From telegraphs to Twitter: a short history of “wiretapping”

One of the earliest recorded instances of wiretapping involves an anecdote about how Confederate general John Hunt Morgan bet a Union soldier two cigars if he could spell the word Lebanon.

In a series of shocking tweets this weekend, President Trump, providing absolutely zero evidence, said President Obama wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign. The word wiretapping evokes Watergate and Cold War espionage, but its roots goes back a century earlier. For before we tapped telephones, we tapped telegraphs.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first recorded use of the verb tap appears in an 1869 article, “Military Signalling and Telegraphy,” by early explosives expert Sir Colonel Vivian Dering Majendie, published in London’s popular and influential Cornhill Magazine. Majendie was particularly interested in the use of the telegraph during the Civil War. He notes: “To recount the occasions on which telegraphs and signals were used during the American war, would occupy more space than it is desirable we should bestow upon the mere history of the subject.”

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An illustration of a “wire-wagon,” which laid telegraph cable. Screenshot from the HathiTrust Digital Library.

But Majendie does give us a delightful taste. Over 1,000 miles of wire were laid by wagons, strung through trees, and even floated into the air on balloons – and not without difficulty. “The Americans soldiers,” Majendie observes, “found the telegraph wires too useful as tobacco-stoppers to be able always to resist the temptation of cutting out small pieces here and there.” These wires, apparently, tapped tobacco down into pipes, though that tapping is unrelated to our word at hand.

But there were bigger problems. “A favourite plan of raiders,” like the notorious Confederate general John Hunt Morgan, says Majendie, “was to ‘tap’ the wire and extract from it all the information with which it was charged. This is easily done when temporary possession is obtained of one point on the line, by the application of a small pocket instrument. ”

This is a very telling citation.  For one, Majendie sets off tap in quotes, signaling to readers then – and lexicographers now – that it was as a novel use of the word at the time. Then he defines the emerging term: Tapping a wire covertly “extracts” the information it’s carrying through the telegraph wire. And Majendie’s choice of the word extraction, furthermore, is a considered one, as it helps explain why tap named this new concept. In the 17th century, we were tapping vessels, trees, and even body cavities to draw off liquid they held. The original sense of this verb tap, reaching back to Old English, was “to furnish a container with a tap.” Tap – again, unrelated to the tap in a tap on the shoulder – itself comes an ancient Germanic root for a kind of “tapering cylindrical peg” used as a stopper, later hollowed out to extract fluid.

John Hunt Morgan, Confederate raider and wiretapper. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Majendie goes on to describe a famous, and incredible, instance of telegraph-tapping during Morgan’s 1863 incursion into the North, or Morgan’s Raid. Morgan’s tapping features impersonation, a clever bet and spelling contest, and lots of smack talk, and it’s worth quoting Majendie at length here:

An amusing incident of this description is related as having occurred during Morgan’s raid into Kentucky, in the summer of 1863. The wire was tapped between Nashville and Louisville, and the impromptu telegraphist received various messages from the Federal officers in command of those posts. Morgan, personating the Federal officers, ordered and counter-ordered the various detachments as it suited his purpose. “He received,” says Colonel Fletcher, to whom we are indebted for this anecdote, “many warnings of his own presence in the country, and messages not always complimentary relative to himself; whilst he was often obliged to have recourse to stratagems to discover some clue, his ignorance of which would have betrayed the trick. Thus, wishing to ascertain the station from which a particular message had been despatched, without exciting suspicion, he telegraphed to this effect: ‘A gentleman in the office bets me two cigars that you cannot spell the name of your station correctly.’ Answer: ‘Take the bet. Lebanon Junction. Is this not right? How did he think I would spell it?’ ‘He gives it up. He thought you would put two b’s in Lebanon.’ Answer: ‘Ha ! ha ! he is a green one.’ And then followed inquiries respecting a train full of soldiers, which had already fallen into Morgan’s clutches. Frequently, after serious work, and after all the information necessary had been acquired, some irritating message would be sent through the wires to the unfortunate officer, who, the victim of the stratagem, had been communicating freely the secrets of the army to the enemy’s general. Thus, Morgan telegraphs his farewell to a Federal general, who unwittingly had betrayed to him the disposition of his forces: ‘Good morning, Jerry. The telegraph is a great institution. You should destroy it, as it keeps you too well posted. My friend has all the despatches since the 12th July on file; do you wish for copies?’” And then, probably, when the mischief had been done, the wire was cut.

It’s not clear if Civil War soldiers themselves used tap in this way. But between Colonel Majendie and the afore-quoted Colonel Henry Fletcher, who actually went to America to observe the war, tap definitely seems to begin as a 19th-century military term.

Shortly thereafter, the term proliferated, according to the OED’s records. Wire-tapping appears by 1878 and telephone-tapping by 1903. A wiretap is documented as early as 1907 and to wiretap, 1918. The shortened noun tap comes no later than 1923. Forms of phone-tapping emerge in the record over the course of the 1950s-70s. And a wire, as in an informant wearing a wire, appears by 1973, possibly as clipped from wiretap.

Majendie, finally, uses tap in a larger consideration of the military advantages – and risks – of the telegraph, still a relatively young technology when he was writing in 1869. Perhaps there’s a lesson somewhere in here about another young technology: Twitter.

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One thought on “From telegraphs to Twitter: a short history of “wiretapping”

  1. I found that very interesting, thanks for your post on wire tapping. Did you know there was a solar flare in the 1870s that was strong enough to give telegraph operator shocks through their equipment and the wires. I got to thinking, if we were to have a solar flare of that magnitude today it could put all of our computerized world out of business. Wouldn’t that be a shocker?


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