The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, now Western Union, began as a financial services and communications company in 1851. The firm expanded by buying out a number of competitive companies. In 1856, the company changed its name to Western Union Telegraph Company in anticipation of its ability to send telegraphs from the east coast to the west coast. The company completed its first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, then went on to offer a variety of money- and time-related services to the public. In 1884, the company was one of the first 11 to list on the Dow Jones Transportation Average in the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The Western Union company merged with the First Data Corporation in 1995, but the firm still uses the name Western Union for its financial assistance services. Recently it got involved with satellite communications and for a short time, cellular phones.
In the beginning
With the 1937 Samuel F.B. Morse invention of the telegraph already delivered to the world, a new company was on its way to transforming the world of communications forever.
When the new The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company began operation, it was one of 50 that crisscrossed the northeastern states. There was no interconnection of lines. Messages were transferred by hand from one company to another, and rates were as high as $20 for a telegram (big money in those days).
The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company set out to establish a unified, efficient service and carry it nationwide. During its first five years, the company acquired 11 other lines operating in five states north of the Ohio River and joined its eastern network with a telegraph line running as far west as St. Joseph, Missouri.
On April 8, 1856, the name of the company was changed to The Western Union Telegraph Company, signifying the union of "western" lines into one system.
Spanning coast to coast
With the outbreak of the Civil War, swift communication with the far West became essential. The only rapid communication beyond the Missouri River was by the Pony Express, which took 10 days to carry telegrams and mail from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California.
Although a telegraph line was needed, it seemed impossible to string a 2,000-mile line across the plains and over the rugged Rockies. Other telegraph companies refused to join in the undertaking, and even President Abraham Lincoln told Hiram Siley, Western Union’s president, "I think it is a wild scheme. It will be next to impossible to get your poles and materials distributed on the plains, and as fast as you complete the line, the Indians will cut it down."
The first poles were set up on July 4, 1861, and day after day, following heavy supply wagons and herds of cattle, each team of builders stretched the line 10 or 12 miles farther across the nation.
The strands of iron wire, uniting the nation in rapid communication for the first time, were joined at Salt Lake City on October 24, 1861, only 112 days after the project was begun. Two days later, the U.S. government stopped using the Pony Express service and turned to the "lightning lines" to speed messages across the continent.
Gradually, Western Union absorbed more than 500 telegraph companies throughout the nation, growing so much by 1884 that it was included in the original 11 stocks tracked in the first Dow-Jones Average. As the company expanded, it developed ingenious new services to keep pace with the changing needs of the American public.
A newer Western Union
During a new time of communications, Western Union began to enter the global marketplace. Since 1982, with help from the Competition Act (1981), the company has extended services directly to more than 100 countries — primarily offering its instantaneous Money Transfer service.
With such inventions as the singing telegram, the first inter-city facsimile, Dinero en Minutos*, the first pre-paid phone card, and becoming the first company to have five satellites in orbit, Western Union will continue to provide services to the nation and the world.
*Making funds sent to Mexico from the U.S. available in just minutes.