The First Online Wedding Happened in 1876

Love endures even the craziest of circumstances

Illustration courtesy of the author. Credit: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty Images

As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, more and more of life has moved online — school, playdates, conferences, civic events, court proceedings, and even weddings. According to Wired, more than 450,000 couples were married between March and May 2020, at the height of coronavirus lockdowns. A whole industry has sprung up around Zoom weddings, with services like Wedfuly offering professionally produced events complete with virtual photographers, DJs, and the bandwidth to handle up to 1,000 guests.

Most people assume that online weddings are a new thing. But they’re not. The first online wedding occurred almost 150 years ago, in 1876.

As Tom Standage describes in his book The Victorian Internet, the telegraph was the hot, new technology of the time. Every bit as revolutionary and world-changing as today’s internet, the telegraph allowed people to communicate via electronic networks across vast distances almost instantaneously. Messages that would previously take up to a year to send could suddenly be sent in minutes. Even the term “online” originated with the telegraph industry — the “line” part referred to a physical telegraph line.

Faced with the possibility of calling off his wedding, Storey had an idea.

As Standage writes, people used the telegraph for nearly everything — conducting business, sending news, transferring money, and committing crimes. It was only a matter of time before someone used the brilliant new technology to conduct a remote wedding. One of the first documented couples to do so were William Storey and Clara Choate, who were married over a telegraph line in 1876. This story of their marriage is recounted in Standage’s book, as well as in the 1891 edition of the telegraph journal Western Electrician.

At the time, Storey was serving as the telegraph operator at Camp Grant in Arizona. He applied for military leave to travel, by wagon, to San Diego to marry his fiancee, Clara Choate, who was living there with her family. His request was denied, and there was no minister to perform the ceremony at Camp Grant, or within 100 miles of the remote army base. Faced with the possibility of calling off his wedding, Storey had an idea. As a telegrapher, he knew that contracts executed over telegraph lines were binding. “Why,” he wondered, “can we not be married by telegraph?”

It turns out that the couple could. Storey hatched a plot to bring Choate to him at Camp Grant, and then telegraph a minister in San Diego, who would perform the ceremony remotely. Storey invited Choate to travel to Camp Grant, and she made the 650-mile wagon journey to join him in person. The couple’s plan caught the attention of Lieutenant Philip Reade, who was in charge of government telegraph lines between San Diego and Camp Grant. He apparently loved the idea of a remote wedding, and issued an order to all the operators along the line:

You are hereby informed that the wires of this division after 8 pm, April 24th will be used for the purpose of conducting a marriage ceremony by telegraph between San Diego and Camp Grant, and you and your friends are specially invited to be present on the occasion, to assist if necessary and to see that good order is maintained.

At 8:30 on the 24th, Storey and Choate stood together in front of the telegraph key at Camp Grant. Over 600 miles away, the Reverend Jonathan L Mann of Methodist Episcopal church stood with Choate’s father and other guests in San Diego. Choate’s father wired the message, “Greetings to our friends at Camp Grant. We are ready to proceed with the ceremony,” and the reply came back, “We are ready.”

Old Camp Grant, Arizona, ca. 1871. Photo: CORBIS/Getty Images

Mann read the complete wedding ceremony, which was tapped out word-for-word by an expert operator in San Diego, and read aloud by another operator at Camp Grant. Telegraphers at the time could send up to 40 words per minute according to Standage, so the reverend needed to speak slowly, but otherwise the ceremony took place almost in real time. When it was time to say “I Do,” both Storey and Choate tapped on the telegraph key, and then signed their transmissions with their names.

Over the wire, the reverend transmitted “As a token of your sincerity will you please join your right hands?” and the couple sent back “It is done.” Mann finished the service, and Storey and Choate were officially married. Congratulations flooded in from operators at stations all along the line, who had tuned in to assist and to witness the unique event. A band played in San Diego, and the operator at that station wired to Camp Grant that the band “is…giving you and your bride a serenade.”

Storey and Choate went on to reportedly lead a happy life and had five children together. Storey made a fortune in the 1886 real estate boom in California. For the rest of his life, Western Electrician reports, Storey would often go to send a telegram, meet the operator, and hear “Storey! Let me see, wasn’t you married by telegraph? Well, well, I was a guest at your wedding. I heard the whole ceremony at the telegraph office in ________, Arizona”.

Today’s Zoom weddings are a good deal more sophisticated than Storey and Choate’s online wedding 144 years ago. If the couple’s wedding was held today, they could have heard the band that played their serenade. And while Zoom can be laggy, it can certainly transmit more than 40 words per minute.

But the basic concept is the same as it was nearly a century and a half ago. Love endures even the craziest of circumstance. And it doesn’t wait. With a little ingenuity — and a big dose of the latest tech — couples will keep tying the knot, no matter the circumstances of the world they find themselves living in.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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