WC History: The 1851 Telecommuter
"tel·e·com·mu·ter: A person who works at home using an electronic device connected to the network of one's employer."
In 1851, Emma A. Hunter lived with her widowed mother and younger brother in West Chester, Pennsylvania. They had moved from Meadville, PA to open a small stationery store and lending library not far from their home on the northwest corner of Church and Miner Streets.
Her experience at the stationery shop helped the 19-year-old gain both business and writing skills, important for the career that would soon come her way.
That same year, there was an arrival to West Chester: the electronic telegraph. It had been developed by Samuel Morse (1791-1872) and other inventors to provide long-distance communication. It transmitted electrical "dots and dashes" over wires with each set representing a letter of the alphabet. Although crude by today's standards, it was an early form of binary code that would eventually allow instant messages throughout the world.
It was the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company that was laying the lines for the telegraph and they needed an operator for West Chester. Because the industry was so new, there was no one trained on the telegraph and no obvious location for the office. Emma applied for the position and quickly showed that she could learn Morse code. She also agreed that the office could be in the parlor of her family home if the wires were extended there. When her home office opened Emma became, in every respect, a telecommuter -- perhaps the first ever.
Her initial salary was $50 per year (about $120 a month in today's dollars) but was soon increased to $150 per year (over $4,000 per year in today's dollars). Not great, but certainly significant to the family household. The telegraph office remained at her parlor until it was moved to the railroad station at 17 East Gay Street (one of two railroad stations in West Chester) in 1857.
During the Civil War, Emma and her office served as an important communications and news hub. She most certainly sent and received some of the most important messages of the time.
She held her job until about 1868 when she married Thomas T. Smith, a tobacco merchant, and started a family at 218 West Union Street. However, she continued to work periodically as an operator when needed.
Emma was not the first female operator in the world -- there are probably three other women who could be shown to have started before her. But she may have been the most respected. Her "sine", or telegraphic signature, was "Emma of S" (stations were assigned aphabetical letters; West Chester was "S"). Her name, of course, identified her as a woman. But she demanded a respectful decorum at all times and if anyone violated that respect, she quickly "pulled the plug." Emma went on to create standards of behavior in the office that she insisted the company owners agree to.
Emma died at her daughter's home at 26 South High Street on December 21, 1904, at the age of 73, after suffering for years from rheumatic gout. Her legacy as an entrepreneurial women who helped bring the early internet to the borough reflects the culture of learning and equality West Chester has become known for.
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Learn more about the early telegraph at