Samuel F. B. Morse and the Invention of the Telegraph
MESSAGES are an older means of communication than books or even letters. They must go with the speed of light, sound, or lightning. The American Indians, for example, used at night a system of signal fires, to send messages telling of victories or of danger. In the daytime they held blankets over a fire, so as to signal by means of columns of smoke. Messages were sent also by sound signals made either by the mouth or by a drum. As time went on, a system of signaling by flags and lanterns came into use among more civilized people, such as is now employed by the army and the navy.
The Signal Telegraph
The first practical system of sending messages at all similar to telegraphing, was invented in 1794 by the three Chappe brothers. These three brothers, only boys, were at boarding school. The rules were strict, and did not allow them to visit each other as often as they wanted to. They could see each other from the windows of their rooms so they worked out a way of sending messages. A beam with a small crossbeam at each end was hung on a pivot. The beams and crossbeams could be moved by cords, like the arms of a jumping jack. Each position of the beam and a crossbeam stood for a letter. With this device, it was easy for these boys to spell out messages to each other.
The French government bought the device of the Chappe brothers, building signal stations along the coast, and between Paris and the more important cities. In 1840 there were 1400 miles of signal telegraph. The stations were about three miles apart. The cross-beams of the signal towers were furnished with lights, so that messages could be sent by night as well as by day. An operator could spell out a hundred words an hour.
A system of signaling like that invented by the Chappe brothers was introduced into Russia and England also. There was a line, for example, seventy miles long between London and Portsmouth.
An Englishman wrote in 1828 that the telegraph carried information speedily and distinctly, and that it could be constructed and maintained at little expense.
A similar system was used in America, only large letters were used instead of crossbeams, to spell out the words. Lines were maintained, for example, between New York and Sandy Hook, and between New York and Philadelphia.
The Electric Telegraph
"Take this message as quick as lightning," was doubtless an expression often used in connection with messages. It was not a far step from thinking of taking a message as "quick as lightning," to thinking of making lightning carry the message. Messages were sent by electric telegraph as early as 1774. Every few years after that, some inventor brought forward a new system. Hundreds of men were busy, and in 1838 there were upwards of sixty different systems in the field, each inventor working hard to make his the best.
Steinheil's Electric Telegraph
Oersted learned in 1819, that to make the needle of a compass turn to the left or to the right, all that is necessary is to hold a wire near the compass, parallel with the needle, and send an electric current over the wire toward the north or toward the south. In less than a month afterwards, a French scientist pointed out how this discovery could be used in telegraphing messages.
In 1833, Gauss and Weber, two noted German scientists, put up an electric-needle telegraph line, about a mile long. Wires were stretched around a permanent magnet hung at the center on a silk thread. By changing the direction of the electric current, the magnet was turned, at will, to the right or to the left. One turn of the magnet to the right stood for the letter a. One turn to the left stood for e. Two turns to the right stood for i, and so on. Here is the complete telegraphic alphabet of Gauss and Weber. It has often been used by boys and girls, to signal messages to each other, with their hands and arms.
With this code Gauss and Weber sent all kinds of messages. Being too busy to work on their telegraph, they turned it over to Steinheil. Steinheil built and put into use, at Munich, in 1837, his Registering Electro-Magnetic Telegraph. The line was five miles long. Two permanent magnets were hung in the center of a coil of wire. Each magnet could be made, at will, to swing out from the coil. On an arm fastened to the end of each magnet was a little cup for ink. At the bottom and side of the cup was a printing needle. When the magnet swung out, the printing needle touched a moving ribbon of paper, and printed a dot. Dot signals were thus recorded on the paper in two lines.
Steinheil could send messages at the rate of six words a minute, or three hundred and sixty words an hour. His system was adopted by the Bavarian government, and was in use for many years.
Wheatstone and Cook's Electric Telegraph
Charles Wheatstone, of London, and his business partner also patented, in 1837, an electric-needle telegraph. Five needles were fastened in the center of a diamond-shaped dial, on which the alphabet and numerals were printed. To signal a letter, one needle was turned to the right, and one to the left. The letter signaled was the one at the point where lines running down from the points of the needle crossed. To signal a number only one needle was turned. A line twenty miles long was built, in 1838, on the Great Western Railway. To send messages, it took six wires, one wire to turn each of the five needles, and one to complete the electric circuit, making the system expensive. So Wheatstone invented a two-needle system, and later a single-needle system. From 1838 on, Wheatstone's electric-needle telegraph was in constant use, and for years was the only system which found favor in England.
Morse's Electric Telegraph
Many of the great scientists of Europe thus worked to invent a successful system of electric telegraph. But it remained for an American, Samuel F. B. Morse, to invent the most successful system. Morse's system of electric telegraph was so simple, and messages could be sent by it so quickly, that it drove almost every other system out of business. It is the only system now used in most countries. For this reason, Morse is called the inventor of the electric telegraph, although, strictly speaking, that title does not belong to him. He is, however, the inventor of the most successful system; and for his great service in giving to the world this useful invention, he is worthy of the highest honor.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in 1791, at Charlestown, Massachusetts. He was given the best education that was to be had at the time. When seven years old he was sent away from home, to a famous private school, Phillips Academy. There he prepared for Yale University, then Yale College, entering with the class of 1807, and completing the course in 1810.
In those days the sciences did not receive much attention at college. In the little that was taught, Morse took an unusual interest. He studied both chemistry and physics, and he learned almost all there was to be known then about electricity and electric batteries. Once Professor Day, his teacher in physics, sent a current of electricity through a chain in a dark room. Flashes of light could be seen between the links. How little Professor Day knew at the time of the influence this experiment was to have! Many years afterwards, Morse said: "The fact that . . . electricity can be made visible at any . . . part of a circuit was the crude seed which took root in my mind, and grew . . . and finally ripened into the invention of the telegraph."
Morse the Artist
Morse, like Fulton, started out to be an artist. At college, he painted miniatures for a number of his classmates. Though he had had no lessons in either drawing or painting, his classmates liked their pictures and paid him a good price for them.
After his graduation from college, Morse decided to study art. Like Fulton, he went to London to work with Benjamin West, where he remained for four years, not returning home until 1815.
He was then twenty-four years old, and up to that time had been supported by his father. He now opened a studio in Boston. Hundreds of people came to see his "Judgment of Jupiter," one of the pictures he had painted in London and which had attracted much attention there. All who came admired it, but no one offered to buy it or order a picture. After waiting a year without receiving a single order, he took again to painting miniatures.
As a wandering artist in Vermont and New Hampshire, he did well. He was even more successful at Charleston, South Carolina, where he went in the winter of 1818. There he had requests for all the portraits he could paint. In a single week one hundred and fifty were ordered, at sixty dollars apiece. He was so successful that in the fall of the first year, he returned to New England, taking his bride back to Charlestown with him. There they lived for three years, saving in that time several thousand dollars. But Morse was not content to remain a portrait painter. He decided to leave Charlestown, and take up what he felt was his true work, the painting of historical pictures. So he moved his family to New Haven, Connecticut.
For eighteen months, he worked early and late on a picture of the House of Representatives. The picture was eleven feet long and seven and a half feet high, with the Representatives on one side, and the Senators on the other. In all, it contained eighty portraits. The picture when finished was exhibited at Boston, but few people took the trouble to see it. No one wanted to buy it, and the whole venture turned out a failure.
Morse soon afterwards removed to New York, and again took to portrait painting. His progress at first was slow. "My cash is almost gone," he wrote to his wife. "I have advertised, and visited, and hinted, and pleaded, and even asked one man to sit, but all to no avail."
Morse was so discouraged that he even thought of going to the city of Mexico. But better days were at hand. General Lafayette was visiting this country, and New York gave Morse an order for a life-size portrait of the Frenchman. For this he received a thousand dollars.
In the midst of his good fortune, Morse was called upon to bear the loss of his wife. Though heartbroken, he went on with his work. He soon had all the portraits he could paint, and came in time to be looked upon as the greatest artist in America. He not only painted portraits, but he gave talks on art, and was the leader in organizing the National Academy of Design.
Still, Morse was not satisfied with his success. To prepare himself to paint the great pictures of which he dreamed,—pictures which he believed would bring fame to himself and honor to his country, he decided to spend three more years in Europe. During these three years, he visited great art galleries and studied the paintings of the great masters.
Planning the Electric Telegraph
In October, 1832, Morse sailed for home on the packet Sully. There was considerable talk among the passengers about electricity. The discoveries of Oersted, Faraday, and Sturgeon were attracting wide attention. Morse was led one day to say: "I see no reason why intelligence may not be sent by electricity." This was a new thought to him. So far as he then knew, no one had ever before thought of sending messages by electricity. The new idea filled his mind. It not only haunted him in the day-time, but it kept him from sleep at night. On leaving the boat he said, "Well, captain, should you hear of the telegraph one of these days, as the wonder of the world, remember that the discovery was made on board the good ship Sully."
Making the First Instrument
Morse was scarcely off the ship, before he was telling his brothers about his new idea. Instead of telling his artist friends about what he saw in the great art galleries of Europe, and about the pictures he had painted, he talked to them, to their disgust, about his electric telegraph. Many people wanted Morse to paint portraits for them, for he was easily the best prepared and the most successful artist in America. But he wanted all the time he could get to work on his invention, and therefore he painted only enough to earn a scanty living. But work as he would, five years passed by before he was even able to complete a working model.
During most of these years he lived in a single room, which served alike for studio, parlor, bedroom, kitchen, and workshop. "In order to save time to carry out my invention," said Morse afterwards, "and to save my scanty means, I had for many months lodged and eaten in my studio, getting my food in small quantities from some grocery, and preparing it myself. To conceal from my friends the stinted way in which I lived, I was in the habit of bringing my food to my room in the evenings, and this was my mode of life for many years."
Morse was not ready to show his electric telegraph to the public until September, 1837. His telegraphic code was simple. One dot "*" stood for "1". Two dots "**" stood for "2". One dot "*" and a dash "-" stood for "6", and so on for each of the numerals and zero. For each number of the telegraphic code, there was a metal type. There was also a telegraphic dictionary in which given numbers stood for given words. For example, 215 stood for successful.
Morse's first instrument was very crude, and the method of sending and recording messages was slow and clumsy. But to those who for the first time saw messages sent by electric telegraph, the invention seemed wonderful. Besides, Morse had thought of something of which none of the great scientists of Europe had dreamed. In Steinheil's electric telegraph, the signals were recorded by the movement of a magnetic needle. Wheatstone also made use of the magnetic needle. But Morse employed the electromagnet of Sturgeon and of Henry to record the signals in his system, and it was this use of the electromagnet which made the Morse system the most successful of all.
Improving the Invention
Up to the time Morse showed his invention to the public in 1837, no one had helped him on it. Being anxious to perfect it, and if possible to get money from Congress to carry out an experiment on a large scale, he now took into partnership Professor Gale, of New York University, who was to work on the electric batteries; and also Alfred Vail, who was to furnish the money needed, and help with the instruments.
During the fall of 1838, the clumsy telegraphic dictionary and code numbers on which Morse had spent many a day was done away with, and a system of dots and dashes for each of the letters of the alphabet and different numbers was planned. This telegraphic code is like the codes of Gauss and Weber, and of Steinheil. It is known the world over as the Morse code:
The clumsy way of recording the telegraphic signal by dashes and V-shaped figures was also done away with. The recording instrument was made over, so that it now wrote the dots and dashes which stood for the letters and numbers. In the meantime Professor Gale had so improved the batteries that an electric current could be sent through ten miles of copper wire.
Morse exhibited the improved instrument to his New York friends in January, 1838. "Seeing is believing," but what they saw, they could at first scarcely believe. Message after message, at the rate of ten words a minute, was sent over the ten miles of wire, until the admiration of the company was unbounded. They cheered the inventor and congratulated him on his great invention. Morse received this letter from his brother Sidney: "Your invention, measuring it by the power it will give man to carry out his plans, is not only the greatest invention of this age, but the greatest invention of any age. I see . . . that the surface of the earth will be networked with wire, and every wire will be a nerve, carrying to every part intelligence of what is doing in every other part. . . No limit can be set to the value of the invention!"
Morse now took his invention to Washington and asked Congress to give him thirty thousand dollars to build a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. This seemed a large sum of money to spend on an untried enterprise. It was also hard for men to understand how useful the telegraph would be. Congress refused to vote the money.
Morse knew that both England and France were spending large sums on their signal-telegraph systems. If they could only see his invention, they would adopt it at once. But he had no money for a trip to Europe. To get it, he took a third partner. The invention was exhibited in London and Paris. Statesmen and scientists came to see it, and Morse was declared a great genius, and was highly honored. Indeed, at one time it seemed as if both France and Russia would adopt his system, but in the end nothing was done. Returning to America in the spring of 1839, he wrote: "I return without a penny in my pocket, and have to borrow even for my meals."
The next four years were the darkest in Morse's life. His partners had spent all their money, and at times lost interest. Congress continued to refuse to vote the thirty thousand dollars. Morse had neglected his art so long that it was hard for him to get pupils to teach, or portraits to paint. Many a morning when he rose, he scarcely knew where the food for the day was to come from.
Once, when a pupil was late in paying for his lessons, he nearly starved.
"Well, my boy," asked Morse, "how are we off for money?"
"Why, professor," replied the student, "I am very sorry to say I have been disappointed; but I expect money next week."
"Next week, I shall be dead by that time."
"Yes, dead of starvation."
"Would ten dollars be of any service?"
"Ten dollars would save my life; that is all it would do."
The student paid the money, and the two dined together. After the meal was over Morse said, "This is my first meal for twenty-four hours."
These years of delay, though hard to bear, were not lost. With the help of Professor Gale and the advice of Professor Henry, of Princeton, the batteries were improved. So when Congress at last voted the money for the line between Washington and Baltimore, an electric current could be sent through the wires for the entire forty miles. With the help of Mr. Vail, the metal types and the clumsy machine for sending the signals were done away with. A simple finger key was invented to send the dots and dashes. When the metal types were used, only ten words a minute could be sent. With the finger key, an operator could easily send twenty to thirty words a minute. Without these improvements, Morse's electric telegraph would have been a failure when put to the test in 1844.
Morse was tempted many a time to give up. But the thought that his invention marked a new era in history, and would improve the condition of millions of people, kept him from it. In the winter of 1843, he went once more to Washington, seeking the aid of Congress. Columbus himself was scarcely more persevering under discouragement. On the day his bill passed the House of Representatives, Morse wrote to Mr. Vail: "For two years I have labored all my time, and at my own expense, without assistance from the other proprietors, to forward our enterprise. My means to defray my expenses, to meet which every cent I owned in the world was collected, are nearly all gone. If the bill should fail in the Senate, I shall return to New York with the fraction of a dollar in my pocket." "Had the passage of the bill failed," he wrote to a friend, "there would have been little prospect of another attempt on my part to introduce to the world my new invention."
The Bill Passed
On the evening of the last day of the session, Morse sat waiting in the gallery of the Senate. He was told by friendly Senators that there was no chance for his bill to pass, so he finally went to his room. "Knowing from experience whence my help must come in any difficulty," wrote Morse, "I soon disposed of my cares, and slept as quietly as a child."
On coming down to breakfast the next morning, he was met by the daughter of a friend.
"Why this early call?" asked Morse.
"I have come to congratulate you."
"Indeed, for what?"
"On the passage of your bill."
"Oh, no, my young friend, you are mistaken."
"It is you that are mistaken. The bill was passed at midnight."
The news was so unexpected, that Morse for the moment could not speak. Finally he said, "You are the first to tell me, and the first message on the completed line between Washington and Baltimore shall be yours."
In constructing the new line, Morse planned to put the telegraph wires in a lead pipe and then bury the pipe in
the ground. After ten miles of lead pipe had been laid, it was discovered that the electric current would not
pass through a single mile of it. Twenty thousand of the thirty thousand dollars voted by Congress had been
spent. What was to be done? It was decided to place the wires on poles with short crossarms just as you see
Receiving the Reward
It was a favorite idea with Morse that the government should own the telegraph. After it was shown to be a success, he offered to sell it for one hundred thousand dollars. Fortunately for Morse, the government refused the offer, for few inventions have been more quickly and widely adopted. A line was completed, in 1846, between Baltimore and New York. Within the next ten years, telegraph companies sprang up in every section of our country. Most of these combined, and formed, in 1857, a single company, the Western Union. His system was adopted in Canada, then in Europe, and before he died, in 1872, was used in every civilized country of the world. Morse lived, therefore, to see the whole world bound together by the telegraph; each part able to know what was going on in every other part; each part able to communicate and to do business with every other part. Thus, by means of the electric telegraph, the world has been made one in knowledge and one in action.