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Story Of London

London’s Utilities in 1853 – IV: The Telegraph

The final instalment from the article in “The Leisure Hour – A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation” which appeared in issue number 80 on Thursday July 7 1853 under the heading of “Subterranean London” deals with that “most marvellous triumph” of the early Victorian Age – the Telegraph. The piece is arguably one of the first public records of the great spirit of popular enterprise which engulfed the last fifty of Victoria’s reign and gave us the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire. Our author surprised us by concluding with a question which is daily – and despairingly – echoed by the Londoners of the 21st century!

CHAPTER FOURTelegram Cottage at Slough.It remains now to notice the fourth and last formed of these subterranean evidences of human sagacity and enterprise. Reverting to our supposed clairvoyant, whose eye the stony ground should serve as a transparent medium – on looking for the means of effecting the most marvellous triumph which the united industry and genius of man has ever accomplished, he would see little more than a number of slender threads radiating from a common centre in Lothbury towards the various railway stations, where they are connected with the wires borne aloft on poles, the aspect of which is familiar to the reader.Along these wires the electric message travels at the rate of twenty thousand miles a second, and instant communication is thus obtained with any part of the kingdom furnished with the means of transit. Neither does the communication stop with the limits of the land; it traverses the sea, reaches the capital of France, the throbs of whose troubled heart pulsate in London, and dives across the Irish Channel, startling the ear of England with the lamentations of her desolate sister.Thus much has already been accomplished in the infancy of this new discovery: to what social advantages it will eventually lead it is vain yet to prophesy; we live in an age of scientific marvels – marvels the bare mention of which would have provoked the withering contempt of David Hume and his whole school of freethinkers, and drawn down a story obloquy upon the head of any man who who fifty years ago should have had the hardihood to have foretold them. It may be that the use of the electric telegraph shall become as popular and as general as that of the railway is now – that the art of magnetic converse may become an educational accomplishment, and that man may enjoy the society of his friend after the fatigues of business, though a thousand miles of land and sea may lie between them. There is nothing even now impossible in such a consummation; and if there were, we have learned to think that the impossible is to be surmounted, from having surmounted it so often.It is curious to reflect that the basis of this grand system of communication was the simple accidental discovery, that the electric current would deflect a delicately-balanced needle at an indefinite distance. This fact once established, it remained but to decide on the signals which were to represent the different letters of the alphabet, and the system was virtually complete. To what other purposes it is to be applied, besides the transmission of intelligence and the diffusion of the true astronomical time, is yet to be seen. The generation which is to come after will do more than tread in our steps, and will leave us, in all likelihood, still farther in the rear than we have left our sires.Thus much for the under-ground world of London, from which we cannot part without king the question, Why is all this accumulation of material wealth buriedn the earth and suffered gradually to rot in her damp embrace? Why not construct sub-ways, having arched surfaces to form the roads, beneath which the sewer-drains, the water-mains, the gas-pipes, and the electric wires, each in their allotted place, would be readily accessible for repair or re-construction, without the expensive and annoying process of ripping up the roads whenever they require looking after? Some years ago, petitions were presented to parliament by an ingenious architect for the adoption of a plan to this effect. We cannot think but that it would have been a wise economy to have legislated for the adoption of the scheme, and to have carried it into operation by degrees, as the opportunities arose for so doing.p