Looking Back to Look Forward–Telegraph History and Tube Transportation

I attended an incredibly interesting keynote talk recently at the University of Colorado. The event was “The Social Implications of Technological Change” and the keynote discussed the history and significance of the U.S. transcontinental telegraph’s construction in 1861. The speaker, Prof. Edmund Russell, is a distinguished professor of history at Boston University whose specialties include the history of technology. The event prompted me to wonder how future historians might view the early days of the hyperloop and high-speed tube transportation1, and to consider its parallels to the telegraph.

Breadth and depth of change. Prof. Russell noted2 that in the 1850s people, goods, and information all traveled at the same speed. A one-way journey between the U.S. east coast and California took about 4 weeks (the telegraph pre-dated and laid a foundation for the transcontinental railroad). For those who could afford to use it, the telegraph reduced the transit time for information to mere minutes. Tube transportation could have a similar effect on movement of people and goods3. Current visions of the hyperloop expect at least an order of magnitude decrease in travel time, and to be accessible to nearly everyone. The early telegraph decreased information transit times by perhaps four orders of magnitude! However, it was not broadly accessible. It was priced as an elite technology, used primarily by the press, government and industry, and the military.

Funding, financing, and the role of government. Many ideas have been put forward about how to pay for the initial construction of a hyperloop line and network, and how to charge for its use. The 1,800-mile telegraph line connecting East with West (Omaha to San Francisco) was a public-private partnership. The U.S. Congress debated the project for 18 years. Eventually approved, capital for the line was personally provided by the leaders of the two companies that built it. Their motivation was, of course, profit, with the expectation that stock of the new subsidiary would become quite valuable. They were right, and Western Union eventually established a near monopoly for the telegraph industry. The government agreed that, once completed, it would pay the companies a fixed annual amount for use of the new line. Would this model work well for the hyperloop? Several funding and financing models have been talked about, and partial government support through a post-construction use commitment is one of them.

Interactions and cooperation within the tube transportation industry. Incredibly, the 1,800-mile telegraph line was constructed in just 5-months without benefit of much technology – it was built by men using shovels and pick-axes, with horses transporting materials. It crossed the rugged Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Great Basin. Two companies cooperated in its construction, and their work joined just outside Salt Lake City (a precursor to the Golden Spike joining of the railroad, also near Salt Lake City). The telegraph industry had a history of both competition and cooperation. In the east, it divided territory among competitors, a cartel not always acting in the public interest. Having more than one company undertaking this large project reduced the financial and technological risk. One wonders if the future will see cooperation between companies that develop the hyperloop technology, and those that build or operate this new transportation infrastructure.

Public perceptions of the role of technology. Prof. Russell began his talk with an inspiring painting entitled American Progress by John Gast (1872). In that era, science and technology were viewed as very positive forces, leading to a more prosperous and powerful nation. In the 150 years since, this perception has become more nuanced, with the realization that use of technology can bring great good and also great harm (aspects of which were discussed in the panel discussion following the keynote talk). How is the hyperloop perceived? The hundreds of recent popular press articles make it clear that most people see the hyperloop as a technology that can improve their daily lives, regional economies, and the resilience of the U.S. to natural disasters and other hazards. On the other hand, there is hesitation because of a perception that the costs and technology are not well understood and mature enough to be safe, reliable, efficient, and cost effective.

Resilience and National Security. The years of debate in Congress prior to a commitment to have the 1,800-mile line built included aspects of nation building, manifest destiny, and military security. It was unclear if the Mormon migration to Utah (in progress at that time) would lead to attempts at secession. It was also unclear if Native American tribes would disrupt the telegraph’s construction or operation. Ultimately, both groups were reliable participants in its construction, benefiting financially and in reputation. However, the telegraph was soon used as a tool of war, coordinating U.S. Army campaigns against Native Americans. Because of this, lines and stations were attacked as military targets. This led to expansion of the U.S. Army in the west to protect them. In terms of resilience and national security, a hyperloop network can be both a logistical and economic advantage (similar to the interstate highway system). With recent natural disasters affecting large areas of the U.S., it is not hard to imagine the benefit of fast, efficient transportation to move people out of harm’s way, and bring supplies and responders quickly to where they are needed. This requires the hyperloop to be built to modern standards to withstand natural forces such as floods, hurricane force winds, and flying debris.

These are just some of the parallels I found. You can view Prof. Russell’s keynote here, and the panel discussion that followed here. He presented his keynote as work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for the book he will eventually write – it should be fascinating.

HARP is hosting a panel discussion, “Hyperloop: Promises and Challenges”, December 6 in New York City. All are welcome to attend and participate in the discussion with our distinguished panelists, but please register in advance – space is limited.


  1. Not all high-speed tube transportation entities self-identify as ‘hyperloop’ technology. In this blog entry, our shorthand is to use the term hyperloop to implicitly include all forms of high-speed tube transportation.

  2. Information presented about the telegraph and its historical context is credited to Dr. Russell’s talk and subsequent personal communications, as well as his cited sources.

  3. This story of the transcontinental telegraph is part of American history. We realize the hyperloop models and activity are different around the world, and hope readers generalize where needed, drawing similar or contrasting parallels to their own experiences and history.

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