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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."

Emma HunterMay 26, 2015 | Malcolm Johnstone

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.

West Chester's first telegraph office as it appears todayHer 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

Bulletins of the Chester County Historical Society 1918
PROCEEDINGS OF A MEETING OF THE Chester County Historical Society, HELD NOVEMBER 18, 1897.

My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraphic Office, 1846-1950
By Thomas C. Jepson
Ohio University Press, 2000

Obituary of Emma A. Hunter Smith
Daily Local News, December 22, 1904
Chester County Historical Society

The Telegraph in America (James D. Reid)
by David Hochfelder
John Hopkins University Press

PHMC Project Report: Women and Telegraphy in Pennsylvania
by Thomas C. Jepsen
March 30, 2003


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