Perhaps it’s the election of 2016. More and more of us, it seems, are obsessively checking the news on cable channels and websites several times a day. Or we haunt Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates. We typically think of this obsession with the news as a recent phenomenon, a product of the Internet and social media.
However, this obsession with the news originated with the telegraph. Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message from Washington to Baltimore in 1844 was the celebrated Bible verse, “What hath God wrought!” His lesser-known second message, immediately following, was, “Have you any news?”
This relationship between the telegraph and the news intensified during the Civil War. During the first Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the war in July 1861, crowds in Washington and New York City gathered in front of hotels and newspaper offices to read the latest telegrams from the front. Soon afterward, the essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked on this phenomenon of “war fever,” which he described as “a nervous restlessness… Men cannot think, or write, or attend to their ordinary business” because of their obsession with the latest war news. One friend told Holmes that “he would read the same telegraphic dispatches over and over again in different papers, as if they were new, until he felt as if he were an idiot.”
This psychological hunger for the latest news continued to grow after the Civil War. On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield at a Washington railroad station. Immediately afterward, anxious crowds gathered at newspaper offices, hotels, and other public accommodations to receive hourly updates on the President’s condition. On the day following Garfield’s shooting, business ground to a halt in New York, as “men of all conditions jostled each other round the bulletins.”Although most publishers and editors regarded telegraphic dispatches—and the excitement they created—as good for circulation and sales, somewere uneasy with this changing psychology of newsconsumption. Colonel E. A. Calkins, publisher of the Milwaukee News, warned his fellow newspapermen in 1874:
The telegraphic dispatches must be published. … People read them eagerly, whether they are important or not…Not half the stuff which comes by telegraph would be printed in our columns if it came by any other mode of conveyance. But there is a public voracity for telegraphic news which will not be appeased…. This feature is constantly expanding in dimensions. It grows like an excrescence upon journalism. We are helpless to resist it.
Calkins’ remarks confirm that the telegraph had profoundly changed both the news industry and the psychology of news consumption. We can locate the roots of today’s obsession with the news cycle in the telegraphic dispatches that Calkins complained about. Just as importantly, this relationship demands that historians of technology pay more attention to the psychological effects of technological innovation. We have developed sophisticated frameworks for understanding the relationship between technological innovation and social change, but we understand far less about how technological change affects individual perceptions, expectations, and behavior.
David Hochfelder is an associate professor of history at University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author of The Telegraph in America, 1832–1920 and assistant editor for The Papers of Thomas A. Edison project.