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Samuel Morse.

On This Day: Samuel Morse Sends First US Telegram

May 24, 2009 02:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse launched the country’s first telegraph service, sending his now-famous message, “What hath God wrought!” by wire from Washington to Baltimore.

Morse Sends "What hath God wrought?" via Telegram

Morse’s telegram, “What hath God wrought?” quoted a Bible verse found in Numbers 23:23. According to the Library of Congress, Morse’s message was suggested by Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of one of Morse’s friends.

Morse was not the inventor of the telegraph but he, along with Alfred Vail, created the electromechanical telegraph. Morse also created Morse code.

“[H]is achievements began one of the most important revolutions in American history: the communication revolution,” according to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

After the first message, other inventors developed rival machines and acquired rival patents. According to the Lemelson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, by 1851, more than 50 telegraph companies operated throughout the United States. The industry was initially plagued by confusion, with different telegraph systems developed by a multitude of patent owners who sold licenses to independent lines across the country.

As time went on, large telegraph companies acquired smaller regional companies, and some of the larger companies were bought out by their competitors or simply went out of business. Entrepreneurs Hiram Sibley and Samuel L. Selden bought up most of the companies in the western U.S., consolidating them into the Western Union Telegraph Company. According to EH.net, Western Union became the dominant U.S. telegraph operator by 1866.

Background: Electromechanical telegraph and Morse code

Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail (who helped Morse with the technology) hatched the idea of the electromechanical telegraph in 1832. The device would stop the flow of electricity in a wire and the reciever would interpret the stop and start of electricity to deduce messages. The Lemelson Center reports that five years later, with additional help from Leonard Gale, the invention was ready and the men filed for a patent. The government provided the funding for Morse to build the line from Washington to Baltimore.

According to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, to create Morse code, Morse studied the English language, assigning the simplest dot-and-dash patterns to the most commonly used letters to streamline communication. The Centre calls the code “arguably one of the most influential and beneficial inventions in American history.”

Stephen Moss of The Guardian writes that Morse code is still in use today, particularly in the radio industry and among amateur ham radio operators. “There is no language barrier—the dots and dashes are the Esperanto of the airwaves; you don’t need an expensive computer, so the four-fifths of the world that doesn’t have internet access can still communicate,” Carlos Eavis, amateur radio manager at the Radio Society of Great Britain, is quoted as saying.

Key Player: Samuel F.B. Morse (1791–1872)

Samuel F.B. Morse was born on April 27, 1791. He attended Yale, but according to Locust Grove, Morse's love of painting inspired him to study in Europe. By 1825, “he became one of the most respected painters of his time, rendering character boldly,” the Web site reports.

It was on a return trip from Europe that Morse had the idea for the electric telegraph.

The Library of Congress provides a number of primary documents related to Morse, including a photograph of his famous telegraph message, his papers, a self-portrait and Morse’s “Colored Sketch of Railway Telegraph.”

Later Developments: The transatlantic cable

Morse’s telegraph changed the way people communicated across America. Up to the mid-19th century, long, laborious boat rides were still the only way to send a message to Europe. PBS reports that the need to lay a transatlantic cable—"a 2,000 mile long cable that would have to be laid three miles beneath the Atlantic"—would be very difficult. But according to PBS, on July 27, 1866, the first message, "Thank God, the Cable is Laid" was relayed from the U.S. to Europe.

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