Magnetic Telegraph Company
Samuel F.B. Morse is best known as the inventor of the telegraph and the code used to transmit messages on it. He sent the very first telegraph message—"What hath God wrought?"—on May 24, 1844. His invention revolutionized communications, making it possible to transmit messages across long distances with almost no delay. The telegraph facilitated westward expansion and the development of industry across the continent and helped to forge a sense of unity in a nation that was still very new.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791, to Jedidiah Morse, a clergyman and his wife, Elizabeth Breese Morse. The oldest of three boys, he grew up being called "Finley." Morse's grandfather had been president of Princeton College, and his father was known throughout New England as a fervent Calvinist preacher.
At the age of seven, Morse was enrolled at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Like his father before him, he went on to attend Yale College. While there, he began painting miniatures on ivory and enjoyed it so much that he considered pursuing a career in art. But his very religious parents did not approve. Thus, after graduating from Yale in 1810, Morse found a job in a bookstore in his native Charlestown.
Morse continued to paint, however, and eventually his work came to the attention of two of the country's most respected artists, Gilbert Stuart and Washington Allston. Impressed by their admiration of his son's work, Jedidiah Morse finally allowed the young man to accompany Allston on a trip to England to study painting at the Royal Academy in London. He returned to the United States in 1815 with dreams of painting grand murals of heroic scenes. But there was no market for that kind of art at the time, so Morse had to settle for a career as a portrait painter.
Having garnered a fair share of praise and recognition by the early 1820s, Morse settled in New York City and married a young woman named Lucretia Walker. But tragedy struck in quick succession as he lost his wife in 1825, followed by his father in 1826 and his mother in 1828. Grief over their deaths ultimately propelled him in a new direction.
Morse married for a second time in 1848 and had several children. He ran for Congress in 1854 but was not elected. Morse spent the last years of his life on his estate in Poughkeepsie, New York, surrounded by his large family. Many European nations honored him for his invention, and in 1871 American telegraph operators erected a bronze statue of him in New York's Central Park. Morse was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1900, 28 years after his death.
The first half of Morse's life was dominated by his love of art and his efforts to establish himself in that field. He worked as a portrait painter from 1815 until 1832 and enjoyed a fair amount of success. Of all his works, two in particular stand out. Both are portraits of France's Marquis de Lafayette that were painted in 1825 in Washington, D.C.
In 1826, Morse helped establish the National Academy of the Arts of Design, an organization aimed at helping artists obtain commissions and improving the public's taste in art. He served as its first president from its founding until 1842.
The deaths of Morse's wife and parents left him in a profound state of grief. To aid in his recovery, he sailed to England in 1829 for an extended stay in Europe. During his return voyage to the United States in 1832, he became acquainted with an eccentric inventor named Charles Thomas Jackson. The two men passed the time aboard ship discussing Jackson's ideas regarding electromagnetism, a subject Morse had first heard about while a student at Yale.
According to Jackson, electrical impulses could be carried great distances along wires. Morse reasoned that if this were true, "and the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance." He soon began sketching plans for a device that might be able to perform such a task.
Although he resumed his painting career upon his return to America and began teaching painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York, Morse continued to mull over the question of how to send and receive electromagnetic signals by wire. He envisioned a system in which the long and short impulses could stand for letters and numbers. Thus, not only did he need to come up with an appropriate transmitter and receiver, he also had to devise the code that would enable users to create and then decipher messages.
Morse worked on his invention for a number of years without making much progress. Part of his problem stemmed from the fact that he was not a scientist and did not have the skill to implement his ideas. But then he met two men at the University of the City of New York who helped him tremendously. Leonard Gale, a chemistry professor, showed Morse how he could improve the electromagnet and battery for the working model of his telegraph. Gale's friend Joseph Henry offered additional assistance in the area of electromagnetism. Morse also received valuable help from Alfred Vail, whom he took on as a partner in 1837. Vail suggested several practical refinements to the telegraph device itself as well as to the code it used to transmit and receive messages.
In order to minimize the number of transmission lines per message, Morse had invented a code consisting of combinations of dots and dashes, each representing a single letter, number, or punctuation mark. A visit to a typesetting shop had helped him determine which letters were used most often, and to these he assigned the simplest code symbols. Complex codes were reserved for little-used characters. Thus marked the development of what would come to be known as Morse Code, the universal standard for communicating by telegraph.
Meanwhile, aware that European inventors were also working on a telegraph device, Morse (who had abandoned his art career at this point) was anxious to establish himself at the head of the line. By 1837 he was ready to conduct a public demonstration. Appearing before a select audience at New York University on September 2 of that year, Morse successfully presented his telegraph device. He then contacted federal government officials and suggested that further development work be supervised by the Post Office. But nothing came of his recommendation.
That same year, Morse and Vail applied for a patent for the telegraph in both the United States and England. Morse also approached Congress for a grant to fund the construction of an experimental line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. The American patent was approved in 1840 (the English one was rejected because a similar device had been introduced there earlier), but Morse could not convince Congress to appropriate any money for a telegraph line.
After a few years of frustration, Morse finally obtained a federal grant of $30,000 to lay a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, he tapped out the first message, "What hath God wrought?" and launched a new era in communications. Morse then tried to interest the government in buying the rights to the telegraph for $100,000, but Congress opted to leave it up to the private sector to finance and develop a system.
So Morse and several partners formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company to lay telegraph lines themselves. Making money on the new technology proved difficult, however. According to an article in Canadian Geographic, the company made only one cent in revenue during its first four days of operation and only $193.56 during the first three months. Operating expenses for this same period were $1.859.05.
Additional problems soon surfaced. Morse faced prolonged litigation over his patent rights as Charles Jackson and other scientists who had given the inventor advice demanded the recognition they felt they deserved. Neither side came out looking very good in court. While Morse stubbornly refused to give credit to the many people who had indeed contributed in some way to the development of the telegraph, a few scientists were strictly out to profit from his years of hard work. In 1854, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Morse's patent rights.
Competitors were also quick to exploit the potential of the new invention. They soon began to establish rival telegraph companies throughout the country. Eventually, several small companies merged into the Western Union Corporation, which finally was able to make a profit on the telegraph. Morse's own company did not stand much of a chance in the face of such a rival, so in 1866 the Magnetic Telegraph Company also merged with Western Union.
In his later years, Morse left the business world behind and turned his attention instead to politics and philanthropy. He even ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress in 1854. His interest in scientific matters never waned, however, and in 1857 he teamed with Cyrus Field in a project to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable.
Social and Economic Impact
It is nearly impossible to determine the full extent to which the telegraph changed the way people lived. It was not so much because ordinary citizens made use of it on a regular basis; in fact, it was a rather expensive means of communication that appealed mostly to big business and government. But telegraph lines followed the westward expansion of the railroad across North America, making it possible to communicate quickly over vast distances and linking far-flung settlements with population centers back east. This helped foster a stronger sense of national identity and underscored the need for more standardization and uniformity.
Chronology: Samuel Morse
1832: Met Charles T. Jackson and began formulating the idea of the telegraph.
1837: Applied for telegraph patent.
1840: Received telegraph patent.
1843: Awarded federal grant to construct Baltimore-Washington telegraph line.
1844: First telegraph message transmitted.
1857: Teamed with Cyrus Field in transatlantic telegraph cable project.
1866: Merged his telegraph company with Western Union.
One significant consequence of this new attitude was the creation of time zones in the United States and Canada. Before the invention of the telegraph, most cities kept their own time based on the position of the sun at noon. A standardized time schedule, presented less confusion and less accidents.
Surveying and cartography also underwent some changes as a result of the telegraph. Before its invention, surveyors calculated longitude by chronometers that were shipped to key geographic points. Though chronometers were fairly accurate instruments at the time, the jostling involved in moving them could affect their precision by as much as 20 seconds a day. But in 1849, astronomer William Bond of Boston invented a machine that attached chronometers to the telegraph. With this device, astronomers could hit a telegraph key when they saw a star cross the meridian, passing the data along to other astronomers and improving longitude precision. As a result, maps showing boundaries and borders became more accurate.
By making distant communities feel less isolated from each other and the rest of the country, the telegraph also prompted greater political and social cohesion. People were better informed about what was happening at a national level and consequently became more involved in influencing policy, mostly because they heard about events in a more timely fashion.
While the telegraph represented the first major breakthrough in mass communications technology, it was rapidly followed by the telephone (patented in 1876), television (first demonstrated in 1927), and eventually computers. Telecommunications is now a multi-billion-dollar global industry that connects people not only by telephone and television but also by cable, satellite, and the Internet.
Sources of Information
Byers, Paula K. and Suzanne M. Burgoin, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.
Downs, Robert, John T. Flanagan, and Harold W. Scott, eds. Memorable Americans, 1750-1950. Little, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1983
Harris-Adler, Rosa. "Creation of the e-nation." Canadian Geographic, November-December 1995.
Kloss, William. Samuel F.B. Morse. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1988.
Lossing, Benson John. Harper's Encyclopaedia of United States History. New edition. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915; reprint, Detroit: Gale Research, 1974.
Mabee, Carleton. The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F.B. Morse. New York: Knopf, 1944.
Morse, Samuel F.B. Samuel F.B. Morse: His Letters and Journals, Edited By Edward Lind Morse. New York: Da Capo, 1973.
Staiti, Paul J. Samuel F.B. Morse. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster's American Biographies. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1979.
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