Telegraph Races

Samuel Morse started as a portrait painter, but became an inventor—and developed the electric telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse, self portrait. ( Library of Congress)

By David Zax

In the late 1830s, in the northwest tower of a neo-Gothic building on Washington Square East, a frustrated artist transformed himself into a great inventor. Samuel Finley Breese Morse had studied historical painting in England from 1811-1815, and was for many years a portraitist in New England, South Carolina, and elsewhere. In the 1820s he settled in New York, taking up teaching at what was then called the University of the City of New York. But when Morse failed to get a coveted gig painting a mural for the rotunda of Washington’s Capitol Building, he decided to devote himself more fully to a hobby: the development of an electric telegraph.

The basic idea of telegraphy (from the Greek words for “writing” and “at a distance”) was not new; visual telegraphs using semaphore signals were common in Europe, and smoke signals date to prehistoric times. But the notion of using an electric signal for telegraphy was so new in 1837 that when the U.S. Treasury secretary surveyed thinkers on the future of telegraphs, Morse was the only one of 18 respondents who thought it a likely scenario. The development of a new kind of battery by the British chemist John Frederic Daniell in 1836 offered just the sort of steady current needed for an electric telegraph, and in the late 1830s Morse began tinkering with Daniell’s approach in his Washington Square studio. He finally approached the U.S. Patent Office in 1840.

Morse’s work relied heavily on the scientific findings of others, raising the question, was Morse a great inventor or merely a canny entrepreneur? Morse did add a few unique technical features to his own telegraph. He introduced a relay system, whereby secondary batteries could retransmit a signal across spans too great for a single electrical burst to travel without dissipating. And he invented an elaborate clockwork contraption that converted the signal into writing etched by a stylus (a contraption that never found favor in actual telegraph offices). But historians of technology tend to feel that Morse was more savvy businessman than brilliant scientist, echoing Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, who once declared that Morse never made a “single original discovery” in electromagnetism. “Had Morse been hit in head with brick and dropped dead in 1842, the telegraph still would have developed in the U.S. within a relatively short period of time,” says Richard R. John, author of Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications.

In the end, suggests John, it may have been Morse’s closeness with Patent Commissioner Henry L. Ellsworth—an old friend from their college days—that gave him a leg up among several competitors for a patent. Morse was granted his patent in 1840 and on May 24, 1844, offered the first demonstration of a 40-mile line built between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. He allowed Ellsworth’s 18-year-old daughter, Anne, with whom the 53-year-old Morse was smitten, to pen the first message to transmit. She chose a Biblical verse: “What hath God wrought?”

In the telegraph races ’twas Morse/Who entered the prize-winning horse/And it may just have been/That his pal helped him win/But he never was wracked with remorse.

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The first electric telegraph, sent May 24, 1844, between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. (Library of Congress)

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