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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

The Electric Telegraph - 1851

Introduction: Steven Roberts has tracked down this often-reprinted poem to its first appearance, in the “Electric Communications” section of Chambers’s Papers for the People, Volume IX, published by William & Robert Chambers, Edinburgh, during 1851.

Papers for the People was a weekly publication “mainly addressed to that numerous class whose minds have been educated by the improved schooling, and the popular lectures and publications, of the last twenty years, and who may now be presumed to crave a higher kind of Literature than can be obtained through the existing cheap periodicals”.

Written at the very beginning of the undersea cable era, the poem is remarkably optimistic in its prediction of the transmission of news of every kind around the world.

Steven Roberts is the author of Distant Writing - A History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain between 1838 and 1868.

--Bill Burns

THE ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH
Anonymous, 1851

Hark, the warning needles click,
Hither – thither – clear and quick
Swinging lightly too and fro,
Tidings from afar they show,
While the patient watcher reads
As the rapid movement leads.
He who guides their speaking play
Stands a thousand miles away.

Sing who will of Orphean lyre,
Ours the wonder working wire!

Eloquent, though all unheard,
Swiftly speeds the secret word,
Light or dark or foul or fair,
Still a message prompt to bear:
None can read it on the way,
None its unseen transit stay,
Now it comes in sentence brief,
Now it tells of loss and grief,
Now of sorrow, now of mirth,
Now a wedding, now a birth,
Now of cunning, now of crime,
Now of trade in wane or prime,
Now of safe or sunken ships,
Now the murderer outstrips,
Now it warns of failing breath,
Strikes or stays the stroke of death.

Sing who will of Orphean Lyre,
Ours the wonder working wire!

Now what stirring news it brings,
Plots of emperors and kings,
Or of people grown to strength,
Rising from their knees at length;
These to win a state – or school;
Those for flight or stronger rule.
All that nations dare or feel,
All that serves the commonweal,
All that tells of government,
On the wondrous impulse sent,
Marks how bold Inventions’ flight
Makes the widest realms unite.
It can fetters break or bind,
Foster or betray the mind,
Urge to war, incite to peace,
Toil impel, or bid it cease.

Sing who will of Orphean lyre,
Ours the wonder working wire!

Speak the word, and think the thought,
Quick ’tis as with lightning caught,
Over – under- lands or seas,
To the far antipodes.
Now o’er cities thronged with men,
Forest now or lonely glen,
Now where busy commerce broods,
Now in wildest solitudes;
Now where Christian temples stand,
Now in far Pagan land.
Here again as soon as gone,
Making all the earth as one.
Moscow speaks at twelve o’clock
London reads ere noon the shock,
Seems it not a feat sublime –
Intellect hath conquer’d Time!

Sing who will of Orphean lyre,
Ours the wonder working wire!

Flash all ignorance away,
Knowledge seeks the freest play;
Flash sincerity of speech,
Noblest aims to all who teach;
Flash till bigotry be dumb,
Deed instead of doctrine come,
Flash to all who truly strive,
Hopes that keep the heart alive;
Flash real sentiments of worth,
Merits claims to rank with Birth,
Flash till Power shall learn the Right,
Flash till Reason conquer Might,
Flash resolve to every mind,
Manhood flash to all mankind.

Sing who will of Orphean lyre,
Ours the wonder working wire!


Below is the poem as published in Chambers’s Papers for the People

Copyright © 2007 FTL Design

Last revised: 5 August, 2012

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