Ezra Cornell: the man behind Western Union

The foremost pioneer in the telegraph industry was born in New York, USA on January 11, 1807. His name was Ezra Cornell, the founder of Western Union Telegraph Company and Cornell University.

Ezra Cornell
Ezra Cornell

Ezra’s father was a former ship-carpenter who later shifted his livelihood to farming and pottery. With very little formal education, Ezra studied with his father, eventually acquiring skill in carpentry. At the age of 18, he moved to Ithaca, a town in the northern part of New York State. He became a carpenter and mill repairman. Later, he invented a plow, went to patent it and got acquainted with the people who were working on the emerging telegraphy industry.

Becoming an associate of Samuel Morse who developed the Morse Code used in telegraphy, Ezra suggested useful improvements in the laying of telegraph lines such as the use of glass insulators. In 1844, he supervised the construction of the telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D. C., the first telegraph line in America. Other lines from the capital city to western states were also built. In 1849, he was made president of the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company that connected New York and Wisconsin. Competition became intense when other investors got the franchise to lay down telegraph lines in other parts of the country. Soon, companies with shaky financial standing folded up. Ezra saw consolidation as the way to gain profitability.

In 1855, Ezra was instrumental in the merger of two of the largest telegraph companies in the country. The company that was formed was named Western Union Telegraph Company and Ezra emerged as the largest stockholder. With a bigger organization and an enlarged franchise area, the new company expanded feverishly to other parts of the country.
Ezra parlayed his new found wealth to buy farmlands and to build a large library in his hometown of Ithaca. Later, he donated lands and some cash to establish Cornell University. He also got involved in the railroad industry but was burn financially in the ensuing panic of 1873.
Ezra died in 1874 at the age of 67. He got married to Mary Anne in 1831 and had a son who later became governor of New York State.



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