This Day in Jewish History / Reuters' Founder Is Born

Paul Julius Reuter established his news agency in 1849, which went on to become the U.K.’s most valuable brand.

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July 21, 1816, is the birthdate of Paul Julius Freiherr von Reuter, the enterprising rabbi’s son who became the founder of the news service that bears his name.

He was born Israel Beer Josaphat, in Kassel, Germany, the son of Rabbi Samuel Levi Josaphat and his wife, the former Betty Sanders. After initial education in Kassel, Josaphat was sent, at age 13, to Göttingen to work in an uncle’s bank. It was in that city that he became acquainted with the physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss, who was experimenting with telegraphy, a technology whose potential Josaphat anticipated early on.

By October 1845, Josaphat was part owner of a German-language publisher called Reuters, and was married – apparently in a civil ceremony – to one Ida Maria Elizabeth Clementine Magnus, daughter of a Lutheran pastor from Berlin. That month, the couple sailed to London, where Josaphat, now calling himself Julius (for his month of birth), sought customers for his firm’s books. It was also in London that Julius decided to convert. He did so on November 16, 1845, at St. George’s German Lutheran Chapel, changing his name to Paul Julius Reuter. Seven days later, he and Clementine repeated their nuptials in a religious ceremony at the same church.

Having failed to drum up much business in England, Paul and Clementine returned to Berlin. There he became part owner of a bookstore, Reuter and Stargardt, which published a number of radical pamphlets at the time of the 1848 revolutions. Afraid of arrest, Reuter fled to Paris; his former partners later said he absconded with company funds on departure.

Reuter had many business failures before his big success. For a while in Paris, he translated articles from French to German for sale back home. Then he worked as a translator for the Havas news agency, the predecessor of Agence France Presse. When, in 1849, Europe’s first commercial telegraph line went into service, Reuter established his own wire service, using carrier pigeons to carry dispatches from Brussels to Aachen, the last 150-km stretch not traversed by the telegraph link between Belgium and Germany.

By 1851, that gap was closed and Reuter was back in London, where he set up an office at the London Royal Exchange, to transmit stock quotations to Paris and points east, via the new Dover-Calais telegraph cable. Although a large part of his business also consisted of telegrams, in 1858 Reuter succeeded in signing up several London papers to his news service. Business picked up the next year, after he convinced Napoleon III to give him an advance copy of a planned speech that heralded the Second Italian War of Independence. Reuter held off on transmitting it to subscribers until Napoleon began delivering it.

In April 1865, Reuter was the first in Europe to have the news of Abraham Lincoln’s shooting – 12 days after the event itself – although there is evidence that The Associated Press scooped Reuters in actual transmission of Lincoln’s death.

As telegraph cables were laid linking Asia and America to Europe, and international news no longer needed to be carried by steamer ship, the Reuters agency quickly established offices in Alexandria, Bombay, China and beyond. Eventually, though, Reuters, Havas and the German Wolff Telegraphic Bureau agreed on dividing coverage of the world (outside North America) between themselves, an arrangement that held until the 1930s.

Paul Julius Reuter retired as general director of the firm in 1878, and was succeeded by his son, Herbert. Paul died at his home, Villa Reuter, in Nice, France, on February 25, 1899. With Herbert’s death, in 1915, the family’s connection to Reuters ended.

By the turn of the 21st century, a still-independent Reuters was being described as the U.K.’s most valuable brand; in 2008, it became part of the Thomson Reuters media and information firm.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen