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Samuel Morse and the Telegraph


From the beginning of time, humans have sought ways to communicate quickly across distances. In ancient times, groups living far from each other would send messages via couriers traveling on foot, or by setting fires to create smoke signals. In the 1830s an artist-inventor named Samuel Morse (1791-1872) conquered the age-old problem of long-distance communication with his invention, known as the telegraph. Messages would no longer take days or even weeks to deliver, but could be transmitted across towns, across the country, even across the ocean, in a matter of seconds.


The possibility of sending messages electronically was born as early as the 1700s. An experimenter in London was able to send an electrical impulse one-sixth of a mile along thread in 1727. A writer in a 1753 issue of Scots Magazine described a static electricity telegraph that could spell out messages over 26 wires, one for each letter of the alphabet.

The term "telegraph" was first coined by Frenchman Claude Chappe (1763-1805), from the Greek words tele, meaning far, and graphein, to write. What finally made the telegraph a possibility was the invention of the electric battery by Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) in 1800. Several battery-powered systems were soon created that could send messages short distances over a wire, but none were put into practical use.

In the early 1800s Morse traveled to London to study art. While there, he found he greatly missed his parents, and longed for a way to quickly get in touch with them. "I wish that in an instant I could communicate the information," Samuel wrote in one of his letters, "but three thousand miles are not passed over in an instant and we must wait four long weeks before we can hear from each other." Even at the tender age of 20, the first seeds were being planted for Morse's great invention.

In 1829, while once again traveling throughout the European continent, Morse became fascinated with the semaphore telegraph system designed by Claude Chappe (1763-1805). The device was comprised of platforms placed 15 miles apart. A man stood on each of the platforms, signaling to the next man down the line using wooden codes. In this way a message could be sent 150 miles in fifteen minutes.

While sailing home on the ship Sully in October 1832, Morse became involved in a discussion of electricity with his fellow passengers. They recounted the experiments of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who had discovered that electricity could pass instantly over a wire. Franklin had used several miles of wire for a circuit and when he touched one end, it seemed to instantly create a spark at the other end. Suddenly, Morse had an idea. "If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit," he said, "I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity." For the rest of the trip he thought through his idea. A current of electricity, passing along a wire, would be interrupted by a spark. The spark would be one sign, its absence would be another, and the length of time between sparks would be a third. Through a combination of three signs, dot, dash, and space, the signs could be made to represent letters and words. On the other end, the electric current would move a pencil that would then print the code. This way, messages could be transmitted clear across the country, even across the world, in a matter of seconds. His idea for the telegraph was thus born.


Morse's first telegraph receiver was a simple device, made of everyday household objects—a picture frame fastened to a table, the wheels of an old clock, and lead pieces which he himself melted. He hung a pencil at the end of a pendulum, and used a type rule to break the circuit. It worked on the very first try. But the world was not interested in his new invention, and Morse was out of money.

In the hopes of garnering support for his invention, Morse held a demonstration of his telegraph in the fall of 1837. At the time, he was teaching painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York (now New York University). He used his classroom as his stage, inviting wealthy businessmen to view his contraption. When Morse sent his code over the circuit, a pencil hung above a paper at the other end of the wire began to write out a series of dots, dashes and spaces. But while many of the investors found this invention exciting, most feared it wouldn't be practical to use. All, except one young man.

In the room was a wealthy university student named Alfred Vail (1807-1859). His curiosity was piqued, and he asked Morse to explain his invention further. Vail's father and brother owned a large brass and ironworks factory, and he believed they could help develop some of the instruments needed for the telegraph and would be interested in a partnership. Morse offered them one-fourth interest in the telegraph. Morse also asked his friend, science professor Leonard Gale, to join them. Gale introduced Morse to Joseph Henry (1797-1878) and his work on electromagnets. Henry had constructed a working electromagnetic telegraph in 1831. Together, the team worked to improve the invention, which they named the American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.

Morse improved on previous versions of the telegraph by designing a relay system, using a series of electromagnets, to open and close circuits along the wire. In this way, the current would be strong enough to travel long distances. He and his team also revised the code, in which a series of dots and dashes represented every letter of the alphabet and the numbers zero through nine. The most frequently used letters were assigned the shortest codes. For example, the code for "e" was a dot, while the code for "q" was dash-dash-dot-dash.

The partners applied for a patent in 1837, and Morse wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury to list the advantages of his invention. "First," he wrote, "the fullest and most precise information can be almost instantaneously transmitted between any two or more points between which a wire conductor is laid."

"Second. The same full intelligence can be communicated at any moment, irrespective of the time of day or night, or state of the weather."

"Third. The whole apparatus will occupy but little space."

"Fourth. The record of intelligence is made in a permanent manner and in such form that it can at once be bound up in volumes, convenient for reference, if desired."

Morse took the telegraph to Washington, D.C., to ask the U.S. Congress for funding to test his invention. But the congressmen knew little of science, and were wary about giving money to a painter-turned-inventor. Morse then traveled abroad to secure patents, thinking the Europeans would be more amenable to his telegraph, but he was again turned down. Finally, in 1843, after nearly 12 years of hard work, Congress gave in and offered to fund testing of Morse's telegraph. He and his team were given just two months to lay a 40-mile telegraph line between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. They worked feverishly, stringing the wires on poles set about two hundred feet apart, and endlessly testing the mechanism to ensure that messages were being transmitted successfully.

On the morning of May 24, 1844, Morse sat in the United States Supreme Court building and sent the first official message to Baltimore. "What hath God wrought!" Alfred Vail, at the other end, quickly sent back the message. It had been received in the blink of an eye! Morse's telegraph was an instant hit.

By 1846 several private companies were using Morse's telegraph design to establish lines from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Buffalo, and beyond. People used the telegraph to quickly check on their loved ones, or send business messages, without having to travel several miles. By 1851 more than 50 competing telegraph companies were in operation, transmitting messages from town to town. The companies merged in 1856 to form the Western Union Telegraph Company.

In 1861 a line ran across the continent, and by 1866 messages could be sent across the Atlantic via a submarine cable, allowing for rapid communication between North America and Europe. Throughout the world, people began to rely on the telegraph as the fastest mode of communication.

Several refinements to Morse's invention were made over the years, including improved insulation methods, a duplex circuit which allowed messages to travel simultaneously in both directions, and in 1871 Thomas Edison invented the quadruplex, allowing for two messages to travel each way at once.

Morse's telegraph not only revolutionized the way people communicate, it led to later developments in signal transmission, such as the radio, telephone, and television. Today, instant communication is conducted via such modern inventions as cellular phones, faxes, and the internet. While information is now processed and transmitted much faster than Morse could have ever imagined, his invention helped lay the foundation for today's modern communications age.


Further Reading

Coe, Lewis. A History of Morse's Invention and its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Latham, Jean Lee. Samuel F. B. Morse, Artist-Inventor. Champaign, IL: Gouard Press, 1961.

Morse, Samuel F. B. Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

Reid, James D. The Telegraph in America: Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men. Arno Press, 1974.

Samuel Morse and the Telegraph

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