Committed to connecting the world


Pre-1865 International Telegraph Agreements

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

The Earliest International Telegraph Agreements

​​​​​​​​See also: An Overview of ITU's History
                 The First International Telegraph Conference (Paris, 1865)
Through 1848 and 1849, a wave of popular protests spread across Europe. Revolution was in the air. In several countries, this resulted in new governments and greater democracy. At the same time – and perhaps an influence behind the changes – a technological revolution was taking place that led to a tremendous leap in the speed of communications: electric telegraphy.
Practical experiments had been conducted in the 1830s, and the first networks were installed in England by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. In the United States, Samuel Morse opened a network in 1844, and telegraph lines began to link major communities within more and more European countries.

Telegraph operators in the border office at Strasbourg
(Source: From Semaphore to Satellite)
However, barriers slowed the flow of messages across international borders. For example, in 1852 at the frontier of France and the Grand Duchy of Baden, a common telegraph station was established at Strasbourg. It had two employees, one from each territory. When the French employee received a telegram from Paris, he had to write its text onto a special form and hand it across the table to his colleague, who translated it into German and then sent it again on its way. In addition, sending international messages meant that a plethora of agreements among administrations had to be made on tariffs and technical matters.
These problems were exacerbated by the mid-nineteenth century map of Europe, in which Italy and Germany comprised several smaller states, while the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires covered countries with differing languages.
The first international treaty (1849)
Among the German principalities, Prussia had become dominant through its strong army and flourishing industrial production. Industrialists and the government needed good national communications – especially with the territory of Westphalia, which was separated from the rest of Prussia. International links were demanded too. These factors led to Prussia leading the way in forming cross-border agreements on telegraphy.
By the end of the 1840s, Prussia had signed fifteen such treaties with other German states. The first truly international treaty was signed on 3 October 1849 between Prussia and Austria-Hungary, regarding the “installation and use of electromagnetic telegraphs for the exchange of international dispatches.” This resulted in a telegraph line between Berlin and Vienna being established along an existing railway, with a common telegraph station in Oderberg, Austria. There, telegraph operators from each country exchanged messages from within their borders. Government messages had first priority; messages concerning the railway service second, and public correspondence came last. On even dates in the calendar, telegrams sent from Austria were given priority, while Prussian messages had priority on odd dates.
The treaty followed the pattern of previous bilateral postal treaties, and served as an example for future international telegraph agreements: it aimed to control the flow of messages and the procedures for exchanging them at national borders, as well as the application of tariffs.

Map of German telegraph lines in 1850
(Source: Hundert Jahre telegraphie in Frankfurt am Main (1949)
The Austro-German Telegraph Union (1850)
Prussia signed telegraph agreements with Saxony in 1849 and with Bavaria in 1850. Together with its treaty with Austria-Hungary, these were the basis of the Austro-German Telegraph Union (AGTU) that was established on 25 July 1850 in Dresden. In the following years, joining the founding nations of Prussia, Austria, Bavaria and Saxony were other German-speaking states: Württemberg, Hannover, Baden, Mecklenburg-Schwerin and the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. Some states that had close relationships with these territories also joined the union: the Netherlands, the Duchies of Modena and Parma, Tuscany, and the Papal States.
The Dresden Convention of the new union would become a template for subsequent multilateral treaties, thus laying the foundation for international organizations to regulate telecommunications. Firstly, the AGTU treaty only covered international communications, and each member of the union was free to manage its national system as it wished. Secondly, it included measures to standardize management of the international service, such as pricing. Thirdly, since telegraphy was a new and constantly evolving medium, it was decided that the treaty should be reviewed and revised at periodic telegraph conferences. Finally, membership of AGTU was made available to other countries. All these factors were adopted, almost without amendment, by the International Telegraph Union (ITU) born in Paris in 1865. Also foreshadowing a vital element of ITU’s future structure, from the late 1850s the AGTU opened up its agreements to some private companies.
In 1857, the provisions governing AGTU were unified into one document, from the previous four that had been signed at its regular conferences. The resulting Stuttgart Convention included another feature that was to be fundamental in future international telecommunication agreements: the separation of principles and practicalities. Matters that were not likely to change were contained in a Convention, whereas separate documents covered regulations and service instructions that would be updated as required.
The West European Telegraph Union (1855)
The West European Telegraph Union (WETU) and was founded in Paris on 29 December 1855 by Belgium, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and Switzerland. These countries had already signed bilateral telegraph agreements between 1851 and 1854. As with AGTU, other countries subsequently joined WETU: Portugal, the Netherlands, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchies of Modena and Parma, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. Some private British companies and submarine cable companies were also admitted.
WETU adopted a convention that was very similar to that of AGTU. During the 1850s, there was a gradual process of convergence and overlapping of the two unions’ activities. Some countries from among their memberships had already signed bilateral treaties, such as Prussia and Belgium in May 1850, and Austria and Switzerland in 1852. More significantly, mixed conferences had been held between some countries from the two blocks.

Austro-German Telegraph Union dispatch form (Source: Flickr)
The Paris and the Berlin Conventions (1852 and 1855)
The first of the mixed conferences took place in 1852 in Paris, involving Belgium, France and Prussia. They signed a wide-ranging convention to allow telegraph lines to pass frontiers without interruption. It recognized the right of every individual to use the international service upon payment of charges at the point of origin, and guaranteed the privacy of telegrams, although only governments could use ciphers. In 1855, the three countries met again and signed the updated Berlin Convention.
The Brussels Convention (June 1858)
The third meeting between Belgium, France and Prussia was held in Brussels in 1858. The Brussels Convention they signed was a significant step towards the creation of a pan-European telegraphic union because, in addition to the three founder countries, by 1861 it was joined by eleven further states: Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal, Sardinia, the Sicilies, Spain, Sweden and Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Russia, and the Papal States. From the private sector, the submarine cable companies of Algeria, Corfu, and Malta also agreed to follow its rules.
The Berne Convention (September 1858)
Meanwhile, these joint activities among the members of the Austro-German and the Western European telegraphic unions made it increasingly clear that a merger was needed. This was proposed by WETU at its meeting in 1857, and it invited AGTU to a conference to be held in Berne the following year. The aim would be to create a single telegraphic union covering Europe. Although AGTU did not attend, it asked the Swiss hosts of the conference to prepare a document that would be common to all states. The resulting Berne Convention, signed on 1 September 1858, included almost all the provisions of the Brussels Convention, to which Prussia was a party. Thus, AGTU was able to accede to it in 1859. Uniformity across the continent was approaching for telegraph services, but it had not yet been achieved.
Coming Together in ITU (1865)
Despite the agreements that had been concluded between 1849 and 1858, a problem remained. Depending on its routing, a telegram might be subject, separately or successively, to the rules of the Stuttgart Convention, the Brussels Convention and the Berne Convention. Although similar in their provisions, these conventions were not totally consistent. The rapid expansion of international telegraphy, alongside technological advances, added to the need for uniformity. The solution was found in Paris in 1865, when the first International Telegraph Convention was signed by twenty states and ITU was born.