In my world, I'm trying to come up with reasons why trains are the fastest method of communication, and that brings into question:

Are the railroad and the telegraph inseparable? They both came into existence within a few decades of each other, and often telegraph lines would be strung alongside railway lines - this meant that anywhere there were major railroad lines, messages could be sent instantly across countries.

So how can I eliminate the telegraph? (and hopefully not royally mess things up in the process, which happens far too often when adjusting a seemingly innocuous variable)

If such info is needed, my story is taking place in a world circa 1840s - I know that the telegraph and instant communication will develop eventually, I just want to know how it can plausibly not exist for a few decades.

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    $\begingroup$ Telegraph lines were quite often installed alongside railways simply because the railways already had right-of-way, meaning that the entire process of acquiring the right to use the land to plant the poles and string up the wire was greatly simplified. When not along railways, the lines were often installed alongside roads. There is no linkage between the two technologies; in fact, the electric telegraph could have been invented at any time after the 14th century or so, when zinc (for the batteries) became available in quantity. If anything, it is surprising how late it came. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 15, 2021 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ You are now asking two different questions: 1) Are the railroad and the telegraph inseparable? 2) how can I eliminate the telegraph? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Dec 15, 2021 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch I feel like making acceptable questions is impossible on this site. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2021 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ You don't ask questionS, you ask just one, single, unique question. Count the question marks, there are two, each of them after a question. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Dec 15, 2021 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ it still won't be the fastest form of communication, semaphore is a thing. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_telegraph $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 15, 2021 at 21:30

3 Answers 3


The electric telegraph may have come into being around the same time as railways in the USA, but that's only part of the story. The optical telegraph predates steam railways by some decades in practice, and a century or so in theory. It of course requires line of sight, and will be familiar to anyone who has come across Discworld's Clacks. Of course it's traceable back to simple signal beacons.

Railways go round hills, but optical telegraphy puts towers on them, so the terrain influences how closely those are connected.

Steam railways don't need electricity, and electrical telegraphy needed a few early discoveries that weren't immediately useful to railway operations:

  • A means of generating current (DC, but AC could be used too)
  • The discovery of basic electromagnetism, leading to the early indicators (whether pointers or buzzers) and on to electrical relays
  • A means of coding data efficiently onto a minimal number of (expensive, fragile) wires - we now think of Morse code, but there were earlier successful approaches

Note that railway signalling can be done mechanically, and block working can provide safe operation of trains (though it limits capacity and the ability to deal with unexpected stoppages. That's a reason for telegraphic communication to be adopted by railways. Even so a mechanical system could be used for simple preset codes, like early engine-room telegraphs on ships, right up to full but slow and error-prone (due to imprecision on the pointer movement) free-text messaging.

So to have railways but not telegraph systems, first you have to decide what sort of telegraph system you're talking about. If you really mean the Morse-style electrical telegraph, you just need to delay some of the early work in electromagnetism, but if you really want no fast long-range communication, you'll need terrain, weather, or other conditions that make line-of sight approaches unworkable. Even then, a mechanical system could survive any conditions that a railway could.

  • $\begingroup$ Without a telegraph, you need to do some sort of token block system, which tends to encourage unsafe shortcuts that are either impossible or unnecessary with electrical block signalling. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Dec 15, 2021 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark yes, token block was responsible for a lot of accidents by being misused. Between that and electrical signalling + telegraph, we have mechanical and line-of-sight operations (e.g. signal boxes could be built such that every box has line-of-sight to a semaphore signal operated by the next box) $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 16, 2021 at 8:44

The train can do without a telegraph service.

A telegraph service is difficult to realize (upscale) without railroads, but railroads and locomotives can do fine without the telegraph, or electricity. Eliminating the telegraph is just a choice to make in your story, create e.g. circumstances where any (public space, applied) electricity would not become available until ca 1890. A reason.. could be

Someone got electrocuted, people became afraid

In 1840, trains were frightening to people. Electricity would be even more mystifying. Suppose there had been some deadly incident with a public demonstration of electricity ? An accident, involving a well known public figure suffering a heart attack ? electricity could get banned for decades, 1840-1890 you'd have steam trains as fastest means of transport and communication.

Trust early electricity could produce shocks. A large "electrifying' machine" was already built in 1789 in The Netherlands,

English language info about the machine,


enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that the telegraph requires the railway; while the railways benefit from the telegraph, and would therefore likely be willing to allow the telegraph to be laid along the railway's right-of-way, there are other ways for a telegraph network to be built out. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2021 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ Actually the telegraph is of very great importance to the development of rail transport. Try to find a way to run a railway without telegraph. You will find out that you will be greatly underutilizing the capacity. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 15, 2021 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ Also, don't forget there were communication systems faster than rail before the telegraph -- France had a semaphore system that (day or night, as long as it wasn't too foggy) could send messages at around the speed of sound (coincidence, as it was sight based, but something like 10 times as fast as an 1890 steam train). $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Dec 15, 2021 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ Simple railroad services can run without the telegraph. However, when multiple railroads have to coordinate for crossings, merging, or to transfer cars, telegraph was very valuable to make that coordination happen. Look at how many times trains collided in the early days of railroading. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Dec 15, 2021 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ It's easy to put telegraph poles near a railway.. the land for it is already bought and you can transport the poles and cable using the train. The two developments helped each other. Trains profited from the telegraph, but the train itself was not connected to it, the train stations were connected to it, to organize a proper time schedule. From 1852, there was a standard common "railroad time", sent around by telegram to all the stations sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/… $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Dec 15, 2021 at 17:48

I think trains and electricity are separate inventions; read up on the history of the steam engine, it requires zero electricity. The rest is engineering.

The early days of electricity are separate from that.

The railroad lines were just convenient places to run telegraph cables, that's tall. Accessible from the train for repair, and using trains to provide the poles and wire. You don't want to carry that stuff by wagons through the wilderness; and go to repair it by horseback.

Just adjust the history of your planet; move the invention of the steam engine "back" a generation, 50 years or so, and the telegraph is just invented later, or when invented not funded. You can create a big gap where steam engines are good enough to make trains, and telegraphs don't come along until decades later.

Morse, the inventor of the telegraph (and Morse code), was not a scientist: He was an accomplished artist, doing portraits for a living. He was 41 when he invented the telegraph, having heard a story about the newly discovered "electromagnet" (by Sturgeon).

Had this random encounter not occurred, there is no reason to believe Morse would have invented the telegraph, or Sturgeon, a pure researcher, would have invented it. Morse's insight was not an obvious one or a cheap proposition, running wires hundreds of miles.

I think you can easily delay the invention of electronic communication by 50 years. In fact, Radio was invented in 1890, so if the telegraph had not been invented by then, it probably never would be. The overhead of the poles and wires would have made no sense at all once radio existed. (The first radio transmissions were in Morse code, but some similar code would probably have been invented for the purpose.)

  • $\begingroup$ "I think trains and electricity are separate inventions; read up on the history of the steam engine, it requires zero electricity. The rest is engineering." I am aware - and I would dispute some particulars of that, as at least later steam locomotives required dynamos for powering lighting and such. My question was not "are they seperate inventions"... My question was whether one would develop without the other - as a lot of inventions very naturally develop alongside each other. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2021 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @WasatchWind Railroads do not require electricity, AND even if they have it, Electric Lights or Heaters or motors do not imply or suggest telegraphic communications. I should have said the Railroad is independent of hte Telegraph, as you desired -- The Railroad does not require the Telegraph in any way. And, as I outlined, if Morse did not invent telegraphy it probably would not have existed at all until Marconi invented the radio, and a different code for text transmission by radio would have been readily invented. The expense of poles and wires would have been avoided altogether. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Dec 16, 2021 at 10:53

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