Today instant communication is viewed as an essential part of life. We depend on cell phones and email to stay in contact with friends and family. There was no such thing prior to the nineteenth century, however. The only way to communicate was either by word of mouth or by letter. During the Industrial Revolution there was a Massachusetts painter who saw that America needed a faster way to send messages. He had little scientific training, but he did not allow that to stop him. His name was Samuel Morse. This is the story of how he launched the world into instantaneous communication with the development of the telegraph.
Unlike many scientific inventors, Samuel Morse’s path to innovation had surprising origins. He was born in late April 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts to a Calvinist pastor who raised his son to honor Calvinist virtues and to remember Puritan traditions, such as strictly observing the Sabbath. Throughout his life, Morse held tightly to his religious upbringing. He attended Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and Yale College (now University) where his broad educational experience included several lectures on electricity. To his father’s shock, however, he became an artist. After studying in Britain, he returned to America where he married Lucretia Walker and started a family. He earned quite a reputation with his portraits of Presidents John Adams and James Monroe. Even as his art career took off, however, he never forgot his interest in scientific matters. He attended classes on electricity and electromagnetism at Columbia College in New York City. He even developed a knack for inventing by sketching out plans for a new type of pump and a machine to cut marble. Despite these successes, he was content to remain a painter until an unexpected tragedy turned his life upside down.
Samuel Morse had no way of knowing that it would be a communications delay that transformed him from a part-time inventor to a full-time one. In 1825 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, and he travelled to Washington, D.C. for the sitting. His wife was home in New Haven expecting the birth of their third child. In early February he received word via mail that his wife was dangerously ill. He left immediately to be by her side, but sadly, by the time he arrived, she was already dead and buried. His father and mother died less than two years later. In deep melancholy, Morse left for Europe in hopes of reestablishing his career. His works failed to garner much recognition, so he booked passage back to America. During the crossing he fell into conversation with geologist Charles Jackson and told him he wished there was a way for messages to be sent more quickly. This led the two to discuss the advances made in electrical communication. At one point Morse reportedly told Jackson, “I see no reason why intelligence [information] might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance.” He knew European inventors were working on such a device, but he decided to create his own electrical communication system. He was so eager to start he did not wait for the ship to arrive in New York.
From his stateroom onboard ship, Morse was determined that his invention would send information much quicker than any other form of communication currently used. In France he had seen semaphore, flags waving in an alphabetical sequence, used to transmit messages across small distances. This technology would not work in a vast country like America. Thanks to Jackson though, Morse believed a circuit powered by an electromagnet could transmit signals across the country within moments. He imagined an electric circuit surrounded by cogwheels, dials and levers. He would insert information through an electromagnet at one end of the device and send it to an electromagnetic receiver on the other end via wires. Turning the circuit on and off would denote a full transmission. He had an initial draft finished by the time the ship docked. He raced home to gather components — wood, brass, wires and mercury — to complete the design. Over the next four years, he patiently constructed a series of models and practiced opening and closing the circuit. As he was undertaking these experiments, he realized there needed to be some form of notification for each transmission. He rigged the device to a bell or light that went off upon transmission, and as the models improved, he was notified by an audible click. The clicks now provided him with a way to develop a code for the device.
Even as he worked to perfect his mechanical design, Morse was hard at work developing a cipher to accompany the invention. He realized that information had to be sent in such a way that those using the device would understand the message. At first the code was simple. He tapped the device five times to represent the number five or three times followed by a space followed by four to represent the number thirty-four. He assigned each number to a corresponding letter or word and wrote it down in a codebook. Once he had completed this code, known everywhere now as Morse Code, he fashioned a moveable notched ruler with metal blanks. He then inserted the ruler into the device and used it to open and close the circuit in a set pattern utilizing the code. The message travelled through a wire and was received in the same pattern in which it was input. The pattern would be viewed as a series of dots and dashes, which the operator would translate using the code into an intelligible message. Ideally, this transfer of information would occur within moments of being sent. Morse called his invention telegraphy, or “distance-writing.” Before he could take his invention public, however, he had to prove that the device worked across great distances.
Morse’s experiment with the telegraph almost ended before it began. His invention barely had enough power to transmit across the room, let alone across the country. With the help of others, he added forty galvanic cups, acid-coated zinc and copper plates, creating a primitive battery which gave the signal sufficient strength to travel nearly a hundred extra feet. Then, knowing copper was the best conductor, he wrapped copper wires around the magnet that was inside the device. This addition added more than a thousand feet to the signal. He and his companions developed repeaters to amplify the signal and the signal was soon being passed over several miles. Unfortunately, Morse and his colleague Alfred Vail saw how greater distances caused a corresponding weakening in the signal. To correct this problem, Vail divided the electrical transmission into pieces and placed a magnetic transmitter at set distances along the circuit. The transmitter would be triggered when the signal reached the circuit’s receiver, at which time the transmitter would boost power before opening and closing the next circuit. Vail called this system “relays.” Thanks to this new innovation, messages could not only travel as fast as an operator wanted but as far as was needed. In the wake of this victory, Morse presented his invention to the U.S. Government.
On June 20, 1840 the U.S. Patent Office granted Morse the patent for the electric telegraph. He envisioned a nationwide system of communication, but he found little support for the idea in the halls of power. He informed Congress of his ability to send messages nearly ten miles and his belief “that we can achieve a similar result at any distance.” Perhaps remembering his own tragic experience, he proposed that the telegraph be connected to the Post Office so letters could be transmitted faster. Congress was not persuaded and denied him any official support. Morse remained undeterred and for four years defended his invention against his critics. Congress finally agreed to a demonstration, and he sent messages between committee rooms. Congress agreed to pay him $30,000 to set up a line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, a distance of forty-four miles. On Friday, May 24, 1844, Alfred Vail set his telegraph machine in a Baltimore railway station while Morse set his up in the U.S. Supreme Court, at that time located in the north wing of the Capitol building. Morse sat at the machine and typed out four simple, yet powerful, words — “What Hath God Wrought.” The successful demonstration opened the proverbial floodgates.
Samuel Morse spent the rest of his life helping to expand the telegraph throughout the world. By 1847 word of the telegraph had spread even as far as the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey, where the ruling Sultan granted Morse a patent as well as financial compensation for the telegraph. It was not long before Morse’s invention had spread from Istanbul to Europe. Within ten years it had become the means for communication in every country. Many of these countries, including France and Russia, offered Morse financial rewards, just like Turkey had. Its greatest impact, however, was in America. Telegraph companies sprang up everywhere, and in October 1861 the East and West Coasts were joined when a message was sent from San Francisco to Washington. Morse watched these developments with pride, even as he faced threats from former associates. They charged that he took credit for their innovations. In 1853 the fight reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in O’Reilly v. Morse that he alone held the patent for the telegraph. He used his fortune and influence to engage in philanthropic activities, most notably helping to found Vassar College. He died in April 1872 of pneumonia, but by then his innovation had paved the way to the future.
Samuel Morse laid the groundwork for the instant communication we enjoy today. He understood traditional forms, like letters, no longer met the demands of a modernizing society. Timely information was as important as the content. Morse personally appreciated this all too well. His own tragic experience and the desire to keep others from suffering similarly are what led to the idea and motivation for the new technology. His was one of the most important inventions to come out of the Industrial Revolution. It was, in the truest sense, revolutionary and led directly to all the forms of instantaneous communication we find so indispensible today. Samuel Morse and the telegraph may seem insignificant in our twenty-first century world, but like an incredible accomplishment in the space program more than a hundred years later, his work truly was “a giant leap for mankind.”