High Tech Circa 1874

“San Diego is connected with other parts of the United States by the lines of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Length of the line from San Diego to San Francisco, six hundred and fifty miles, including the branch line to San Bernardino.”

So reads the beginning of a section on “Telegraphic Communication” in the book Information Relative to the City of San Diego, published in 1874 out of the offices of The San Diego Union on behalf of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

The first telegraphic message transmitted out of San Diego had taken place just a few years previously, on August 19, 1870. According to William Smythe’s 1908 History of San Diego, the coming of the telegraph was the result of Western Union representatives who came to San Diego and “raised by canvass a subscription of $8,000, the amount of the subsidy required.”

That was a lot of money in those days. Which may explain why the main contributors to that Western Union subsidy represented some of the city’s business heavyweights. The original subscribers, according to Information Relative, were “twenty three individuals and firms,” of whom “[the] largest givers were [Alonzo] Horton, [Ephraim W.] Morse, San Diego Union and J. S. Mannasse & Co.”

The book also reported that the Western Union office, located at Fifth and D Streets, “furnishes the Coast and eastern cities with daily reports of steamship movements, exports and imports; with other valuable statistics and information, amounting to thirty-six thousand words in the year 1873.”

Western Union at that point in time was in the process of merging with several major rivals to become what one study of the industry called “the first major industrial monopoly, with over 90% of the market share and dominance in every state.”

Big Data, indeed!

In addition to the aforementioned books, another source for this post was the website of the Economic History Association, https://eh.net/eha/ .

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