America First—100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans

The Invention of the Electric Telegraph

A PACKET-SHIP, named the Sully,  was slowly making its way across the ocean from Havre to New York. Among the passengers was a New York artist, named Samuel F. B. Morse, who had been studying painting in Europe, and was on his way home. He had once been a student at Yale College, where he had become much interested in chemistry and other sciences.

In the cabin, one day, the passengers began talking about improvements in electricity. One of them mentioned that Franklin had sent a current through several miles of wire, with no loss of time between the touch at one end and the spark at the other; also that recent experiments in Paris had proved conclusively that a current went almost instantaneously through a great length of wire run in circles around the walls of a large apartment. Morse listened attentively to the conversation.

"If it is true that a current passes so swiftly through a great length of wire, why could not messages be sent over the wire at any distance?" he inquired. The others agreed that it would be a splendid thing if it could be proven possible. Then the subject was dropped. But Morse was not a man to forget, and he kept the idea constantly in his mind.

Day after day, the ship made its way homeward, while Morse worked in his cabin on plans for sending messages by electricity. Before the voyage was ended, he had made drawings of an electric telegraph, and had devised the Morse alphabet of dots and dashes, the system used to-day the world over in telegraphy. His plans included laying the wires underground, afterwards abandoned in favor of stringing them in the air from pole to pole.

Before he left the ship, he said to some of his fellow-passengers, "I believe it will be possible to send a message around the world some day." Then he turned to the Captain: "If you ever hear of the telegraph as one of the wonders of the world, remember that it was invented on the Sully."  The Captain was more skeptical than the hopeful inventor.

When Morse reached home, he began to work upon his great invention, but progress was slow. For he had to make a living; he was poor, and had no one to provide money for his experiments. At the end of three years, he had a circuit of seventeen hundred feet of wire, and a wooden clock, by means of which he succeeded in sending sounds from end to end of the wire. But it was not very satisfactory, and those who witnessed its workings were not at all inclined to invest money in the enterprise.

Morse worked hard and neglected his business as an artist. He fell into abject want, and became poorer and poorer. He often went a whole day without food. Still, he kept to his invention, and did not once lose faith. It is of such courage and endurance that success always is made.

Unable to secure private help, Morse went to Washington and exhibited his apparatus to some Congressman. Then he petitioned Congress for an appropriation to build a line from Baltimore to Washington, a distance of forty miles. But Congress was slow to act, and offered Morse little hope. Day after day passed, and nothing was done.

Finally, the last day and indeed the last hour of the session of Congress arrived. Morse, in despair, had left the capitol building, and had gone to his house, the last hope of securing any appropriation having fled. He felt discouraged and disappointed, and was almost ready to give up the fight.

At the breakfast-table the next morning, a young lady, Miss Annie Ellsworth, met him with a smile. "I have come to congratulate you, Mr. Morse, on the passage of your bill. Congress granted you the money at the very last hour."

Morse was delighted over the news. Congress had given him thirty thousand dollars. He could hardly believe his good fortune. It had been eleven years since he first conceived the idea, and he had surrendered the best part of his life to working out his plans. He now saw success before him, and entered with renewed hope upon his great labor.

The work was hastened. Morse found out that underground wires would be expensive and uncertain; hence he used poles. The telegraph was started from the Washington end, and a year passed before thirty miles of poles were set. The wires were tested as they were placed, and Morse was in constant communication with both ends of the line.

The first public test of the telegraph was made on May 11, 1844. The Whig National Convention, in Baltimore, had, on that day, nominated Henry Clay for the Presidency. The telegraph line was still ten miles from Baltimore. A train full of passengers started from Baltimore to carry the news of the nomination of Clay to Washington. When they reached the telegraph wire, Morse quietly asked for the news, and sent it on ahead.

The train arrived in Washington an hour or two later, and the passengers were surprised to find that the news they brought was already old news, for everybody in Washington had learned of it over the telegraph! This was a convincing proof that the telegraph could be used to convey intelligence; there was no longer a doubt of its value.

By May 24, the line was completed to Baltimore, and all the tests made. Everything was ready for the public exhibition of what the telegraph could do; the way was open for sending and receiving messages. Miss Ellsworth, who, more than a year before, had delighted the inventor by bringing him good news of the action of Congress, was given the privilege of sending the first message. She chose this line from the Bible:


With these words the telegraph was born, and its use was spread to all lands. By its means, one can communicate in a few hours with family or friend in the most distant parts of the earth. The happenings of each day, the world over, are gathered in the daily papers by its means; business transactions are made in a few minutes across continents, and over seas. The telegraph has brought the people of the world into closer communication, has annihilated space and time, and expedited the world's business a thousand-fold. And all because one man conceived a great idea, and would not give up until success had crowned his efforts.

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