Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 30 - Who is Mr. Reuter?

[back to menu for this book ...]



    ALL the world is asking this question. Is the mysterious individual who tells us through the public press what battles have been won or lost — what kings have decamped, or what words emperors have spoken an hour since in far-off countries, which will shake the political world to its foundation is this Mr. Reuter an institution or a myth? Must we count his name like one of those which have an existence in the heathen mythology only, or is he a man like ourselves, having "feelings, organs, dimensions," &c. If he be, by what extraordinary organization does he manage to gather up over night a summary of events over the entire continent, and to place it before us as a startling interlude between coffee and toast at the breakfast-table? Nay, how is it that through his mouth if we may so term it we hear for the first time of a successful battle in China, or of the madness of the Southern slave states in America? To answer all these questions is the purpose of the present paper, and we may claim the privilege of being the first to satisfy the public inquiries relative to this very interesting subject.. Mr. Reuter's history is like that of all [-298-] courageous and energetic men, who, seizing upon a new idea, work it persistently and silently, until one fine morning, from comparative obscurity they suddenly find their names famous.
    The practical success of the first working telegraph on the continent that between Berlin and Aix-Ia-Chapelle in 1849 convinced Mr. Reuter, in common with every thinking man on the continent, that a new era in correspondence had arisen, and he determined to avail himself of its facilities for the public advantage. The first office for the furtherance of telegraphic communication was opened at Aix-la-Chapelle, an admirable spot lying so conveniently between the east and west of Europe. This office formed the first centre of that organization which has since gathered up into the hands of one man for all general and public purposes the scattered electric wires of the world. In order to correct breaks in the most direct line of transmitting news, he had to supplement the wire with contrivances of his own, so as to insure priority of information. Thus, the better to gain time in the journey between Aix-la-Chapelle and Brussels, he employed a service of carrier-pigeons. By this means on this distance alone he was enabled to anticipate the mail train between the two places by six or eight hours. In order to ensure regularity and safeness in transmission, each message was despatched by three different pigeons, which made the passage from Brussels to Aix-la-Chapelle in an average period of one hour. When the telegraphic line was extended from Aix-la-Chapelle to Quievrain, on the Belgio-French frontier, and the French Government extended their line from Paris to Valenciennes, there remained a gap of only five miles in [-299-] the line of telegraph between the French and Prussian capitals, but insignificant as this space was, the delay thereby occasioned was enormous. To obviate this, relays of saddled horses were always kept in readiness to forward despatches between the two points.
    As line after line was opened in succession, each was made subservient to his system, and when the cable between Calais and Dover was successfully laid in 1851, Mr. Reuter, who had become a naturalized subject of Her Majesty, transferred his office to London, which thenceforth was put in connection with the principal continental cities. Up to this time Mr. Reuter confined his attention to the conveyance of commercial despatches, but it now struck him that the time was arrived for making the telegraph the handmaid of the press. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the British press is the vast expense to which it goes for obtaining exclusive intelligence. The principal morning papers were in the habit, at that time, of running expresses at an enormous cost. The Times, for instance, possessed a fast steamer, which conveyed to England news from Calais the moment it arrived from Paris. M. Reuter offered to supply the obvious want; but without success. The obstacles presented by the existing system were not yet to be overcome; and besides, a certain prejudice had been excited against political telegrams in consequence of the errors they so often contained. Sometimes they had to be translated into three or four languages before they reached the British public, and errors were but too likely to creep in under such circumstances. A second time, too, he was equally unsuccessful.
    Mr. Reuter did not lose heart, however, as he foresaw [-300-] that the days of daily political telegrams were near at hand. "All good things are three," says the German proverb, and for a third time, in 1858, Mr. Reuter made his offer to the press. This time, however, he sent his telegrams for one whole month to all the editors in London. leaving it to their option whether they used them or not. The quickness with which Mr. Reuter received his telegrams, and the accuracy of the information they contained, were soon appreciated, and one newspaper after another became subscribers. His telegrams did not attract particular notice, simply because no great public event gave him an opportunity of showing the value of his system. So matters went on until the 9th of February, 1859. On that day the Emperor made his famous speech, in which he threatened Austria through her ambassador. His ominous words were uttered at 1 P.M. in the Tuileries, and at 2 P.M. the speech was published in a third edition of the Times and had shaken the Stock Exchange to its foundation. This was a dramatic hit, and ,thenceforward every one looked out for Mr. Reuter's telegrams. The war in Italy followed, and in order to receive authentic accounts from all quarters, Mr. Reuter sent special correspondents to the French, Austrian, and Sardinian camps; and on one occasion it happened that he published three different telegrams of the same battle from his correspondents in the different armies. Many of these telegrams were, from their very nature, short; but on occasions, important speeches, parliamentary debates, and other political intelligence of especially English interest were telegraphed in extenso. The adoption by the English press of the few short but decisive facts communicated by [-301-] the telegraph did not, however, do away with the "exclusive special correspondents" of the chief morning papers ; on the contrary, it allowed them more time to elaborate their information, and to go into detail A dozen lines gave us the fact of the victory at Solferino; but the battle itself a week afterwards stood before the British public with all the photographic strength and completeness of the Times' special correspondent's pen.
    The impartiality and accuracy by which Mr. Reuter's telegrams were characterized succeeded in procuring him the confidence of the press. The newspapers of the chief provincial towns were not long in availing themselves of his system, which ended in depriving the metropolis of the monopoly of early intelligence. The daily papers of the great towns of the north of England and of Ireland possess exactly the same early telegrams as the London daily papers, by means of Mr. Reuter's system, which posts England as well up in the news of the world, at her furthest extremities, as she is in the metropolis itself.
    News from England is in the like manner conveyed by Mr. Reuter to all the chief continental cities. Thus the people of St Petersburg may read every morning abstracts of the previous night's debate in the British Houses of Parliament.
    What Mr. Reuter has already done for Europe, he is about to do for the other quarters of the globe. It will have been observed that all our earliest information from America, India, and China, the Cape, and even Australia, is derived from this gentleman's telegrams. In all these countries he has located agents, who transmit him news in anticipation of the mails. There being no direct telegraphic [-301-] communication between England and those countries, Mr. Reuter avails himself of every telegraphic line en route. Messages from America, for instance, are telegraphed up to the latest moment to the last port in the Atlantic where the steamer touches; they are then landed either at Queenstown, Londonderry, Galway, Liverpool, or Southampton, whence they are telegraphed to London. News from the East is received in an accelerated manner, by a similar method. All the telegrams first come into the hands of Mr. Reuter, whose day offices are near the Exchange, and whose night offices are in Finsbury Square  thus this gentleman is without doubt, as regards the affairs of the world, the best-informed man in it. He gives his political telegrams to the press alone, and never allows them on any account to be communicated beforehand to merchants and bankers for the purpose of speculation.
    In order to make the separation between the political and commercial departments of his establishment the more complete, he has removed the former to Waterloo Place at the West End, whilst the latter remains at the city offices. These offices are open day and night; the day staff of clerks working from 10 A.M. till 6 P.M. , and the night staff, a far more numerous one, in consequence of the far longer hours of work, being engaged, in relays, from 6 P.M. one evening till 10 A.M. next day. All the offices are connected together by the electric wire, and to still further facilitate the transmission of telegrams to the different newpapers, the wires are being continued from the West End Office right into the editor's room of each journal, who, by means of Wheatstone's universal telegraphic [-303-] apparatus, is enabled to read off his own messages instead of receiving them as heretofore, by messenger. The pedestrian, as he walks along Fleet Street and the Strand, will perceive high over head what might be termed the political spinal cord of the metropolis; every here and there it gives off right and left fine filaments; these are going to the Globe, the Sun, the Morning Post, the Herald, the Standard, the Telegraph, and all the other daily papers which line this great thoroughfare. These are the lines by which Mr. Reuter puts the whole British public in possession of the thoughts, and records the actions of the rest of the world; and as we watch the wires ruling their sharp outlines against the sky, for all we know they are conveying words which may affect the destinies of millions yet unborn.