Dashes and Dots: A Product of the Nineteenth Century


Students will examine primary sources including letters, a patent, photos, and diagrams to identify and describe the technological invention and development of the telegraph that evolved during the nineteenth century. 


Prior to 1830, communication across the country was limited to overland mail, which took approximately a month to reach its destination, or by the pony express, which took about two weeks. In 1837, Samuel F. B. Morse invented a faster way to communicate. His invention, the telegraph, sent messages from one machine to another along a wire. A telegraph operator sent a message in Morse code, or a system of electronic dashes and dots that stood for letters in the alphabet, across the wire. The operator at the other end translated the code into words. Messages that had once taken days or weeks now took seconds. 

Aim/Essential Question:

How did technology affect communication in the nineteenth century? 


Using the circle map, ask students to brainstorm the various forms of communication that we use today. Explain that communication can occur through the media, between friends, verbal and non-verbal, etc.

How did people communicate before the technological advances of today? 


Students will analyze primary sources in order to identify key people, objects, and activities. Subsequently, students will summarize their observations and comprehension of the event. 




Day 1

  1. Divide the class into groups.
  2. Hand out a primary source packet of all of the documents to each group.
  3. Pick one primary source to model the following step with your students. Using the Analyzing Primary Sources Worksheet, have student groups describe or list the people, objects, or activities present in the primary source.
  4. Assign one of the remaining primary sources to each group.
  5. Have each group share their findings with the class. As each group shares their findings, the other students refer to the document that was analyzed and record this information on their analyzing primary sources worksheet.


  • After all of the groups have shared their analysis, have the student groups answer the questions about the primary sources.
  • Have each group share what they have learned and ask one unanswered question they have after studying these primary sources.



Day 2

  1. Give each student a “Communication from East to West,” Summarizing Non-Fiction Text Worksheet.
  2. Students will use their Primary Source Analysis Worksheet to summarize what they have learned about the telegraph.
  3. Students look for:
    1. Who or what
    2. Did what
    3. When
    4. Where
    5. Why (What was the purpose of the technology?)
  4. Students also look for additional evidence of what they learned through
    1. Vocabulary and illustrations
    2. Photographs
    3. Drawings
    4. Quotations
    5. Documents
  5. Students design a product envelope for the telegraph. (See Product Envelope Directions)
  6. Using their primary source evidence, have students write a summary paragraph about the telegraph as an invention in the nineteenth century. Publish the summary on the card that goes inside the product envelope.
  7. Place specific vocabulary, illustrations, photos, drawings, quotations, or pieces of documents on the back of the card that goes inside the product envelope.


Ask: How does looking at primary sources related to the telegraph help you understand how this technology affected communication across the United States and the world during the nineteenth century?




  • Have students locate Baltimore and Washington DC on a United States map.
  • Have students research another type of communication method from the nineteenth century.
  • Read more about Samuel Morse
  • Write a note to a friend in Morse Code

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