In self-congratulatory inscriptions written by himself, Carver pronounced himself the “Father of the Pacific Railroad” [also known as the Transatlantic Railroad]. Actually, while Carver definitely promoted and furthered the progress of the transcontinental railroad, apparently only he identified himself as its Father. Carver’s monument is more a monument to his ego rather than to historical accuracy.
By coincidence, if you walk but a few paces from Carver, you’ll discover the obelisk honoring James D. Reid (1819 – 1901) who — unlike the ersatz claims of Carver — can legitimately be called the father of one of the most transformative technologies in human history: the telegraph.
Reid’s inscription modestly calls him a “Pioneer of the Telegraph,” even as eulogies and encomiums honored him as “The Father of the Telegraph,” especially seen in his nationally circulated obituary.
While not the inventor of the telegraph — the honor given to Reid’s good friend, Samuel Morse — Reid was universally known within the telegraph world, sometimes called the Grand Old Man. From 1844 to his death, Reid devoted his career to expanding the telegraph and chronicling its history. As seen in the monument inscription, Reid was the first ever Telegraph Superintendent.
In 1837, Reid moved from Toronto to Rochester, later to become a postal clerk. In Rochester, Reid married and raised his children who are buried next to him in Mt. Hope Cemetery. In Rochester, Reid befriended Hiram Sibley (1807 – 1888), the first president of Western Union. It is not clear exactly when Reid left Rochester, but he always maintained ties, returning in 1873 or 1874 possibly for a professorship at the University of Rochester. (SEE FULL BIOGRAPHY AT END)
Reid’s most dramatic connection to Rochester occurred in 1862. As described in Jenny Marsh Parker’s Rochester: A Story Historical (1884), in 1862 the ironclad Confederate Merrimack threatened Union shipping.
In a remarkable exertion, Reid took it upon himself to insure that Rochesterians would know about the titanic battle as soon as possible:
James D. Reid was at that time superintendent of the state telegraphs. On Saturday he ordered a wire swung across the highlands of the Hudson River above West Point, to secure communication at the earliest moment, and arranged to be reported to at Rochester at each hour of Sunday until connection was secured. At 3 p. M. word was sent him that the wire was up, and at the same time communicated to him the arrival of the Monitor in Hampton Roads, and the particulars of her victory over the Merrimac. No one else in that anxious city knew of it. He was announced as one of the speakers at the anniversary in the evening. The other speakers were Dr. Peet of the First Presbyterian, and Dr. Coit of St. Peters, now both dead. As if in expectation of some great event the house was packed. The national dangers could be read on the solemn and anxious faces of every citizen.
If ever there was a picture of the power of the telegraph, this is it: anxious Rochesterians learning — in almost real time — that the Monitor had battled the Merrimack to a tie that might have saved Washington, D.C.
Passing up to the organist, Mr. Reid told him to keep himself ready for a signal from him during his address. Dr. Peet and Dr. Coit had delivered eloquent addresses. It was now Mr. Reid’s turn. In vain he tried to postpone the announcement which was to make the nation laugh with joy. Taking from his pocket the dispatch, he had scarcely finished reading it when a small boy in the gallery shouted, in a shrill voice, “Hurrah.” Instantly a shout of general joy arose. The organist, with all the stops out, started the national hymn,” My country,’ tis of thee,” which was sung amid almost transporting fervor, and at a late hour the people separated with the feeling that a great danger was passed.
So, if Reid was the “Father of the Telegraph,” what does that have to do with the internet?
In the late 1990s, as the internet became mainstream, commentators noted that the internet was really just an extension of the telegraph that shook the world. Like the internet, the telegraph allowed almost instantaneous communication, faster than horses, ships, railroads.
The feeling in the 1840s upon receiving a telegraph messages hundreds of miles away must have been astounding. In 1858, as the telegraph was burgeoning, in The Story of the Telegraph, Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick wrote what could describe our world:
Of all the marvelous achievements of modern science the electric telegraph is transcendentally the greatest and most serviceable to mankind … The whole earth will be belted with the electric current, palpitating with human thoughts and emotions.
In The Victorian Internet (1898), Tom Standage was one of the first to advance the thesis that the telegraph was the precursor to the internet:
In 1998, Standage said we are the “heirs of the telegraphic tradition.” He is right — and our forefather is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.¹
¹Reid’s status as the grandfather of the internet could be challenged in the person of Albert A. Gore Sr., former Democratic Representative and Senator from Tennessee. Urban legend has it that Gore’s son, Albert A. Gore Jr., former Vice President, said he invented the internet, presumably making Gore Sr. another forefather.