This map reveals the status of the telegraph network as it existed in the U.S. in 1853

19 December in World History: In 1846, Canada’s First Telegraphic Message; In 1961, India’s Invasion of Goa; Plus Samuel Morse and the Aga Khan on the Power of Instant Communication

Publisher/Editor SimergBarakah and Simergphotos

December holds many significant historical memories for me. The month is of particular importance for Ismailis around the world. On December 13, 1936 Mawlana Shah Karim al Hussaini Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Muslims was born in Geneva, Switzerland. Ismailis celebrated their Imam’s 85th birthday (or Salgirah) last week and presented him with two beautiful porcelain vases. My dad Jehangir, who died in May 2018, was born on exactly the same day in 1928. Were he alive, he would have celebrated his 93rd birthday this year.

Also in December, in 1961 India annexed the Portuguese territories of Goa, Daman and Diu, in what the Portuguese called an invasion, while the Indians called it a liberation. A consequence of this action by India was that all its citizens in Mozambique, a Portuguese colony, were interned for more than 5 months in a camp located a few miles outside Lourenço Marques (now Maputo). My parents, Jehangir and Malek Merchant, were the only Ismailis in Mozambique carrying Indian passports, and were severely affected by this measure. My dad was taken to the camp with 5,000 other Indian citizens. Being a teacher, he was able to conduct special classes for young children and other students during his stay. During the same month, my mother gave birth to my brother Alnoor (pictured below with our parents). She was thus spared from the camp, and was looked after at a hospital for the entire period that my dad was in internment. Then, following their release from internment, Indian nationals were asked to leave the country within 90 days. My parents left for Tanzania (then Tanganyika), where they continued their service to the Imamat and Jamati institutions as religious education teachers and honorary missionaries.

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Alnoor Merchant and Jehangir and Malek
Alnoor, centre, pictured with his parents Jehangir and Malek Merchant, during the Silver Jubilee visit of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, to London, England in July 1983. Photo: Jehangir Merchant Family Collection.

Going much further back in history, December 19, 1846 marked the inauguration of the telegraph in Canada, with a line from Toronto to Queenston carrying the first message. A plaque marking this historic day has been placed outside on the entrance wall of St Lawrence Market located in Toronto’s Front Street (see photo, below).

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Plaque commemorating the inauguration of the telegraph in Canada on December 19, 1846, Malik Merchant, Simerg
Plaque commemorating the inauguration of the telegraph in Canada on December 19, 1846, on the front entrance wall of Toronto’s St Lawrence Market; December 18, 2021. Photo: Malik Merchant/Simerg.

It may be noted however, that the first telegraphic message was sent by its inventor, Samuel Morse, two years earlier in May 24, 1844 which simply read: “What God Wrought?” He credited the message to his friend’s daughter, Annie Ellsworth, who found it in the Bible. It is an expression of awe for God [for inspiring the invention].

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When decoded, this paper tape recording of the historic message transmitted on May 24, 1844 by Samuel F. B. Morse reads, “What hath God wrought?” Morse sent it from the Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore. Photo: US Library of Congress.
This map reveals the status of the telegraph network as it existed in the U.S. in 1853
Telegraph stations in the United States, the Canadas & Nova Scotia, 1853. This map reveals the status of the telegraph network as it existed in the U.S. in 1853, only nine years after the first message, shown in the previous image. By this time, only one state east of the Mississippi, Florida, was not connected by telegraph. The legend on the left offers the list of message rates from Pittsburgh. By 1861, telegraph lines crossed the American continent; by 1866, the transatlantic cable connected America and Europe. Credit: Chas. B. Barr, Pittsburgh, Pa. Wegner & Buechner lith., 1853. Col. map 59 x 85 cm. Scale ca. 1:4,200,000 Geography and Map Division, via US Library of Congress.

Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah was a frequent user of the telegraphic services. On December 29, 1948, he sent a telegram conferring Count Jindani with the title of Diwan for his great services. There are numerous other examples of telegraphic messages that the late Imam sent to Ismaili individuals and institutions. A few from Ismaili magazines appear on this website.

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A telegram from Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, 48th Imam of the Ismailis, conferring the title of Diwan on (Count) Gulamhussein Mohamed Naser Jindani.
A telegram from Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan conferring the title of Diwan on (Count) Gulamhussein Mohamed Naser Jindani. Photo: Mohamed Jindani Collection, London, UK.

In a brief historical overview on communications technology as they have evolved over the last few hundred years, a piece on the website of Elon University states:

“The printing press was the big innovation in communications until the telegraph was developed. Printing remained the key format for mass messages for years afterward, but the telegraph allowed instant communication over vast distances for the first time in human history. Telegraph usage faded as radio became easy to use and popularized; as radio was being developed, the telephone quickly became the fastest way to communicate person-to-person; after television was perfected and content for it was well developed, it became the dominant form of mass-communication technology; the internet came next, and newspapers, radio, telephones, and television are being rolled into this far-reaching information medium.”

In response to the invention of the telegraph, Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick wrote in their 1858 book “The Story of the Telegraph”:

“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 … How potent a power, then, is the telegraphic destined to become in the civilization of the world! This binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth. It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth.” (emphasis added)

Morse, however, had anticipated much earlier that a communications technology such as the one he had invented could be misused. In a letter to Francis O.J. Smith in 1838, Morse wrote:

“This mode of instantaneous communication must inevitably become an instrument of immense power, to be wielded for good or for evil, as it shall be properly or improperly directed.”

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Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, delivering Brown University’s Ogden lecture on March 10, 2014.

Looking at the power the internet holds today, how accurate was Morse! And let’s elaborate on this by studying what Mawlana Hazar Imam has said with regard to the innovation of technologies and different disruptive forces that are at play. In his March 10, 2014 Stephen Ogden Lecture at Brown University, he said:

“We often think about technological innovation as a great source of hope for the world. We hear about how the internet can reach out across boundaries, helping us all to stay in touch, and giving us access to information from every imaginable source.

“But it is worth remembering that the same affirmations have greeted new communication technologies for centuries, from the printing press to the telegraph to television and radio. Yet in each case, while many hopes were fulfilled, many were also disappointed. In the final analysis, the key to human cooperation and concord has not depended on advances in the technologies of communication, but rather on how human beings go about using – or abusing – their technological tools.

“Among the risks of our new communications world is its potential contribution to what I would call the growing “centrifugal forces” in our time – the forces of “fragmentation.” These forces, I believe, can threaten the coherence of democratic societies and the effectiveness of democratic institutions.

“Yes, the Information Revolution, for individuals and for communities, can be a great liberating influence. But it also carries some important risks.

“More information at our fingertips can mean more knowledge and understanding. But it can also mean more fleeting attention-spans, more impulsive judgments, and more dependence on superficial snapshots of events. Communicating more often and more easily can bring people closer together, but it can also tempt us to live more of our lives inside smaller information bubbles, in more intense but often more isolated groupings.

“We see more people everywhere these days, standing or sitting or walking alone, absorbed in their hand-held screens. But, I wonder whether, in some larger sense, they are really more “in touch?” Greater “connectivity” does not necessarily mean greater “connection.”

“Information travels more quickly, in greater quantities these days. But the incalculable multiplication of information can also mean more error, more exaggeration, more misinformation, more disinformation, more propaganda. The world may be right there on our laptops, but the truth about the world may be further and further away.”

Mawlana Hazar Imam then discusses some of the conflicts that are taking place in the world today, and asks, “How can we respond to such tendencies?” He says:

“The response, I would emphasise today is a thoughtful, renewed commitment to the concept of pluralism and to the closely related potential of civil society. A pluralist commitment is rooted in the essential unity of the human race. Does the Holy Qur’an not say that mankind is descended from “a single soul?” In an increasingly cosmopolitan world, it is essential that we live by a “cosmopolitan ethic,” one that addresses the age-old need to balance the particular and the universal, to honour both human rights and social duties, to advance personal freedom and to accept human responsibility.”

Please read Mawlana Hazar Imam’s complete speech by clicking HERE, in which he recommends ways to overcome the challenges of miscommunication and misinformation we are dealing with.

Date posted: December 18, 2021.


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