scrambled to fight the Western Union monopoly.
JW Mackay founded the Postal Telegraph Cable Co. This company was the major competitor to Western Union.
A young local telegraph operator was George Christopher. George was born outside Murfreesboro Tennessee in 1895 to James and Louisa Christopher. He loved spending summers on his grandparents farm in Robertson county, Tenn. He especially enjoyed riding the train over the ridge. However his family circumstances were about to change. His grandparents were caught in a typhoid epidemic in Florida. His grandmother died and his grandfather was unable to provide for himself. James E. Allen moved to Rutherford county to live with the Christophers. In the next year, George Christopher’s father and grandfather died. His mother was forced to sell the farm and they relocated to small two-story home in Nashville which Louisa Christopher operated as a rooming house. In addition to George and his mother, there are George’s two brothers, two sisters, a brother-in-law and two nieces. By 1910, George had been working as a messenger for the Postal Telegraph Company in Nashville for three years. George was photographed by Lewis Hine as part of an effort to record Child Labor actions across the U.S.
This hard working young man continued to work for Postal Telegraph. In 1920, George accepted the position of Chief Telegraph Operator in St. Louis, Missouri. At that time, his mother, Louisa, and his brother, Mitchell, joined George, his wife, Katherine and their daughter, Thelma, as they moved to their new home on Olive Ave in St. Louis. George continued to work for telegraph companies until his death.
The history of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company is simple. When Mr. John W. Mackay, the famous Bonanza gold millionaire, and Mr. James Gordon Bennett, of the N. Y. Herald, associated themselves together for the purpose of building a commercial cable across the Atlantic, they readily recognized the fact that the existing cable was operated in conjunction with the Western Union lines. Mackay resolved to organize the Postal Telegraph Cable Co., and to provide equipment and resources which would enable it to compete with any and all existing lines.
“Mr. Mackey, who has thus come forward to assist, even if indirectly, in the task of destroying the powerful telegraph monopoly, is a man of about the medium height, if anything, somewhat above rather than below the average stature, and neither stoutly nor thinly built. His features are somewhat prominent and be token a resoint will. His face is clean-shaven and somewhat florid. He is quiet in manner and dress. He appears like a man who does not hesitate long in forming a decision, and when his mind is made up allow no obstacles to remain in the way of execution.
The capital stock was fixed at $3,million which might be increased to $7 million.”
James Gordon Bennett was certainly an adventurer himself. From 1874 to 1877 he had Henry M. Stanley searching for Dr. Livingstone, in Africa In 1879 he fitted out the Jeannette Polar Expedition. In 1899 he engaged William Marconi to transmit by wireless accounts of the American Cup Races between the “Columbia” and Sir Thomas Lipton's first “Shamrock.” In October, 1906, he used the wireless to broadcast news of the World Series of baseball games,
In 1928, the company became part of ITT under the name of Postal Telegraph & Cable. On October 3, 1943, Western Union merged with the Postal Telegraph and Cable Company. Locally, the telegraph offices remained connected with the local railroad office, until Western Union opened an office on the corner of 6th and Main, where the Birdie Whirlie store is located.
Sources: New York Times; NY Herald; Census Records, Nashville American, Christopher Family Records, Library of Congress