Committed to connecting the world

AI for Good Global Summit

The 1865 International Telegraph Conference

​ ​ Search the History PortalClick here to search the History Portal
Persistent Identifier for this page  

ITU is Born in Paris

​​​​​​​​See also: An Overview of ITU's History
                 Pre-1865 International Telegraph Agreements
In Paris, on the left bank of the Seine, stands an imposing, mid-nineteenth-century building: the Quai d’Orsay. Since 1853, it has been the home of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and has hosted visits by heads of state and countless dignitaries from around the globe. One of its most sumptuous rooms, the Salon de l’Horloge (or Clock Room) is lit by huge chandeliers beneath a gilded ceiling, while, above an ornate fireplace, a statue symbolises France itself. Into this glittering venue, on 17 May 1865, stepped a distinguished gathering to sign an agreement forming the world’s first modern international organization: the International Telegraph Union.


Salon de l’Horloge, Quai d’Orsay, Paris (Source: France Diplomatie)
They had been invited to France by the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoléon III. Inspired by the beliefs of the time in scientific progress and free trade, the Emperor introduced wide-sweeping reforms. These included expanding the national railway system and modernising agriculture to end famines, as well as introducing social programmes such as the improvement of education for women. His most visible legacy remains the extensive rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussmann, which replaced decayed slums with wide boulevards and parks.
Haussmann’s designs included a new network of sewers, in which the wires of telegraph lines would eventually be laid. This was in line with the Emperor’s strong interest in new technologies – including telegraphy. He had, for example, supported the creation by inventor Giovanni Caselli of several stations across France to send images by wire through an early version of the fax machine: the pantelegraph. This push to modernise France, and to increase its influence in Europe and beyond, led Napoléon III to propose the world’s first International Telegraph Conference, which began on 1 March 1865.
The representatives of twenty, mostly European, countries (see List of Participants) met under the chairmanship of France’s Foreign Minister Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys. He explained that the aim was to rationalise the handling of burgeoning international telegraphic traffic. A general treaty was proposed for this purpose, and because this would need to be signed by national authorities, the United Kingdom was the only European country with extensive telegraph systems that did not participate in the conference: its networks were privately owned, rather than state-run as in most of Europe. But it was felt that, in practice, they would follow the terms of the treaty.
​Countries that participated in the 1865 International Telegraph Conference ​
​Country in 1865 ​Country or Countries today
Austrian Empire ​Austria and Hungary
Grand Duchy of Baden Germany
Kingdom of Bavaria Germany
Kingdom of Belgium Belgium
Kingdom of Denmark ​Denmark
Kingdom of Spain ​Spain
​French Empire ​France
​Kingdom of Greece ​Greece
​Free City of Hamburg ​Germany
​Kingdom of Hannover ​Germany
​Kingdom of Italy ​Italy
​Kingdom of the Netherlands ​Netherlands
​Kingdom of Portugal ​Portugal
​Kingdom of Prussia ​Germany
​Russian Empire ​Russian Federation
​Kingdom of Saxony ​Germany
​United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway ​Sweden and Norway
​Swiss Confederation ​Swiss Confederation
​Ottoman Empire ​Türkiye​
​Kingdom of Württemberg ​Germany
Drouyn de Lhuys noted that the agreements then in force – the 1858 Brussels and Berne Conventions – had become insufficient to deal with the advance of telegraphy. International telegrams might be subject to multiple sets of regulations that were not wholly uniform. To replace the Conventions, the meeting agreed that the draft of a new treaty would be written by a committee of “special delegates” with technical expertise, mostly the directors of national telegraph networks.
(Source: Bibliothèque de Bordeaux)
Edouard Drouyn de Lhuys (19 November 1805 – 1 March 1881) was a French statesman and diplomat. He had several appointments as ambassador and served four times as Minister of Foreign Affairs. During his last mandate as Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Second Empire, Drouyn de Lhuys became the Chairman of the 1865 Paris Conference that would negotiate and sign the first International Telegraph Convention on 17 May 1865. In the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War which was seen as disastrous to French interests in Europe, Drouyn resigned from the French government. He withdrew into private life in 1870.
The committee of special delegates met sixteen times to thrash out the details of the International Telegraph Convention, and the final draft was presented to the conference at its second session on 13 April. It contained pioneering provisions. These included the introduction of a standard charging system in each country as a whole, rather than by area (with the exception of part of Prussia and the remotest territories of Russia and Turkey). Importantly, a table of tariffs for cross-border messages was annexed to the treaty, with a single monetary unit in the French franc. This would considerably reduce the price of telegrams. In addition, a set of Regulations for International Service had been prepared to stand alongside the treaty. One of the most significant of these required the adoption of Morse code and its instruments – a rare instance of ITU specifying particular equipment.
The third and final session of the conference took place on 17 May 1865, when the final documents of the first International Telegraph Convention were formally signed. That date is recognized as the birth of the International Telegraph Union – the precursor of today’s ITU – and is marked each year as World Telecommunication and Information Society Day.
The Convention and its Regulations came into effect on 1 January 1866. The treaty was introduced with a statement by its signatories that they were united in their desire to ensure that telegraphic communications between their countries would benefit from “a simple and reduced tariff,” and that the conditions for international telegraphy would be improved. The signatories also stressed that they would establish a “permanent agreement” between their nations, while not interfering with decisions on matters unrelated to the international telegraphic service.
The significance of the International Telegraph Convention cannot be underestimated. For the first time, regulations, tariffs, and technology were harmonized across all of Europe, as far as its borders with Africa and Asia.
The wider effects upon international relations were also noted. Just before 1865, some signatory states had been at war; the second conflict between Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark had ended the previous year, having also involved Prussia and the Austria. Nevertheless, the telegraph treaty was signed by all. Summarizing the achievement of the conference, Drouyn de Lhuys said:
We have met here as a veritable Peace Congress. Although it is true that war is frequently caused by a mere misunderstanding, is it not a fact that the destruction of one of the causes makes it easier for nations to exchange ideas, and brings within their reach this prodigious means of communication, this electric wire which conveys thoughts through space at lightning speed, providing a speedy and unbroken link for the scattered members of the human race? 

1865 International Telegraph Convention (Source: ITU)
Three years later, in 1868, the second International Telegraph Conference was held in Vienna. It focused on technical and administrative issues, rather than diplomacy. Significantly, the conference established a permanent ITU Bureau in Berne, which enabled the organization to fulfill the growing need for the exchange of information among Union members.
On 27 April 2015, the 150th anniversary of ITU was celebrated at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. Once again, the Salon de l’Horloge hosted representatives of the signatories of the original Telegraph Convention, as well as ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, the eighteenth person in that post. At the gathering, France’s Minister of State for Digital Affairs, Axelle Lemaire, declared:
​​​​​​​​​Every day, ITU reminds us that digital technology cannot do without a multiparty dialogue that includes civil society, the private sector, and nation states.
Such dialogue is a fundamental component of ITU. It began its mission with the conference in Paris in 1865, and ever since has continued, uninterrupted, to support international co-operation in the field of telecommunications.