1791, Charlestown, MA
1872, New York, NY
Promoting the idea of a race between his telegraph and the railroad, Morse had an associate send him a message from the end of the telegraph line near Baltimore, where the Whig party was holding its nominating convention. More than two hours before the delegates arrived by rail back in the Capitol, Morse transcribed a ribbon of code and announced "the ticket of Clay and Frelinghuysen."
Photos: (left) Library of Congress; (right) Smithsonian Institution
A Better Telegraph
Contrary to myth, Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph, but he made key improvements to its design, and his work to deploy it would transform communications worldwide.
Painter and Scientist
Samuel Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1791. He studied at Yale College and later became a renowned portrait painter and professor at New York University. But the world would remember him for his scientific work on a blockbuster technology of the nineteenth century, the telegraph.
Morse came rather late to the development of telegraphy, although he had always expressed an interest in the science of electricity. First invented in 1774, the telegraph was a bulky and impractical machine that was designed to transmit over twenty-six electrical wires. Morse reduced that unwieldy bundle of wires into a single one. Assisting him in the development of the apparatus were two men, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail.
Along with the single-wire telegraph, Morse developed his "Morse" code. He would refine it to employ a short signal (the dot) and a long one (the dash) in combinations to spell out messages. After lean, difficult years of lobbying, financial struggle, and technical improvements, Morse secured funding from Congress to build wires across the United States, and received a patent for his invention in 1844. On May 11th of that year, his telegraphed message from Baltimore to Washington was the first of its kind.
Following the routes of the quickly-spreading railroads, telegraph wires were strung across the nation and eventually, across the Atlantic Ocean, providing a nearly-instant means of communication between communities for the first time. Newspapers joined forces as the Associated Press, to pool payments for telegraphed news from foreign locales. Railroads used the telegraph to coordinate train schedules and safety signaling. President Abraham Lincoln received battle reports at the White House via telegraph during the Civil War. And ordinary people used it to send important messages to loved ones as they traveled far from home in the decades of America's busiest western expansion. Morse died in 1872, having advanced a practical technology that truly transformed the world.