What Hath God Wrought?
When Samuel Morse unveiled his telegraph in 1844, very little about it was new. His genius lay in artfully combining elements that had been anticipated by others.
If there’s a cliché that hounds our lives unmercifully, it is that we live in the Information Age, a time when ever more information, wanted and unwanted, pours in on us from every side. So relentless and insistent has this flood become that it often seems impossible to escape. Marshall McLuhan’s once fanciful “global village” has emerged with astonishing swiftness in the form of a planet interconnected by elaborate media networks that transfer data and images almost instantly. One way industrial societies measure progress is by the speed with which their technologies develop and mutate. For decades the transportation and industrial sectors dominated this type of thinking. After all, what symbols better reflect the rise of American material civilization than the locomotive and the factory? The first bound a sprawling continent together and spurred the settlement of remote regions; the second revolutionized the production of goods and led to a dramatic rise in the standard of living. In 150 years transportation leaped from the fledgling railroad to the jet plane, while the factory progressed from crude, waterpowered machines to automated assembly lines.
Impressive as this record is, the third component of this transformation, the communications revolution, has in that same century and a half come even farther, racing since its birth all the way to the modern maze of telephones, radio, television, computers, fax machines, and satellites. So furious has the pace of change in communications been that we sometimes forget the machine that started it all.
In its day the telegraph was no less a miracle than any of its modern offspring. It dazzled and bewildered people the same way computers can today, with feats that seemed magical if not unnatural. Today we live in an age that routinely expects new technological wonders even as we marvel at them. The telegraph was an innovation without precedent, born at a time when few grasped even remotely what electric current was, let alone what it might do. As the first form of modern communication, it burst upon the sensibilities of a people proud of progress but still new to technical leaps of such magnitude.
The telegraph was a landmark in human development from which there could be no retreat. For the first time messages could routinely travel great distances faster than man or beast could carry them. Later inventions would send much more information farther and faster through the “ether,” rather than over a wire, but they would always be progeny of the first devices created by the pioneers of modern communications.
Foremost among these pioneers was Samuel Finley Breese Morse, surely the most improbable engineering hero in American history. The man who ushered in an era of accelerating technological breakthroughs was neither a scientist nor an inventor; he was, rather, one of the foremost artists of his day who shocked and disappointed his admirers by abandoning his career as a painter to perfect the strange new device that had captured his imagination. Nor was this all. On the side Morse also pioneered in another form of technology that rose to dominance over the following century: photography.
Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1791, a year after the death of Benjamin Franklin and a short distance from the birthplace of that celebrated genius. He loafed and partied his way through Yale, like most students of the day, pausing to absorb something of electricity and other scientific topics from Professor Jeremiah Day and Professor Benjamin Silliman, for whom Morse took apart the still novel batteries of Volta and Cruickshanks. Upon his graduation in 1810 he spent a year working as a bookstore clerk and assisting his father, a noted clergyman and geographer. Then he went to London for four years to refine the artistic talent he had shown in college. After completing his training, he traveled through the United States and Europe, pursuing a career as a painter that brought him more plaudits than money.
In 1823 he moved permanently to New York City, where he was popular socially but made only a precarious living. During his artistic career he produced many outstanding works and helped found what eventually became the National Academy of Design, serving as its president for twenty years.
The turning point in Morse’s life came in October 1832 on a voyage home from Europe, where he had spent three years painting, traveling, and studying. He was at lunch one day with Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston chemist who later claimed to have discovered anesthesia, when the talk turned to André Ampere’s recent experiments with electromagnetism. Someone asked whether electricity took much time to travel over a long wire. No, replied Jackson; Franklin had passed current over several miles with no perceptible delay. It is not clear whether Franklin ever actually performed such an experiment; still, Jackson’s remark inspired Morse.
“If this be so,” he said abruptly, “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.” The idea began to obsess him. Before reaching shore, Morse had sketched in his notebook the basic elements of a telegraph instrument and a crude version of a code based on dots and dashes. Excited by his epiphany, he knew too little about electricity to realize the obstacles that lay before him.
Upon his return Morse accepted a position as professor of painting and sculpture at the just-opened University of the City of New York (now New York University). The post was unsalaried; Morse made his income by collecting fees directly from his students. As the first professor of art in the United States, he used the facilities provided him at Washington Square to perfect the telegraph. (The telegraph was not Morse’s first foray into inventing; with his brother Sidney he had patented a water pump for fire engines in 1817, and several years later he had invented a marble-carving machine. Neither device made any money.)
At first Morse kept up his painting while dabbling in the telegraph, but as the years passed, his interests began to shift. Several events that took place in 1836 and 1837 concentrated his mind even more. News from Europe in early 1837 told of the great strides that were being made in telegraphy there; Morse realized that if he did not finish the invention soon, his efforts might be wasted. More important, that same winter Congress declined to hire Morse to provide a painting for the Capitol rotunda, a commission he had had high hopes for. The rejection crystallized his increasing disillusionment with the world of art and seems to have inspired him to redouble his inventive efforts.
Besides all this, for several years after his return from Europe, Morse, a minister’s son and a sixth-generation Puritan descendant, had been deeply involved in anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant politics. These activities were climaxed by Morse’s run for mayor of New York on the Native American ticket in the spring of 1836. The campaign was a miserable failure; he received only 1,496 votes and finished last in a field of four. After this humiliation Morse turned away from politics for the most part, though he did mount another campaign for mayor in 1841, with even less success.
Finally, in February 1837 Congress directed the Secretary of the Treasury, Levi Woodbury, to solicit proposals for a telegraph. The sponsors of this measure had in mind a semaphore system of the type that had been around since the 1790s, with messages transmitted by visual signals along a chain of stations. Morse thought that if he could perfect the electromagnetic telegraph that he had designed on the ship back from Europe and brought to crude operation late in 1836, it would answer the government’s needs even better.
He was far from original in trying to develop an electrical telegraph; dogged efforts had been going on for half a century. The idea of using electricity to transmit information goes back at least as far as 1753, when a letter in a Scottish magazine suggested a system of insulated wires, one for each letter of the alphabet, that could be charged in sequence to spell out a message. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw many attempts to put this idea, or some variation of it, into practice, using sparks, pith balls, and various electrochemical effects. Each method had its problems, and all were generally regarded as “philosophical toys” rather than serious methods of communication.
The breakthrough that would eventually make modern telegraphy possible came in 1820, when the Danish physicist Hans Ørested startled the scientific world by demonstrating that a magnetic needle was deflected by an electric current at right angles to it. This discovery revealed a connection between magnetism and electricity and launched the study of electromagnetism. A week after hearing about Ørested’s discovery, Ampère showed how current flowed through a wire and thereby could serve as the basis for a magnetic-needle telegraph, but he didn’t pursue the idea.
Meanwhile, other scientists seized on Ørested’s discovery and experimented with it in areas besides communication. In 1823 William Sturgeon of England wrapped some wire around a horseshoe-shaped iron bar coated with varnish, sent current flowing through it, and astonished colleagues by lifting nine pounds—twenty times the weight of his apparatus. Sturgeon used bare wire, so to avoid a short circuit he couldn’t let the turns of his coil touch each other. That limited the strength of his electromagnet. Despite this limitation the new device set the stage for Joseph Henry.
The modest Henry was the opposite of Morse—a dedicated scientist who cared little about money, public acclaim, or the practical application of his findings. Fascinated by Ørested’s discovery and Sturgeon’s experiment, Henry became the first American since Franklin to study electricity in detail. By ripping up one of his wife’s silk petticoats and laboriously wrapping the strands around wire as insulation, Henry was able to create a much tighter coil around an iron bar than Sturgeon had done. In 1831 Henry built an electromagnet capable of lifting an astounding 750 pounds of iron with current from a simple battery. Later that year a revised model lifted more than a ton.
That same year Henry strung a mile of copper wire around a classroom in Albany, New York, then used the flow of current from a battery to send a signal by magnetically striking a bell. At the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he accepted a post the next year, he repeated the experiment by stringing wire between two buildings. In 1835 he solved the problem of transmitting over long distances by inventing the electrical relay, in which a large circuit is broken down into a series of smaller ones with their own power supplies, each triggered in sequence by the completion of the previous one.
Henry had created all the elements of a telegraph except for a code (he still used bell taps as signals), but he made no attempt to put them together and rejected friends’ pleas that he patent his devices. “I did not then consider it compatible with the dignity of science to confine benefits which might be derived from it to the exclusive use of any individual,” he said later, then added wistfully, “In this I was perhaps too fastidious.” But others were not so reticent. In fact, a scramble to perfect the electrical telegraph had been taking place on two continents for more than a decade.
Around 1825 a Russian nobleman, Baron Pavel Ludovich Schilling, transformed Ampere’s 1821 suggestion of the possibility of a telegraph into a practical device. With backing from the czar, Schilling improved his telegraph, and he exhibited it in 1835 to a congress of German scientists in Bonn. Schilling’s system included an alphabetic code that operated by turning needles right or left. But he died in 1837, just as he seemed on the verge of creating the first operating electromagnetic telegraph, and the Russian government did not pursue research on his system.
Around 1828 an American named Harrison Gray Dyar invented a chemical telegraph that operated by producing discolorations on specially treated paper. He strung wire with glass insulators on trees and poles around a Long Island racetrack to demonstrate it. Although it was quite slow, the method showed some promise. Dyar found a financial backer only to have him scuttle the project with a long and bitter lawsuit over dividing the proceeds.
In 1833 two German scientists, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Eduard Weber, devised a galvanometer telegraph. In 1835 they turned it over to a colleague, Karl A. Steinheil, to develop. Steinheil added enough improvements, including fountain pens that moved by clockwork on a roll of paper to form dots capable of delineating an alphabet, to produce the first automatic recording electromagnetic telegraph that actually functioned. The Bavarian government installed this telegraph for signaling purposes on a couple of railroads, but it proved to be too expensive. Steinheil eventually recognized that other versions of the technology were better and cheaper than his own and urged the government to adopt them instead.
In England young Charles Wheatstone, a physicist who had made important discoveries in acoustics and optics and had invented the stereoscope (a favorite amusement in Victorian parlors), developed his own telegraph instrument. He got help from none other than Joseph Henry, who visited London in April 1837. Two months later Wheatstone and his partner, William Fothergill Cooke, obtained patents on what they called a Chronometric telegraph. It spelled out words with a system of five needles, which combined to indicate letters on a grid. The next year they reduced the number of needles to two. In 1839 Cooke and Wheatstone completed a different type of telegraph, which worked by pointing to letters on a dial. It was far superior to their earlier model and saw extensive use on British railways. By 1852 four thousand miles of wire using this system had been installed. For this and other work Wheatstone was knighted and hailed by his countrymen as the inventor of the telegraph. Some of his later models were used in the United States, but they fell short of with improved American instruments.
Despite the impressive work done by all these men, Morse brought to the task a quality none of them had. He lacked the knowledge and training of a scientist, but his strength as an artist was, in the historian Brooke Hindle’s words, “an excellent design capability based upon a mind practiced in forming and re-forming multiple elements into varying complexes. This sort of synthetic-spatial thinking … is, of course, involved in most intellectual activity including science, but in technology it has to be central.”
This ability enabled Morse to refine and adapt elements created by others into a marvelously simple and rugged system. His transmitter was a portrule —a long, horizontal rod with a deep lengthwise slot in its upper side. Morse made a set of metal blocks to be held inside the portrule. They were like printer’s type except that instead of being cast in the form of the letter itself, each block had a distinctive pattern of pointed and flat-bottomed indentations. As the block was drawn across a lever arm, it completed an electric circuit in short and long bursts, corresponding to the pointed and flat indentations respectively. In later versions of the telegraph, beginning in 1839, the type-and-portrule system would be replaced by the now-familiar finger key.
For his receiver Morse nailed one of his old canvas stretchers against the side of a table and attached an electromagnet to a bar hung across it. A lever was suspended from the top of the frame with its center near the electromagnet, and a pencil was attached to the tip of the lever, its point resting on a paper-covered roller. When the magnet was electrified, it pulled the lever toward it, moving the pencil. As clockworks drew the paper slowly along, the pencil marked on it a series of V-shaped lines with wide and narrow bases as the circuit was completed and broken. The lines formed a distinct pattern for each letter, which could be read easily. After the finger key replaced the portrule, the paper recorder would eventually be found unnecessary, since a trained operator could decipher a message just from hearing the clicks as the circuit was made and broken.
The key to Morse’s system was his ability to solve a problem that had stumped other inventors: a form of encoding messages suited to the limitations of the telegraph. Two-element codes in themselves were hardly new; the ancient Greeks had invented one using torches covered and then unmasked, and Francis Bacon had created one to represent the alphabet as early as 1605. Schilling devised an alphabet code in 1832, and Steinheil used one based on dots and dashes in 1836.
Morse’s first impulse had been to transpose a code devised in 1793 by three French brothers named Chappe for semaphore signaling. He envisioned transmitting short and long bursts, which he called dots and lines, of electricity separated by intervals, and coding each letter in a combination of them. Morse had started in 1832 with a code in which common words were assigned numbers. In early 1838 he switched to the dot-dash system, the final version of which did not emerge until 1844. In this version the most frequently used letters were assigned the shortest codes.
The instrument Morse exhibited to friends in September 1837 contained the basic elements of what later became the standard telegraph. Morse had come to it less by the usual route of chasing ideas down dead ends than by his ability to visualize all the components needed and then design whatever alternative elements proved necessary. Of his contribution, Joseph Henry had this to say in an 1849 patent suit: “I am not aware that Mr. Morse made a single original discovery, in electricity, magnetism, or electromagnetism, applicable to the invention of the telegraph. I have always considered his merit to consist in combining and applying the discoveries of others in the invention of a particular instrument and process for telegraphic purposes.”
This was a fair assessment. Morse’s original contribution consisted of his code, which made it possible to transmit messages with just a single circuit connecting the endpoints. Most earlier attempts at a telegraph had required multiple circuits interacting in complicated ways.
Once Morse had an instrument to test, he ran into further obstacles. The power problem—how to transmit over long distances without a crippling loss of current—had been the downfall of all earlier telegraph inventors. It stumped Morse as well, until Leonard D. Gale came along. Gale, a geology professor at the university, improved Morse’s design in the spring of 1837 by using superior batteries and electromagnets that had been suggested by Joseph Henry six years earlier.
Gale realized that Morse’s battery of one large cell generated ample electric current but not nearly enough intensity (voltage). Since the latter was what the telegraph needed to send current over long distances, Gale helped Morse construct a battery of twenty cells connected in series. He also improved the electromagnet by increasing the loops of wire around it from tens to hundreds. Henry had suggested both these things in a seminal 1831 article in Benjamin Silliman’s journal. Gale was familiar with Henry’s work on electromagnetism, but Morse was not. The inventor’s formal training in the subject was limited to a series of lectures by James Freeman Dana that he had attended in 1827.
Once Morse had adopted Gale’s modifications, the results were astonishing. In November 1837 his improved device sent a signal over ten miles of wire set on reels in Gale’s lecture room. This test made clear that by combining the new apparatus with the relay principle, which Morse seems to have thought of independent of Henry, it would be possible to send messages over any distance.
Two months before the November test, Morse had made Gale his partner in the venture along with Alfred Vail, a recent graduate of the university who had taken a deep interest in Morse’s work. Vail brought to the partnership the resources of his father, who owned the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey. The young enthusiast agreed to build a model of the telegraph at his own expense, to let Morse demonstrate it in Washington, and to underwrite other models for obtaining patents abroad. With this backing Morse filed preliminary requests for patents (the first was awarded in 1840), and after demonstrations in Morristown, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia, he took his apparatus to Washington in February 1838.
Treasury Secretary Woodbury’s circular of the previous year soliciting ideas for telegraph systems had brought five replies. Four described semaphoric systems; the fifth came from Morse. His presentation so impressed the House Commerce Committee that it recommended appropriating $30,000 to construct an experimental fifty-mile line. Although the bill died without coming to a vote, the test resulted in the recruitment of another partner for Morse: Francis Ormand Jonathan (“Fog”) Smith of Maine, chairman of the Commerce Committee.
The shrewd, venal Smith grasped the potential of the telegraph at once and induced the guileless Morse to let him serve as counsel and promoter for the invention in return for a share of its profits. After quietly teaming up with Morse, Smith enthusiastically supported the appropriation; then he took leave from the House for several months to promote the invention in Europe with Morse. He returned to Congress late in 1838 and continued to seek government help for the partnership. Recognizing that his dual public-private role might cause concern even by the lax standards of the day, Smith left the House when his term expired in 1839.
Morse hoped that Smith would provide the business sense and Washington connections that the other partners lacked, and in the short term he was indeed quite helpful. In the end, however, Morse would get far more of Smith’s cunning than he wanted. The new partnership concealed a hopeless clash of interests. Smith cared only for the money that could be made out of the private development and exploitation of telegraph companies. Morse cherished a far different vision: He hoped the government would buy his invention and use it as an improved mail service. The partners would be suitably rewarded, the public would benefit, and Morse would achieve the recognition he had always sought.
While Congress dawdled over the appropriation, Smith made his first financial contribution. In the spring of 1838 he underwrote his and Morse’s trip to Europe, where they would seek patents for the telegraph. England, where the Cooke-Wheatstone system was becoming established, received him coolly. France applauded him and granted patents but no government funding. Russia ignored a feeler sent in its direction from Paris. A discouraged Morse came home in April 1839 with but a single bonus from the trip, a working knowledge of the new technique for making images developed by Louis Daguerre. Excited by the chiaroscuro images he described as “Rembrandt perfected,” Morse introduced Americans to the daguerreotype in a letter that was printed in his brother’s New York Observer on April 20, 1839, and reprinted in newspapers throughout the nation.
Discouraged by Congress’s continued inaction and his lack of success abroad, Morse retreated to his studio. Over the next several years, as the interest and support of his friends and partners dwindled, Morse led a hand-to-mouth existence. He gave painting lessons, worked on improving his telegraph, and mounted his second unsuccessful campaign for mayor. He also began experimenting with the new photographic technology.
Morse did not produce the first American daguerreotype; that honor went to an Englishman named D. W. Seager. Within days after details of the process arrived in New York in September 1839, Seager produced a view of lower Broadway, beating Morse’s image of the new Unitarian Church by about a week. Morse soon moved on from buildings to tackle in photography his old specialty as a painter: portraits. Daguerre had told Morse that portraits were impossible because subjects could not remain still for the five to ten minutes (at least) required to make a good image, but Morse persisted in collaboration with Professor John W. Draper. Eventually they got decent results by reducing the size of the plate and using faster chemicals and better lenses. Morse’s studio, which had become a jumble of batteries, cameras, instruments, and coils of wire, attracted a flock of students eager to learn the new art. These included T. W. Gridland, who became the first professional photographer west of the Alleghenies; Edward Anthony, who later founded a major photographic supply house; and a young man named Mathew Brady.
With his improved telegraph in hand, Morse journeyed to Washington and repeated his demonstration in December 1842. He appealed to Smith for help with lobbying, but the ex-congressman could not be bothered to leave his business interests in Maine. Morse spent several anxious months attending congressional debates and waiting. Then in early March, in the waning hours of the session, Congress narrowly approved a $30,000 appropriation for a trial line over the forty miles between Washington and Baltimore. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad agreed to allow the line along its right-of-way if it could be done “without injury to the road and without embarrassment to the operations of the company.” This stern proviso betrays an utter lack of anticipation of the symbiotic relationship that would soon develop between those two prime movers of the nineteenth century, the railroad and the telegraph.
None of the work Morse had done so far had given him any inkling of the most efficient way to construct the line itself. He decided that the wire had to be carefully insulated with cotton twine and then buried in half-inch lead pipe to protect it from the elements. A bright young man named Ezra Cornell, an itinerant plow promoter who had met Fog Smith while extolling his wares in Maine, devised an ingenious plow that would open a trench, lay the pipe, and close the trench in one operation. (Cornell would go on in the telegraph business to make a fortune, with which he endowed the university that bears his name.) The process was expensive, however, and disaster loomed when the pipe proved to be defective and, despite the insulation, shorted out the wire it contained. Having spent $23,000 of his $30,000 and laid only nine miles of wire, and with his assistants resigning and Smith bad-mouthing him in an attempt to collect graft on the pipelaying contract, Morse cast about desperately for an alternative. Apparently it was Charles Grafton Page of the Patent Office who suggested that Morse string a single wire on glass insulators on poles and use the earth as a ground.
The Germans and English used this method, and so had Dyar back in the 1820s. Morse knew nothing of this, but he pounced gratefully on the idea. Cornell managed to complete the line within the appropriation to a point fifteen miles from Baltimore by May 1, 1844. The Whig party’s presidential convention happened to open that day in Baltimore, and Morse used the occasion for an impromptu demonstration. When the Whigs named their ticket, the news was rushed via train to the end of the telegraph line and then transmitted to Washington. Morse received the message in Washington and announced that the Whigs had nominated Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen.
Ninety minutes later word from an arriving train confirmed the news. Even skeptics were impressed; anyone could have guessed that Clay would be nominated, but who could have predicted Frelinghuysen, an obscure lawyer? Basking in this success, Morse watched with satisfaction as the line was strung the final few miles. By May 24 it connected the railroad depot on Pratt Street in Baltimore with the Supreme Court chamber in Washington, where the telegraph had been set up for its official demonstration.
What should the first message ever sent over an American intercity telegraph line be? Morse gave the question some thought, then let his friend Annie Ellsworth (daughter of Henry Ellsworth, the commissioner of patents and a Yale classmate of Morse) make the choice. Annie sounded out her mother on the subject and decided on part of a prophecy handed down by an ancient soothsayer named Balaam in Numbers 23:23. Morse liked the selection. On Friday, May 24, 1844, he sat down at his instrument and began tapping out letters. It took him one minute to complete the message: WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?
The message could not have been more appropriate. Morse went on to gather the fame and fortune he had so ardently sought, but the telegraph never passed into government hands, as he had hoped. (The partners offered to sell their rights to the government in 1844 but were turned down.) Instead it became a football among several competing private groups that struggled to build lines and improve technology enough to provide reliable service over long distances. In the byzantine machinations among these rivals, the talented but erratic Smith, ostensibly Morse’s ally, proved more of an ordeal to him than his business enemies. Not until 1866 were the clashing firms absorbed into the first giant monopoly in American business, Western Union. Order finally came to the telegraph, and in doing so it set a precedent: The first American telecommunications medium belonged to the private rather than the public sector.
By the eve of the Civil War the telegraph had become a staple of American life, used extensively by railroads, businessmen, speculators, and the press. Bankers, brokers, and shippers quickly grasped the advantage of instant communication, as did wholesale and retail merchants. Fast access to information from across the nation led to the rise of Wall Street as the center of financial markets and the centralizing of other markets, such as the commodities exchanges in Chicago. Merchants using the device developed a whole new style of doing business. “Operations are made in one day with its aid, by repeated communications,” marveled one observer in 1847, “which could not be done in from two to four weeks by mail.”
A vast, sprawling nation that had been tied together by a network of local newspapers came quickly to rely on the telegraph for information that would otherwise have taken days or weeks to arrive. The medium influenced the message in ways that showed most strikingly in politics. During the secession crisis of 1860, President James Buchanan complained that “the public mind throughout the interior is kept in a constant state of excitement by what are called ‘telegrams.’ They are short and spicy, and can easily be inserted in the country newspapers.”
The elderly Buchanan, whose roots lay in a world that knew nothing of what telecommunications was or would bring, barely scratched the surface in his lament. A hundred and fifty years after Morse sent his first message, our information-soaked world still gropes for an answer to the query it contained.