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

Cable Projectors - Henry O'Rielly

Introduction: Henry O'Rielly (1806-86) was an early telegraph entrepreneur in the United States, having emigrated to New York from Carrickmacross in Ireland.

In 1852 O'Rielly wrote an article for the American Telegraph Magazine in which he noted that: "The Russian Empire, embracing portions of Europe, Asia and America, furnishes the opportunity for connected Telegraphic intercourse between the Old and New Worlds".

While many accounts of the early telegraph industry show his name as "O'Reilly", and Dayton, Ohio, had the "O'Reilly Telegraph Office" in 1852, various documents published by him, and indeed his own signature, have it spelled "O'Rielly", so we must assume that this was his preferred spelling.

Henry O'Rielly signature, undated

On January 1st, 1861, O'Rielly published a Memorial to the Russian Imperial Academy, proposing that the Emperor should construct the Russo-American overland telegraph. The full text of this memorial is reproduced below.

-- Bill Burns

Russo-American Telegraph:
Connecting the Old and New Worlds, through the
Dominions of Alexander the Second,
And thus Signalizing the Completion of the First Millennium of
Russian Nationality.

Projector and Constructor of the First Telegraph Range that Electrically con-
nected the different sections of the United States--

TO THE RUSSIAN IMPERIAL ACADEMY--in reply to inquiries on Telegraphic Subjects, from one of its most honored members.

The great measure of Russian Policy which renders this New-Year memorable in the World's History by the enfranchisement of millions through the beneficence of the Emperor Alexander, renders appropriate the selection of this First Day for the reiteration of a project that may further signalize the Reign of His Imperial Majesty in connection with the completion of the first Millennium of Russian Nationality.

Memorials to the American Congress show that, on completing the first Telegraph Range which electrically connected the different sections of the United States, before the creation of State Sovereignties on our Pacific Coast, I proposed to continue the Telegraph Lines from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, for connecting with the Russian as well as the British and our own possessions on that Coast, soon as the Federal Government would render any one Route safe for intercourse across the American Continent.

Although the proposed connexion between the Two Worlds through the Russian Dominions was then generally considered an absurdity too ridiculous for serious consideration, it will be seen that, nine or ten years ago, when the submarine project of intercommunication was first seriously proposed, the project of Overland Telegraphing between the Old World and the New (via Behring's Straits) through the Russian Dominions was publicly advocated in articles written by me for the American Telegraph Magazine of 1852, as AN ENTERPRIZE WORTHY OF THE RUSSIAN EMPEROR, who alone, of all Monarchs, possesses the power of connecting the Two Worlds through his own Dominions.

In the article on "Telegraphic Connexion between the Old World and the New," after mentioning the then proposed investigation of the practicability of extending a Submarine Telegraph Line between Newfoundland and Great Britain, in the American Telegraph Magazine for 1852, I remarked that,

"While viewing with great pleasure the success which has attended the projects of connecting various European countries across sundry arms of the sea, our faith is at present hardly strong enough to indulge in any very sanguine hopes of speedily witnessing the success of telegraphic wires for the contemplated distance under the waters of the the 'broad Atlantic.'

"The EMPEROR OF RUSSIA could readily extend telegraphic communication across his dominions to the Russian settlements on our North-Western coast; while the growing importance of our settlements in California and Oregon, as well as the British plans of colonization farther northward, render it certain that many years will not elapse before the telegraph lines will connect the regions of Behring's Straits (where Asia and America can be readily 'wired together,') with the cities of our Atlantic coast."

And again, in another number of the Telegraph Magazine, (1853), it was stated that

"The Russian Empire, embracing portions of Europe, Asia and America, furnishes the opportunity for connected Telegraphic intercourse between the Old and New Worlds. IT WOULD BE GLORY ENOUGH FOR ANY MONARCH TO EXERT HIS POWER IN THUS ESTABLISHING ELECTRIC COMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE ENDS OF THE EARTH."

With these prefatory remarks, and in view of the completion of the FIRST MILLENNIUM OF RUSSIAN NATIONALITY--for commemorating which event, a monument, erected through the contributions of the Russian People, is ordered for completion in 1862 at Nowgorod, the primitive seat of Russian power-- and in view of the efforts now making for extending Telegraphic connexion from the Atlantic westward to the Russian and other settlements on the Pacific Coast--it is respectfully suggested that the Overland Telegraph Line through the Russian Dominions--the RUSSO-AMERICAN TELEGRAPH, connecting the Two Worlds--shall be completed cotemporaneously with the above-mentioned structure--that the inauguration of the Monument of Russian Progress for a Thousand Years may be simultaneous with the dedication of that grand Telegraphic System which shall alike illustrate the extent of Russian dominion and the magnanimity of the Russian Emperor.

The rapidity with which the first Telegraph Range of Eight Thousand Miles was constructed for connecting the different sections of the United States--amid all the difficulties of a new enterprize, accomplished by private effort without governmental aid--indicates that there is yet time sufficient for the Emperor Alexander to accomplish the great work of telegraphically connecting the Two Worlds through his Dominions, in the year 1862--so that the Imperial Speech, at the Millennial Celebration, simultaneously disseminated through the Russian possessions in Europe, Asia and America, shall be rendered additionally memorable by marking the establishment of electric intercourse between the Old World and the New--thus conferring one of the greatest benefactions not merely on the Russian Empire, but on Civilization at large, by annihilating time in correspondence, while furnishing extraordinary illustration of the Extent and Progress of an Empire whose History is THIS DAY AND FOREVER HONORED by the Emancipation of Millions through the liberality of the modern Alexander, in realms unknown to his ancient name-sake.

The rapidly extending civilization and development of political power on the Russian and other shores of the Pacific Ocean, render this enterprize of immediate and world-wide importance. The interest attached to the Submarine "Atlantic Telegraph" indicates the general opinion of the "paying value" as well as the magnificence of Telegraphic Intercourse between the two hemispheres. The Ukase of the Russian Emperor, decreeing the completion of this Line through his vast Dominions would stimulate Telegraphic Enterprize so as to secure the cotemporaneous completion of lines radiating from Sitka in Russian-America to all parts of the United States and British America--thus forming a reliable electric bond of communication between the People of all civilized lands.

The power and wisdom of the Russian Emperor, signalized in the speedy completion of the Inter-Continental Telegraph, could be equally manifested in the sustenance of the enterprize--for the Russian troops who may be employed in constructing this Overland Russo-American Line, would furnish supervision alike efficient and economic for securing the permanence and integrity of Telegraphic Intercourse (via Behring's Straits) between all nations of the Old and New World. The British Government, with less effort than it has already made for an abortive Sub-Oceanic Line, could quickly and cheaply extend Telegraphic connexion by labor of its soldiery, between existing Canadian Lines and the point of connexion with the "Russo-American Telegraph" on the Pacific Coast--or, if the Government will not, British capitalists will effect the object--thus readily securing electric correspondence between the Mother Country and its American Provinces, as well as with the whole Telegraph System of the United States--even if the line from the Mississippi to the Pacific, authorized by a law modified last year substantially accordant with my Memorial to the Congress of the United States, should not be completed in due season (1862) by the contractors under that law.

I respectfully address the RUSSIAN IMPERIAL ACADEMY particularly about this great Inter-Continental Telegraph--because the Academy, devoted to Science and Improvement, and aiming only at the public welfare, will readily appreciate, and may represent to His Imperial Majesty, the several great scientific and practical objects which would render the OVERLAND RUSSO-AMERICAN TELEGRAPH more useful than any Sub-Oceanic Telegraph can possibly be. Aside from the commercial, social and political value of a Telegraph between the New and Old Worlds, the interests of Science, in connexion with Astronomy, Meteorology, Electricity and Telegraphy, would give this Overland Route great advantage over a Sub-Oceanic Line--which latter, even if practicable and reliable on such a "long circuit," would be useless for those objects at any points between the termini--while the Overland Telegraph, besides its beneficial effects in general correspondence between all points along its route, would have the additional merit of furnishing means of instantaneous observations on Astronomy, Meteorology and Electro-Telegraphy, at all points, over thousands of miles in Europe, Asia and America.

Were there no other interests involved--no other benefits to be realized--would not the contribution thus made to Science render the proposed RUSSO-AMERICAN TELEGRAPH one of the noblest enterprizes to which Imperial ambition could be directed?--an enterprize which would virtually render the Imperial commands ubiquitous through the Russian Dominions--an enterprize worthy of that illustrious Autocrat, who, instead of riveting chains upon his subjects, signalizes his Reign by enfranchising millions of serfs--a glorious capstone for the Historical Column which commemorates the Reign of ALEXANDER THE SECOND and the completion of the FIRST THOUSAND YEARS OF RUSSIAN NATIONALITY.


New-York, Jan. 1st, 1861.

Henry O'Rielly - Background Information

Henry O'Rielly (he spelled it thus; most references, including Reid, write O'Reilly) of Rochester contracted in June 1845 for the western rights to the Morse patents through the Pittsburgh gateway. He had met John Butterfield on the night boat to Albany on 7 January, and had become interested in the telegraph. His contract granted much of the territory also assigned to Smith when the Patentees divided their interests geographically. Smith tried, with only limited success, to declare the contract void the next year when he discovered what had been done. O'Rielly built the line from Lancaster to Harrisburg within the contractual time limit, but Smith claimed, unjustly, that it had to have been built through to Philadelphia within the time limit. The contract was not crystal-clear, but this was a very unfair accusation. Judge Kane of the U. S. District Court in Philadelphia ruled that he had not breached his contract. O'Rielly went on to build lines to Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis in the next few years, and even tried to extend his system beyond the limits set by his contract for the use of the Morse patents, with the People's Telegraph from Louisville to New Orleans. Smith, nevertheless, competed fiercely and relentlessly for more than a decade, building competing lines from the Buffalo gateway, which he controlled. O'Rielly was ruined in the end, though he had public support, and his lines were absorbed into Western Union together with Smith's in 1856.


Background information on O'Rielly from the Telegraph section
of Dr James B. Calvert's website, used by permission: https://www.du.edu/~jcalvert/index.htm

Henry O'Rielly Memorial document courtesy of Library of Congress:

Return to the Atlantic Cables index page

Last revised: 25 April, 2015

Return to Atlantic Cable main page

Search all pages on the Atlantic Cable site:

Research Material Needed

The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.

You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.

If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: [email protected]

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: Atlantic-Cable.com