In August 1807, Dr. James Freeman visited the port of Holmes Hole (today, Vineyard Haven). He described a rustic village consisting of about 70 homes, two schoolhouses, one church, 11 vessels, and one huge, multi-armed machine on the highlands of West Chop.
The machine was a telegraph — the first one built in the nation — and it could deliver a complex message to Boston in under 10 minutes.
Two generations before visionaries like Alexander Graham Bell ushered in the modern era of long-distance communication via electricity, there was Jonathan Grout Jr. (1761–1825) of Boston, who in October 1800 patented what he called the “Telegraphe,” and what we now refer to as the optical telegraph. It was based on the design of French inventor Claude Chappe, who only a few years earlier had built his first working models outside Paris. It consisted of a 20-foot-tall mast, topped with a wide, rotatable cross beam (the “regulator”), tipped with a pair of shorter, articulated beams (the “indicators”) and counterweights. The three large moving parts could be rapidly rotated into 196 distinct positions with ropes and pulleys, and the patterns they produced were easily visible through a telescope up to eight miles away, weather permitting. By staffing similar stations at regular intervals, the machines delivered visual telegrams at speeds of more than 400 miles per hour, over land and sea.
By October 1801, Grout had installed 13 stations from West Chop to Cohasset, 20 miles outside Boston; it was soon extended all the way to his downtown office. “He has asked a question and received an answer in less than 10 minutes,” wrote historian Abiel Holmes in 1805. The arrival of the ship Mercury in Holmes Hole from Sumatra was the first published news bulletin, sent and delivered on Oct. 21, 1801.
Why did Grout choose Holmes Hole for his first telegraph, and not some more prominent venue for vital information? Dr. Freeman hints at the answer in his 1807 travelogue: “About a thousand or twelve hundred sail anchor in [Holmes Hole Harbor] in the course of a year.” Holmes Hole was one of the busiest ports on the East Coast, and wealthy Boston merchants were willing to pay top dollar for advance knowledge of vessels headed North toward their city. Before Grout’s telegraph, information took the better part of two days to reach Boston from the Vineyard. Now it took less than an hour, and Grout could charge rates of between $2 and $100 per vessel (depending on the size and origin), payable only after information about a specified ship was received. An 1802 newspaper ad for Grout’s services was addressed to “All persons who may wish to obtain first intelligence of arrivals at the Vineyard — or of arrivals at foreign ports — or who may wish to pass orders directing a vessel at the Vineyard to sail from thence to any particular port — or to wait there for further orders — or who may wish to learn the contents of a cargo — or whether a friend is on board a particular vessel here, &c.”
From 1802 to 1807, regular telegraphic news flashes about the comings and goings of important commercial vessels in Holmes Hole Harbor appeared in the Boston newspapers, then copied by other papers nationally, most starting with the phrase, “The Telegraph announces …” Occasionally, Grout would publicly taunt his more difficult subscribers. One dispatch in 1804, for instance, reads, “The Telegraph, Jan. 19, announces, that a vessel belonging to Portsmouth has arrived at the Vineyard, the master of which promises to pay the fee if his arrival be announced; but he cannot be gratified.”
The last telegram sent from the Vineyard via Grout’s system was in April 1807, less than six years after it began, and his venture soon ended in bankruptcy. Some attribute his failure to his exorbitant and ever-changing rate schedule, others to its intermittent service due to weather. But those who remembered him in life blamed Grout’s business failings on the inventor himself. One early historian described him “of somewhat testy disposition and eccentric in character.” Another called him “a gentleman of much talent and ingenuity; but, unfortunately for himself, of great eccentricity; and though of sterling integrity, yet little calculated, by his manners, to conciliate the favour of our merchants.”
Nevertheless, it left an impression. There are seven summits between Falmouth and Dorchester which still bear the name “Telegraph Hill” — each attributed to Grout’s short-lived system. One can imagine a 16-year-old Samuel Morse, who lived about three miles away from the northern terminus of Grout’s line, finding inspiration in the details. (Or for that matter, the aging Paul Revere, who lived even closer.)
Grout moved to Philadelphia, where he opened and taught at a grammar school. But his Telegraph caught the interest of the U.S. government, and his designs were discussed in detail in a session of Congress in 1807 as a possible means to connect Washington, D.C., to Norfolk and New York. In 1809, Grout set up another telegraph from Philadelphia to Reedy Island at the head of Delaware Bay, but, like his first line on the Vineyard, it was soon abandoned. “The particular temperament of Grout led him into controversies and quarrels with his customers, who gradually withdrew their confidence in him, and eventually the line proved to be a failure,” wrote one 19th century historian.
Several decades passed before another telegraph appeared on the Vineyard. Tower Hill in Edgartown may be named for an early signal tower or semaphore staff used there in the 1830s. About 1845, an optical telegraph was erected on Sampson’s Hill, Chappaquiddick, and used to communicate with Nantucket. Soon after, a second leg was added on the highlands of East Chop, near the modern site of East Chop Light, which also connected to Falmouth; the site is still known as “Telegraph Hill” today. (Some modern histories erroneously place Grout’s 1801 machine here, but early records make clear it was indeed on West Chop.)
Historian Charles Hine recalled the later systems: “The code was of necessity very simple, being intended for but the one purpose, and occasionally the operator was put to it to know how to convey an odd piece of news. For instance, he was once compelled to signal that a certain whaler had arrived with ‘three barrels of smallpox’ on board, and hope that the Nantucketers would figure out that he meant cases.”
Author Joe Allen recorded, “[The telegraphic] correspondent sailed Vineyard Haven Harbor in a small, open boat, noting down names and hailing-ports on a block of wood as he sailed, no paper being proof against the flying spray and driving rain. When he had dispatched his report, he would plane off the board for future use.”
Finally, a dozen years after Samuel Morse telegraphed his famous opening line (“What hath God wrought”) on his early electric telegraph, our first submarine electric telegraph cable, five miles long, was laid between Woods Hole and West Chop in 1856. It was greeted with brass bands, fireworks, and merriment on the Vineyard.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.