The Selling of Samuel Morse
In 1836, commissioner Henry Ellsworth turned the U.S. Patent Office into an engine of innovation—and Morse's telegraph became the system's first major beneficiary
In February 1837, Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury called for information from the “most intelligent sources” to help prepare a report to Congress on the propriety of establishing a “system of telegraphs” for the United States. Of the 18 responses he received, 17 assumed that the telegraph would be optical and its motive power human. The only respondent to envision a different operating force was Samuel F. B. Morse, a painter turned professor long intrigued by the moral implications of technical advance; he proposed instead a new kind of telegraph of his own devising that would transmit information by electrical impulses carried by wire.
Woodbury’s request inspired Morse to build a demonstration project, which he completed in May 1844 in the form of a 40-mile line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Congress funded the effort with an award of $30,000. It was not the first of its kind: by May 1844 the British telegraph promoters Charles Wheatstone and William F. Cooke had installed special-purpose electric telegraphs on several railroads in Great Britain. But the Washington-Baltimore line was the first electric telegraph in the United States; following its transfer to the Post Office Department in 1845, it became the first electrical communications medium in the world open to the public on a fee-for-service basis. Although the future disposition of Morse’s invention remained uncertain, it was hailed from the outset as an epochal technical advance, destined to have vast consequences for American business, politics, and public life.
The history of Morse’s demonstration project offers a case study in the unanticipated consequences of technological innovation. Morse had neither the inclination nor the temperament to scale up his original undertaking into a spatially extensive network. Rather, he conceived of himself as an inventor who owned the rights to a valuable creation granted him by the Patent Office in 1840.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Morse’s project was its role in transforming patent rights into lawfully tradable assets, or what would soon become known as intellectual property.
He believed he could sell these rights to Congress, and that his technology would become the first link in an extensive communication network run by the Post Office Department. It may seem counterintuitive today that an inventor who held the rights to an invention widely acclaimed as a powerful agent of change would try to sell them to the nation so that invention might be commercialized by a federal agency. Yet a congressional buyout had the support not only of Morse, but also of his primary financial backers; the patent commissioner; several of the country’s most influential newspapers; and a smattering of lawmakers, including the 1844 Whig presidential contender, Henry Clay. Only after Morse had failed to sell his rights to Congress would the telegraph become a quintessentially private enterprise. This was an eventuality that Morse had worked to forestall for almost a decade and that would continue to trouble thoughtful critics of the telegraph business from the 1840s until the First World War.
The public-private telegraph that Morse envisioned hinged on the federal acquisition of his patent rights, and this was not easily arranged. Morse’s invention was novel, untested, and easily ridiculed. Postmaster General Charles Wickliffe felt so certain that the demonstration project would fail that he pointedly refrained from mentioning it in either of the two annual reports that he prepared when the Washington-Baltimore line remained under his jurisdiction.
Before he received his congressional grant, Morse had relied for funding on a small number of investors, his first backers being ironmaster Stephen Vail and a Maine congressman, Francis O. J. Smith. Vail loaned Morse money and let him experiment with electrical transmission at a factory complex that he owned in Morristown, New Jersey. Smith served as Morse’s business manager and publicist.
Had Morse lived in Great Britain, he could probably have obtained all the funding he needed from private investors. In 1845, for example, a consortium of venture capitalists purchased a major stake in the Wheatstone-Cooke telegraph for £115,000 in the expectation of licensing it to British railways for a sizable fee. In the United States, however, venture capital was scarce. Under the circumstances, Congress was one of the very few organizations in the nation—public or private—to which Morse could plausibly turn to sell his rights.
Not everyone regarded trafficking in patent rights with equanimity. The scientist Joseph Henry, for example, refused as a matter of principle to patent any of his inventions, proclaiming that they had been “freely given” to the world, and sought, instead of pecuniary reward, the pleasure of discovering new truths, the satisfaction of advancing science, and the enjoyment of the “scientific reputation” to which his discoveries entitled him. Similarly, the manufacturer Peter Cooper declined to patent the ingenious railroad engine that he had designed. Had he done so, railroad magnates might have been predisposed to pay more attention to the intellectual property value of the most important piece of equipment on which they relied. Yet Cooper did not seek a patent, and the railroaders followed his lead. In contrast, the telegraph business evolved through patents, of which the most important were the patents that Morse had obtained in 1840 (the use of electricity to transmit signals over long distances) and 1846 (an electromagnetic relay).
The confidence that Morse and Smith placed in Morse’s patent rights built on and was reinforced by a quiet legal revolution inside the Patent Office set in motion by the Patent Office Act of 1836, which stipulated that the government must certify the patents it issued. This was a tricky matter, for it required the Patent Office to render an informed judgment about the merits of a given invention. Following the enactment of the Patent Act of 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had tried briefly to certify personally every invention for which an inventor sought a patent; this proved unworkable, and in 1793 he gave up. From then until 1836 anyone could obtain a patent upon the mere payment of a fee. If two patents overlapped, the federal executive branch left it up to the courts to adjudicate.
Beginning in 1836, the patent office began once again to examine each filing to determine not only whether the submission had merit but also whether it infringed on any other patent already issued—thus establishing a filter between the inventor and the legal system and enhancing the value of applications that made it through the mesh by defining the rights of the patent holder. Lacking certification, the scope of a patent remained uncertain, making it vulnerable to court challenge by rival inventors. Once certification was required, patent rights became tradable assets that, like land assets or government securities, could be bought or sold. To capitalize on their value, promoters bundled together patents for related inventions into cartels known as “pools.” The leading telegraph patents were pooled in 1859; telephone patents were pooled in 1879; radio patents in 1919.
No other government in the world had imposed a comparable requirement up to this time, imparting to Morse’s patents a moral authority that set them apart not only from the patents issued to Americans before 1836, but also from those issued by Great Britain and France. The transformation of the U.S. Patent Office reinforced the seductive yet still controversial notion that self-interest could spur the technical advances that would foster moral progress. This syllogism received a classic formulation in 1859 when, in a popular lecture on “discoveries and inventions,” the Illinois lawyer, patent holder, and politician Abraham Lincoln praised the country’s patent laws for ensuring that the “fuel of interest” would stoke the “fire of genius.” The surviving draft of Lincoln’s lecture left it ambiguous as to whether he regarded the telegraph as an agent of progress. Yet he was unequivocal in his judgment that the patent system deserved to be ranked with the invention of writing and printing and the landfall of Columbus as one of the four greatest discoveries in human history. By creating financial incentives for inventors, contended the British telegraph engineer William Preece in 1877, the American Patent Office had turned inventing into a “profession,” a happy outcome, in Preece’s view, stemming from the country’s patent laws: “Every new thing is freely published, and the patent laws are sound and within the reach of all.”
The high regard Americans and foreigners alike had for the certification requirement came at a cost. By fostering the presumption that inventions sprang more or less unassisted from the brow of uniquely talented individuals, it seriously distorted the history of invention. Morse’s 1840 patent granted the inventor the rights not only to a particular method of electrical communications but also to any device that used electromagnetism to transmit “intelligence” between distant points. Although the U.S. Supreme Court would eventually rule this latter claim to be invalid, it was a testament to Morse’s self-assurance—and to the encouragement he received from the Patent Office—that it found its way into the patent at all. Even today, it is conventional to identify Morse as the eponymous inventor of the most important technical advances in communications since the invention of printing.
Morse reveled in his reputation as a scientist who had unlocked one of the mysteries of God’s universe. In fact, he had been neither the first individual nor even the first American to recognize the potential of electricity as a motive power. The motive power that Morse relied on—namely, electromagnetism—had been discovered in 1820 by a Danish scientist, while the steady and reliable current that Morse employed had been made possible by the invention of a new kind of battery in 1836 by British chemist John Frederic Daniell. The British scientist-promoter team of Wheatstone and Cooke had installed an electrically powered signaling system on a number of railroads several years before Morse completed his demonstration project in 1844, while the American chemist Harrison Gray Dyar had built a primitive yet workable electrical telegraph demonstration project on Long Island as early as 1827. Had Dyar obtained the same level of support from the Patent Office in 1827 that Morse did beginning in 1837; had he had the advantage of the Daniell battery; and, perhaps above all, had he been able to take advantage of the certification requirement that Congress instituted nine years later, Dyar, rather than Morse, might be remembered today as the American inventor of the telegraph.
Joseph Henry took a particularly jaundiced view of Morse’s scientific pretensions. Morse was a man of “great ingenuity,” Henry conceded to Wheatstone in 1846, yet he lacked not only the “scientific knowledge” but also the “habits of mind” that could lead to the discovery of “new principles.” Henry found Morse’s refusal to credit him with the scientific insights that underlay Morse’s electromagnetic relay particularly distressing. Morse had never made a “single original discovery” in “electricity, magnetism, or electro-magnetism” that was applicable to the telegraph, Henry huffed in a government report on the invention of the telegraph that the Smithsonian Institution issued in 1856. Morse derided Henry’s assessment as outrageous; modern historians of technology, in contrast, find much merit in Henry’s critique.
Morse was a beneficiary not only of patent law but also of the bureaucratic agenda of Patent Commissioner Henry L. Ellsworth, who was determined to enhance the legitimacy of the certification requirement instituted in 1836. For the Patent Office to be successful, Ellsworth recognized, he had to find some way to ensure that it remained sufficiently popular to perpetuate the operational autonomy that he had come to enjoy. Although Congress was not likely to abolish the office altogether, the certification requirement was relatively new and highly vulnerable to an antimonopoly assault of the kind that had prompted President Jackson to veto the rechartering of the Bank of the United States in 1832.
To build support for certification, Ellsworth launched an ingenious promotional campaign centering on the long and detailed annual reports in which Ellsworth and his staff chronicled the inventions that had come to their attention over the previous year. These documents were highly laudatory and even fawning toward the ingenuity of the inventors whose contrivances they described. The “advancement” in the arts thus heralded “taxes our credulity,” rhapsodized Ellsworth in his 1843 report.
Of all the inventions Ellsworth celebrated each year, few received more attention than Morse’s telegraph. Among the “most brilliant discoveries of the age,” Ellsworth proclaimed in 1844, Morse’s “electromagnetic telegraph” deserved a “conspicuous” place: “Distance is annihilated—thought has found a competitor.” By lifting up Morse’s invention, Ellsworth praised not only the inventor himself but also the government agency from which Morse had obtained proprietary power. Indeed, Ellsworth’s laudatory references to Morse’s invention were themselves a kind of certification, because they invested the inventor’s work with the authority of the federal government.
The significance of Morse’s invention was not only practical but also symbolic. Morse had been born and educated in the United States, a country not then known for scientific attainment, especially in a highly technical field such as electricity. Morse himself was highly sensitive to the possibility that a foreign inventor might steal his glory, and, in 1837 he redoubled his efforts to build a working telegraph. The immediate catalyst was a public announcement that the French inventor Ennemond Gonon was at work on a similar project. As it happened, Morse was mistaken: the telegraph Gonon proposed was not electric but optical. Yet had Morse not feared a foreign rival, his research might have been even further delayed.
Ellsworth shared Morse’s sensitivity about his country’s scientific shortcomings and regarded Morse’s telegraph as an eloquent rejoinder to the condescension of European savants. The first American patent for an electric telegraph had been awarded not to Morse but to the British telegraphers Wheatstone and Cooke, and Ellsworth was determined to do what he could to ensure Morse’s success. “To a native citizen belongs the merits of the discovery,” he crowed of Morse’s invention, “and it is hoped that the country of his birth will reward him accordingly.”
Ellsworth’s nationalistic appeal resonated with at least one lawmaker, who invoked Wheatstone’s priority as a reason to fund Morse’s demonstration project. It also resonated with Morse. He found highly troubling the recent immigration of large number of Irish Catholics to New York City, and in 1836 he had run unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City on an anti-immigrant ticket. Though he had failed to carry the day for native-born Americans, he remained hopeful that he might yet win a victory for them in the annals of discovery.
Ellsworth had a further, more personal reason to single out Morse for praise. When he granted Morse his telegraph patent in 1840, the two men had known each other for over 30 years. Both had graduated from Yale College in the class of 1810; both hailed from politically prominent New England families; both were devout Congregationalists; and both had aligned themselves politically with Andrew Jackson—a decision that isolated them from many of their fellow New Englanders. Morse’s father was Jedidiah Morse, the author of one of the first geographical compendiums of the United States; Ellsworth’s father was Oliver Ellsworth, the third chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The assistance that Ellsworth provided his classmate was, in retrospect, little short of astounding. To ensure Morse the maximum degree of freedom in shopping his invention around Europe, Ellsworth granted him a preliminary patent known as a “caveat” in 1837. Following Morse’s return to the United States, he helped him obtain his first telegraph patent in 1840. When Morse journeyed to Washington in 1843 to lobby for federal funding, Ellsworth helped him find technical information at the Patent Office, permitted him to store his equipment there, provided him with a place to stay, and hailed him as a benefactor to humanity in widely circulated government reports. When Morse fell ill, Ellsworth’s wife, Nancy, and daughter, Anne, took care of him. Following the completion of Morse’s demonstration project, Ellsworth lobbied behind the scenes to obtain federal funding for an ill-fated New York City extension.
Ellsworth’s friendship with Morse may help explain why neither Ellsworth nor his wife discouraged a potentially even more intimate bond between the two men: namely, the possibility that Ellsworth might become Morse’s father-in-law. By 1844 Morse had fallen deeply in love with Anne Ellsworth—or “Annie,” as Morse called her—and, in ways that only the lovestruck can fully comprehend, was determined to press his suit. The courtship of this reclusive and financially strapped 53-year-old widower was in many ways improbable. He had fathered a daughter now several years older than the vivacious and eminently eligible 18-year-old Anne. In fact, it is conceivable that Morse himself had courted Anne’s mother several decades earlier, when Morse had been a Yale undergraduate.
“I desire sincere love to dear Annie,” wrote Morse to Ellsworth in February 1844, in offering her a gift as recompense for her labors in helping nurse him back to health—“to whom present for me the accompanying piece from my favorite Bellini, and the book on etiquette, after it shall have passed the ordeal of a mother’s examination, as I have not had time to read it myself.” Morse’s assistant, Alfred Vail, feared that Morse’s infatuation prevented his being an effective advocate for the proprietors. “The secret is,” explained Vail to his brother, Morse was “so much in love he don’t know what he is about half the time.” Morse’s own daughter considered her father’s remarriage inevitable: “You seemed to be so attached to her,” she reflected in a letter to her father that she wrote shortly after the completion of the Washington-Baltimore line.
If Anne had any intention of marrying Morse, her feelings have gone unrecorded. No correspondence in her hand from this period survives, while her chaperone—her mother’s sister, Julia G. Webster—did not list Morse as among the eligible bachelors with whom Anne had been romantically linked. Anne did save a love poem that Morse wrote for her in March 1845; it was published many years later, after Morse’s death, in Scribner’s Monthly. Its publication presumably met with Anne’s approval: her husband, Roswell Smith, was the magazine’s publisher. It is hard to know how to interpret Anne’s decision to save the poem or her husband’s decision to publish it: conceivably the Smiths were discreetly poking fun at the temerity of the late inventor.
If Morse’s courtship of Anne was little known, his campaign to sell his patent rights to Congress received wide publicity. To help persuade Congress to buy Morse out, Francis Smith staged an ingenious media event. He had recently undertaken a covert journalistic campaign for President Tyler in which he almost single-handedly defused a potentially explosive quarrel between the United States and Great Britain over Maine’s northern frontier. The crisis averted, Smith turned to selling the telegraph. In the spring of 1844 both of the country’s major political parties held their presidential nominating conventions in Baltimore—fortuitously, the very city to which Morse’s telegraph line was being extended. Morse does not seem to have appreciated the likely publicity value of this conjunction of events; for Smith, however, it was an obvious opportunity to keep Congress focused on Morse’s invention. The arrival of telegraphic convention reports at Washington could not help but “excite” the members of Congress, Smith wrote a friend, and thereby increase the likelihood of a congressional buyout finding its way onto the national agenda.
As Smith predicted, the reports from Baltimore generated an enormous amount of favorable publicity. Morse’s Washington office was thronged with visitors eager for the latest information; when it announced that the Democrats in Baltimore had nominated the little-known James K. Polk to be their nominee, the crowd was astonished.
Whether or not Smith sincerely hoped that this media event would inspire Congress to vote the funds to scale up the Washington-Baltimore line is an open question. Smith, much more politically savvy than Morse, seems to have intuited that Congress was unlikely to buy the rights, however magical Morse’s invention might be. It is just as likely that he had decided that he could make more money from Morse’s invention by raking off high profits on construction contracts. Yet it was one thing to favor private enterprise in private and quite another to tell the world, and Smith was far too canny to let slip an admission that might somehow lower the value of his share of Morse’s patent rights.
The enormous acclaim that greeted the first successful line in the United States encouraged Morse to assume that somehow he and Smith might convince Congress to allocate the funding necessary to extend the demonstration project northward to New York City. No one expected the Washington-Baltimore line to cover its costs. The two cities were only 40 miles apart and already boasted excellent postal service. Few residents of either city could be expected to pay a premium for the incremental advantage provided by the telegraph. But if the telegraph were extended northward to New York City, it could be expected to make a better showing. To obtain the necessary appropriation, Morse and Smith twice lobbied Congress, first in June 1844 and then again in February 1845. Each time they failed—a major setback, since it raised troubling questions about the invention’s financial viability.
Congress’s refusal hastened the eclipse of the federally oriented political economy in which and for which Morse’s telegraph had been invented. Yet its legacy lived on in some unexpected ways. The bylaws devised by the Post Office Department to operate the Washington-Baltimore line became incorporated into the bylaws of state-chartered telegraph corporations, while federal legislation, federal court rulings, and federal patent law would continue to structure the telegraph business over the decades to come.
The most enduring legacy of Morse’s demonstration project was its role in transforming patent rights into lawfully tradable assets, or what would soon become known as intellectual property. Henry L. Ellsworth is forgotten today. Yet it was under his leadership that the Patent Office became an engine of innovation. By encouraging the circulation of a vast amount of information about new contrivances, Ellsworth converted his office into a forum for the exchange of technical knowledge. And by making the certification requirement a cornerstone of federal public policy, Ellsworth enshrined the notion of the heroic inventor as a civic ideal.