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Historical perspectives

Paul Julius Reuter’s startup: From Brussels to Aix

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

How they brought the Good News from Brussels to Aix (to misquote Robert Browning)

Aachen etching in Reuters archive
Aachen – mid-nineteenth century

For centuries, Aachen (also known by its French – or Frankish- name of Aix la Chapelle) had exploited its central position at one of the cross-roads of western Europe. By the mid 19th Century it was strategically located close to the borders of Prussia, Holland and France. A journey west of twenty miles brought the traveller to Belgium. But, although its advantageous location had served the town well when news travelled at the speed of the fastest horse, things were changing.

The town fathers had campaigned hard for one of the very earliest international railway lines running from Cologne in Prussia to Antwerp in Belgium to pass through the Aachen. The line was completed in 1843 and is still in use today. At Mechelen (to French speakers in Belgium, Malines), this linked with a line already running north-east from Brussels. Eastwards, in the other direction, the train terminated at Cologne. However, on 1 October 1849, a Prussian State Telegraph line had been completed from Berlin, the Prussian capital, all the way to Aachen. At least this meant that telegraph messages could pass quickly between these two points.

The Reuters had precisely the right knowledge to evaluate this complex scenario. Well travelled in Prussia, Belgium and France and having visited London, they understood how communications worked. The gap between the end of the Berlin telegraph line at Aachen and the start of the Paris line at Brussels was self-evident. A swifter means of sending information such as stock and commodity prices between Paris and Berlin was urgently needed.

The moment was wide open for the right person to get in quickly and seize it Once up-and-running, a pigeon service would make life that much more difficult for a rival.

From his time with Havas, Julius learnt about carrier-pigeons and how they worked.
A pigeon will only fly one way – back to its home loft. What was needed was an economic means by which, on a daily basis, he could return his wicker baskets of pigeons to connecting points at either end. The relatively cheap railway to Brussels just about made this feasible. Accompanied by someone to ensure they had food and water, batches of birds could survive the 10 hour journey in each direction.

Julius, as we have already seen, had a secret weapon – the long-suffering, hard-working, always loyal Frau Reuter.

Clementina’s four-year marriage had been far from a bed of roses. The couple had little money and every one of her husband’s ventures had gone wrong. Clementina had been dragged through a succession of cheap lodging houses in London, Berlin, Paris and then back to Berlin. But – with no settled home and unencumbered by the demands of a family – when the situation demanded it, she and her husband could move fast. Well-educated, quick-witted and intelligent, unusually she was able to work alongside him as an unpaid, full-time assistant. In Paris she had learnt the news agency business. Even a simple pigeon operation needed two people; someone to run the office while the other went frequently to the telegraph office, to the railway station, to see subscribers and so on. The couple could afford only an occasional office-boy. Vitally for the Reuters, the fact that Clementina was unconventionally able and experienced turned Aachen into a business possibility.

On a winter’s day at the end of 1849, a rather shabbily-dressed couple arrived in the town from Berlin and were observed agreeing to rent a room above a pub in Pontestrasse.

Enter Heinrich Geller – stage right……………

Paul Julius Reuter gains backers for his ‘startup’

It was New Year’s Day 1850 in the Prussian border town of Aachen. A few days before, almost un-noticed by most of its citizens, a new business had opened. Trading as the Institute for the Transmission of Telegraph Messages, it was run by Herr Julius Reuter, a small dark-haired man from the German Electorate of Hesse, and his taller, blond wife.

Those of a curious nature who spoke to the couple pieced together that they were endeavouring to offer a three-way service for businesses and newspapers. The service would deliver news and stock prices to and from Berlin,Vienna (via Berlin) and Paris via such telegraph lines as existed and otherwise by carrier pigeon. Two newspapers, Kölnische Zeitung at the terminus of the railway line in Cologne and L’Independence Belge of Brussels, were probably their first subscribers. The editor of the latter has been credited with giving Reuters a tip-off about starting-up in Aachen. Almost certainly, the Reuters inspired a paragraph in March 1850 reporting the establishment of a general correspondence bureau at Aachen, offering at moderate charge, important news and stock-market prices to the press and finance houses of Belgium, France and England. Unusually and interestingly the paper commented, this news was being delivered to Aachen by telegraph.

The key phrase is by telegraph. These words made it a ‘story’. The word pigeons was never mentioned although almost certainly the Reuters were already using them. Pigeons were not ‘news’. They had been used for centuries. They were definitely not ‘second half of the 19th Century’.

Herr Heinrich Geller's house at 117 Pontestrasse
117 Pontestrasse

It is at this point that we introduce Herr Heinrich Geller – brewer, baker, lodging house keeper and pigeon breeder. How the Reuters first made his acquaintance is not known. His name may have been given to them before they arrived. Straightaway, he seems to have befriended them and offered them a room in his house at 117 Pontestrasse. There is also a suggestion that he lent them some money, thus acquiring a stake in their fledging business. When, some weeks later, they rented a room at the Hotel Schlembach near the railway station (which may have been purely their office), Geller acted as financial guarantor. On 24 April 1850 Geller made an agreement with Julius to provide 45 trained birds for service between Brussels and Aachen.

Twelve birds were always to be on stand-by at Brussels; all birds were to be returned by train each day, ready to fly back the following day. The Reuters must have made more than enough money to cover the train charges. On 26 July Geller further agreed to assign all his pigeons (over 200) to Julius’s use.

Of course there was an equivalent service using Brussels-based birds flying in the other direction, handled by Lieutenant Wilhelm Steffen, a Prussian army officer. Passport records tell us that he arrived from Cologne at the famous Brussels coaching inn, The Hotel Grand Miroir on 25 April, the day after Reuter signed his agreement with Geller. His coach route from Cologne will have brought him through Aachen. It seems probable that he broke the journey there, was present when the agreement was signed and discussed operational details before continuing on to Brussels. We have, however, only oral tradition on which to base the statement that the Brussels centre of operations was La Cygne, a famous inn which survives today. Well-known as an important terminus in the days of carrier-pigeon routes, it provided birds for many different routes including those to and from London. To be without an umbrella in the vicinity of La Cygne was to court disaster!

Many years later, the story was recounted of Julius locking his Aachen subscribers in his office when market-moving price information was expected. All then received the information simultaneously. No doubt there is some truth in this. However, we have on record that, , in April 1850 – the very time of the signing of the pigeon contract – he offered Rothschilds banking firm in London a deal by which, if Rothschilds would pay to receive Berlin and Vienna prices from him, he ‘would make no further involvement in London’. Where necessary, he was quite prepared to bind himself to exclusiveness. He and his wife were still living precariously. They needed money; they needed to eat. Geller, Steffen, the railway company and La Cygne all had to be paid.. The very high monopolistic charges of the Prussian State Telegraph needed to be recouped.

On 2 October 1850, a telegraph line opened between Aachen and Verviers in Belgium. Six months later, the Belgian telegraph network extended to Ostend and connected with the Prussian network. Once again it was all over for the Reuters…. . but, this time, not quite. Although by no means a fortune, they had built up some capital from their Aachen venture. Perhaps on the strength of this, Julius seems to have acquired some backing from the Erlangers, a Jewish banking family from Frankfurt who had also converted to Lutheranism.

Paul Julius Reuter gambles on world’s first undersea cable

On a March day in 1851, Aachen awoke to find that the Reuters had gone. A ‘Closed’ sign hung on the door of the Institute for the Transmission of Telegraph Messages. In June they sailed for London, arriving on the 14th.

For the next three months they vanish. During one of the most important summers of the 19th Century they are bound to have visited the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. On 14 October they rented two rooms at 1 Royal Exchange Buildings near the London Stock Exchange. With Julius styling himself Director of Electric Telegraph, and sharing the work (if any) of their Telegraphic Despatch Office between them, the couple were taking a ‘moderately-serious’ financial gamble that the world’s first undersea cable, then being laid between Dover and Calais, to connect the British capital with those of Europe, would actually work. ‘Moderately-serious’ in that, if the cable failed, they were no worse off than any other telegraph business in London.

A month later, on 13 November, cross-channel telegraphic transmissions began. The cable worked.

Clementina was five months pregnant.

Look for more dispatches from our archive this week as we celebrate the birth of Julius Reuter.

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Pictured is the very first telegram, in the very first surviving telegram book from the office Paul Julius Reuter opened in London in October 1851
Pictured is the very first telegram, in the very first surviving telegram book from the office Paul Julius Reuter opened in London in October 1851. Though it can’t be proved, the script is believed to be from the hand of Mrs. Reuter, Ida Maria Elisabeth Clementina Magnus, in what Reuter called ‘her faultlessly neat handwriting.’ Reuter had seen a way to marry financial news with new disruptive technology. A submarine cable was laid between Dover and Calais in November 1851 and he was to become a major domestic customer of British telegraph companies during the 1850s and 1860s.

Browse our company history dating back to 1799 or contact our archive staff directly for a deeper dive into the Thomson Reuters Archives.

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