Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

How the Electric Telegraph was Invented

The year 1832 is only sixty years ago in time, yet since then there has been a striking development of conveniences, rapidity of travel, and arrangements for the diffusion of intelligence. People then still travelled in great part by aid of horses, the railroad having just begun its marvellous career. News, which now fly over continents and under oceans at lightning speed, then jogged on at stage-coach rates of progress, creeping where they now fly. On the ocean, steam was beginning to battle with wind and wave, but the ocean racer was yet a far-off dream, and mariners still put their trust in sails much more than in the new-born contrivances which were preparing to revolutionize travel. But the wand of the enchanter had been waved; steam had come, and with it the new era of progress had dawned. And another great agent in the development of civilization was about to come. Electricity, which during all previous time had laughed at bonds, was soon to become man's slave, and to be made his purveyor of news. It is the story of this chaining of the lightning, and forcing it to become the swift conveyer of man's sayings and doings, that we have here to tell.

In the far remote period named—if we measure time by deeds, not by years—a packet-ship, the Sully, was making its deliberate way across the Atlantic from Havre to New York. Its passenger list was not large,—the ocean had not yet become a busy highway of the continents,—but among them were some persons in whom we are interested. One of these was a Boston doctor, Charles T. Jackson by name. A second was a New York artist, named Samuel F.B. Morse. The last-named gentleman had been a student at Yale, where he became greatly interested in chemistry and some other sciences. He had studied the art of painting under Benjamin West in London, had practised it in New York, had long been president of the National Academy of the Arts of Design; and was now on his way home after a second period of residence in Europe as a student of art.

An interesting conversation took place one day in the cabin of the Sully. Dr. Jackson spoke of Ampère's experiments with the electro-magnet; of how Franklin had sent electricity through several miles of wire, finding no loss of time between the touch at one end and the spark at the other; and how, in a recent experiment at Paris, a great length of wire had been carried in circles around the walls of a large apartment, an electro-magnet connected with one end, and an electric current manifested at the other, having passed through the wire so quickly as to seem instantaneous. Mr. Morse's taste for science had not died out during his years of devotion to art. He listened with the most earnest attention to the doctor's narrative, and while he did so a large and promising idea came into being in his brain.

"Why," he exclaimed, with much ardor of manner, "if that is so, and the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence should not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity."

"How convenient it would be if we could send news in that manner!" chimed in one of the passengers.

"Why can't we?" exclaimed Morse.

Why not, indeed? The idea probably died in the minds of most of the persons present within five minutes. But Samuel Morse was not one of the men who let ideas die. This one haunted him day and night. He thought of it and dreamed of it. In those days of deliberate travel time hung heavily on the hands of transatlantic passengers, despite the partial diversions of eating and sleeping. The ocean grew monotonous, the vessel monotonous, the passengers monotonous, everything monotonous except that idea, and that grew and spread till its fibres filled every nook and cranny of the inventive brain that had taken it in to bed and board.

Morse had abundance of the native Yankee faculty of invention. To do, had been plain enough from the start. How to do, was the question to be solved. But before the Sully steamed into New York harbor the solution had been reached. In the mind of the inventor, and in graphic words and drawings on paper, were laid down the leading features of that telegraphic method which is used to-day in the great majority of the telegraph lines of the world.

An alphabet of dots and marks, a revolving ribbon of paper to receive this alphabet, a method of enclosing the wires in tubes which were to be buried underground, were the leading features of the device as first thought of. The last conception was quickly followed by that of supporting the wires in the air, but Morse clung to his original fancy for burying them,—a fancy which, it may here be said, is coming again into vogue in these latter days, so far as cities are concerned.

It is not meant to be implied that the idea of sending news by electricity was original with Morse. Others had had it before him. More than half a century before, Dr. Franklin and some friends had stretched a wire across the Schuylkill River and killed a turkey on the other side by electricity. As they ate this turkey, it is quite possible that they imbibed with it the idea of making this marvellous agent do other work than killing fowl for dinner, and from that time on it is likely that many had speculated on the possibility of sending intelligence by wire. Some experiments had been made, and with a certain degree of success, but time still waited for the hour and the man, and the hour and the man met in that fertile October day in the cabin of the Sully.

"If it can go ten miles without stopping, I can make it go round the world," said Morse to his fellow-passengers, his imagination expanding in the ardor of his new idea.

"Well, captain," he said, with a laugh, on leaving the ship, "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."

The inventor, indeed, was possessed with his new conceptions, mad with an idea, as we may say, and glad to set foot once more on shore, that he might put his plans in practice.

This proved no easy task. He was none too well provided with funds, and the need of making a living was the first necessity that presented itself to him. He experimented as much as he was able, but three years passed before his efforts yielded a satisfactory result. Then, with a circuit of seventeen hundred feet of wire, and a wooden clock, adapted by himself to suit his purpose, he managed to send a message from end to end of this wire. It was not very legible. He could make some sense of it. His friends could not. But all were much interested in the experiment. Many persons witnessed these results, as shown in a large room of the New York University, in 1837. They seemed wonderful; much was said about them; but nobody seemed to believe that the apparatus was more than a curious and unprofitable toy, and capitalists buttoned their pockets when the question of backing up this wild inventor's fancy with money was broached.

But by this time Mr. Morse was a complete captive to his idea. Body and soul he was its slave. The question of daily fare became secondary; that of driving his idea over and through all obstacles became primary. His business as an artist was neglected. He fell into want, into almost abject poverty. For twenty-four hours he went without food. But not for a moment did he lose faith in his invention, or remit his efforts to find a capitalist with sufficient confidence in him to risk his money in it.

Failing with the private rich, he tried to obtain public support, went to Washington in 1838, exhibited his apparatus to interested congressmen, and petitioned for enough money from the public purse to build a line from Baltimore to Washington,—forty miles only. It is traditionally slow work in getting a bill through Congress. Weary with waiting, Morse went to Europe, to try his new seed in that old soil. It failed to germinate abroad as it had at home. Men with money acknowledged that the idea was a scientific success, but could not believe that it might be made a business success.

"What would people care for instantaneous news?" they said. "Some might, it is true, but the great mass would be content to wait for their news in the good old way. To lay miles of wire in the earth is to bury a large treasure in money. We cannot see our way clear to getting it back again out of the pockets of the public. Your wires work, Mr. Morse, but, from a business point of view, there's more cost than profit in the idea."

It may be that these exact words were not spoken, but the answer of Europe was near enough to this to send the inventor home disappointed. He began again his weary waiting on the slowly-revolving wheels of the congressional machinery.

March 3, 1843, came. It was the last day of the session. With the stroke of midnight on that day the existing Congress would die, and a new one be born, with which the weary work of the education of congressmen would have to be gone over again. The inventor had been given half a loaf. His bill had been passed, on February 23, in the House. All day of March 3 he hung about the Senate chamber petitioning, where possible, for the other half of his loaf, faintly hoping that in the last will and testament of the expiring Congress some small legacy might be left for him.

Evening came. The clock-hands circled rapidly round. Pressure of bills and confusion of legislation grew greater minute by minute. The floodgates of the deluge are lifted upon Congress in its last hours, and business pours onward in such an overwhelming fashion that small private petitioners can scarcely hope that the doors of the ark of safety will be opened to their petty claims. Morse hung about the chamber until the midnight hour was almost ready to strike. Every moment confusion seemed to grow "worse confounded." The work of a month of easy-going legislation was being compressed into an hour of haste and excitement. The inventor at last left the Capitol, a saddened and disappointed man, and made his way home, the last shreds of hope seeming to drop from him as he went. He was almost ready to give up the fight, and devote himself for the future solely to brush and pencil.

He slept but poorly that night, and rose the next morning still depressed and gloomy. He appeared at the breakfast-table with a face from which the very color of ambition seemed to have been washed out. As he entered the room he was met by a young lady, Miss Annie G. Ellsworth, daughter of the Commissioner of Patents. The smile on her beaming face was in striking contrast to the gloom on his downcast countenance.

"I have come to congratulate you, Mr. Morse," she said, cheerily.

"For what, my dear friend?"

"For the passage of your bill."

"What!" he gazed at her amazement. Could she be attempting a foolish and cruel jest? "The passage of my bill!" he faltered.

"Yes. Do you not know of it?"


"Then you came home too early last night. And I am happy in being the first to bring you the good news. Congress has granted your claim."

It was true: he had been remembered in the will of the expiring Congress. In the last hour of the Senate, amid the roar of the deluge of public business, his small demand had floated into sight, and thirty thousand dollars had been voted him for the construction of an experimental telegraph line.

"You have given me new life, Miss Ellsworth," he said. "As a reward for your good tidings I promise you that when my telegraph line is completed, you shall have the honor of choosing the first message to be sent over it."

The inventor was highly elated, and not without reason. Since the morning of the conversation on the ship Sully, eleven and a half years had passed. They had been years of such struggle against poverty and discouragement as only a man who is the slave of an idea has the hardihood to endure. The annals of invention contain many such instances; more, perhaps, than can be found in any other channel of human effort.

To complete our story we have to bring another inventor upon the stage. This was Ezra Cornell, memorable to-day as the founder of Cornell University, a man at that time unknown, but filled with inventive ideas, and ready to undertake any task that might offer itself, from digging a well to boring a mountain tunnel. One day Mr. Cornell, who was at that time occupying the humble position of traveling agent for a patent plough, called at the office of an agricultural newspaper in Portland, Maine. He found the editor on his knees, a piece of chalk in his hand, and parts of a plough by his side, making drawings on the floor, and trying to explain something to a plough-maker beside him. The editor looked up at his visitor, and an expression of relief replaced the perplexity on his face.

"Cornell," he cried, "you're the very man I want to see. I want a scraper made, and I can't make Robinson here see into my idea. You can understand it, and make it for me, too."

"What is your scraper to do?" asked Cornell.

Mr. Smith, the editor, rose from his knees and explained. A line of telegraph was to be built from Baltimore to Washington. Congress had granted the money. He had taken the contract from Professor Morse to lay the tube in which the wire was to be placed. He had made a bad bargain, he feared. The job was going to cost more than he had calculated, on. He was trying to invent something that would dig the ditch, and fill in the dirt again after the pipe was laid. Cornell listened to him, questioned him, found out the size of the pipe and the depth of the ditch, then sat down and passed some minutes in hard thinking. Finally he said,—

"You are on the wrong tack. You don't want either a ditch or a scraper."

He took a pencil and in a few minutes outlined a machine, which he said would cut a trench two feet deep, lay the pipe at its bottom, and cover the earth in behind it. The motive power need be only a team of oxen or mules. These creatures had but to trudge slowly onward. The machine would do its work faithfully behind them.

"Come, come, this is impossible!" cried editor Smith.

"I'll wager my head it can be done, and I can do it," replied inventor Cornell.

He laid a large premium on his confidence in his idea, promising that if his machine would not work he would ask no money for it. But if it succeeded, he was to be well paid. Smith agreed to these terms, and Cornell went to work.

In ten days the machine was built and ready for trial. A yoke of oxen was attached to it, three men managed it, and in the first five minutes it had laid one hundred feet of pipe and covered it with earth. It was a decided success. Mr. Smith had contracted to lay the pipe for one hundred dollars a mile. A short calculation proved to him that, with the aid of Ezra Cornell's machine, ninety dollars of this would be profit.

But the shrewd editor did not feel like risking Cornell's machine in any hands but those of the inventor. He made him a profitable offer if he would go to Baltimore and take charge of the job himself. It would pay better than selling patent ploughs. Cornell agreed to go.

Reaching Baltimore, he met Professor Morse. They had never met before. Their future lives were to be closely associated. In the conversation that ensued Morse explained what he proposed to do. An electric wire might either be laid underground or carried through the air. He had decided on the underground system, the wire being coated by an insulating compound and drawn through a pipe.

Cornell questioned him closely, got a clear idea of the scheme, saw the pipe that was to be used, and expressed doubts of its working.

"It will work, for it has worked," said Morse. "While I have been fighting Congress, inventors in Europe have been experimenting with the telegraphic idea. Short lines have been laid in England and elsewhere, in which the wire is carried in buried pipes. They had been successful. What can be done in Europe can be done in America."

What Morse said was a fact. While he had been pushing his telegraph conception in America it had been tried successfully in Europe. But the system adopted there, of vibrating needle signals, was so greatly inferior to the Morse system, that it was destined in the future to be almost or quite set aside by the latter. To-day the Morse system and alphabet are used in much the greater number of the telegraph offices of the world.

But to return to our story. Cornell went to work, and the pipe, with its interior wire, was laid with much rapidity. Not many days had elapsed before ten miles were underground, the pipe being neatly covered as laid. It reached from Baltimore nearly to the Relay House. Here it stopped, for something had gone wrong. Morse tested his wire. It would not work. No trace of an electric current could be got through it. The insulation was evidently imperfect. What was to be done? He would be charged with wasting the public money on an impracticable experiment. Yet if he stopped he might expect a roar of newspaper disapprobation of his whole scheme. He was in a serious dilemma. How should he escape?

He sought Cornell, and told him of the failure of his experiments. The work must be stopped. He must try other kinds of pipe and new methods of insulation. But if the public should suspect failure there would be vials of wrath poured on their devoted heads.

"The public shall not suspect failure. Leave it to me," said Cornell.

He turned to his men. The machine was slowly moving forward, drawn by a team of eight mules, depositing pipe as it went. A section had just been laid. Night was at hand.

"Hurry up, boys," cried Cornell, cheerily. "We must lay another length before we quit."

He grasped the handles of his plough-like machine; the drivers stirred up the mules to a lively pace; the contrivance went merrily forward. But the cunning pilot knew what he was about. He steered the buried point of the machine against a rock that just protruded from the earth. In an instant there was a shock, a sound of rending wood and iron, a noise of shouting and trampling; and then the line of mules came to a halt. But behind them were only the ruins of a machine. That moment's work had converted the pipe-laying contrivance into kindling-wood and scrap-iron.

The public condoled with the inventor. It was so unlucky that his promising progress should be stopped by such an accident! As for Morse and his cunning associate, they smiled quietly to themselves as they went on with their experiments. Another kind of pipe was tried. Still the current would not go through. A year passed by. Experiment after experiment had been made. All had proved failures. Twenty-three thousand dollars of the money had been spent. Only seven thousand remained. The inventor was on the verge of despair.

"I am afraid it will never work," said Cornell. "It looks bad for the pipe plan."

"Then let us try the other," said Morse. "If the current won't go underground, it may be coaxed to go above-ground."

The plan suggested was to string the wire upon poles, insulating it from the wood by some non-conductor. A suitable insulator was needed. Cornell devised one; another inventor produced another. Morse approved of the latter, started for New York with it to make arrangements for its manufacture, and on his way met Professor Henry, who knew more about electricity than any other man in the country. Morse showed him the models of the two insulators, and indicated the one he had chosen. Mr. Henry examined them closely.

"You are mistaken," he said. "That one won't work. This is the insulator you need." He pointed to Cornell's device.

In a few words he gave his reasons. Morse saw that he was right. The Cornell insulator was chosen And now the work went forward with great rapidity. The planting of poles, and stringing of wires over a glass insulator at their tops, was an easy and rapid process. And more encouraging still, the thing worked to a charm. There was no trouble now in obtaining signals from the wire.

The first public proof of the system was made on May 11, 1844. On that day the Whig National Convention, then in session at Baltimore, had nominated Henry Clay for the Presidency. The telegraph was being built from the Washington end, and was yet miles distant from Baltimore. The first railroad train from Baltimore carried passengers who were eager to tell the tidings to their Washington friends. But it carried also an agent of Professor Morse, who brought the news to the inventor at the unfinished end of the telegraph. From that point he sent it over the wire to Washington. It was successfully received at the Washington end, and never were human beings more surprised than were the train passengers on alighting at the capital city to find that they brought stale news, and that Clay's nomination was already known throughout Washington. It was the first public proof in America of the powers of the telegraph, and certainly a vital and convincing one.

Before the 24th of May the telegraph line to Baltimore was completed, the tests successfully made, and all was ready for the public exhibition of its marvellous powers, which had been fixed for that day. Miss Ellsworth, in compliance with the inventor's promise, made her more than a year before, was given the privilege of choosing the first message to go over the magic wires. She selected the appropriate message from Scriptures: "What hath God wrought?" With these significant words began the reign of that marvellous invention which has wrought so wonderfully in binding the ends of the earth together and making one family of mankind.

There were difficulties still in the way of the inventor, severe ones. His after-life lay in no bed of roses. His patents were violated, his honor was questioned, even his integrity was assailed; rival companies stole his business, and lawsuits made his life a burden. He won at last, but failed to have the success of his associate, Mr. Cornell, who grew in time very wealthy from his telegraphic enterprises.

As regards the Morse system of telegraphy, it may be said in conclusion that over one hundred devices have been invented to supersede it, but that it holds its own triumphant over them all. The inventor wrought with his brain to good purpose in those days and nights of mental discipline above the Atlantic waves and on board the good ship Sully.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Victim of a Traitor  |  Next: Monitor and the Merrimac
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.