Gateway to the Classics: A First Book in American History by Edward Eggleston
A First Book in American History by  Edward Eggleston

How the Telegraph Became Successful

Morse now had but three pupils. One of his pupils, when his quarter's tuition was due, had not yet received his money from home, so that he could not pay the professor immediately. One day, when Morse came in, he said:

"Well, Strother, my boy, how are we off for money?"

"Professor, I'm sorry to say I have been disappointed, but I expect the money next week."

"Next week!" exclaimed Morse; "I shall be dead by next week."

"Dead, sir?"

"Yes, dead of starvation."

"Would ten dollars be of any service?" asked Strother, in alarm.

"Ten dollars would save my life; that is all it would do," answered the professor, who had not eaten a mouthful for twenty-four hours. The money was paid.

Judge Vail grew discouraged about the telegraph. The old gentleman refused to look at the machine. Alfred Vail saw that if the work were not finished soon his father would put a stop to it. He and young Baxter stayed close in their room, with Morse, working as fast as they could, and avoiding Judge Vail, lest he should say the words that would end their project. Baxter would watch the windows, and, when he saw Judge Vail go to dinner, he would tell Morse and Alfred Vail, and they would all go to dinner at the house of Alfred's brother-in-law, making sure to get safe back before the judge should appear again.

At last the invention was in working order, and Alfred Vail said to Baxter:

"William, go up to the house and ask father to come down and see the telegraph machine work."

The boy ran eagerly, in his shop clothes and without any coat, and Judge Vail followed him back to the little room. Mr. Vail wrote on a slip of paper, "A patient waiter is no loser." He handed this to Alfred, saying:

"If you can send that so that Professor Morse can read it at the other end of the wire, I shall be convinced."


Instrument for Sending Telegrams

Alfred clicked it off, and Morse read it at his end. The old gentleman was overjoyed.

But there was a great deal of trouble after this in getting the matter started. It was thought necessary to have the government build the first line, because business men were slow to try new things in that day. The President, and other public men, showed much curiosity about the new machine, but Congress was slow to give money to construct a line.

In 1842 a bill was passed in the House of Representatives appropriating thirty thousand dollars to construct a telegraph on Morse's plan from Washington to Baltimore. It had yet to pass the Senate before it could become a law. When the last hours of the session had arrived, a senator told Morse that his bill could not be passed, there were so many other bills to be voted on before it. Morse went to his hotel, and found that, after paying his bill and buying his ticket to New York, he had thirty-seven cents left.

But the next morning, while he was eating his breakfast before leaving Washington, Miss Ellsworth, the daughter of the commissioner of patents, brought Morse word that his bill had passed the night before. For her kindness the inventor promised her that she should send the first message over a telegraph line.

Morse tried to lay his wires underground in pipes, but it was found that naked wires laid in this way let the electricity escape into the ground. What was to be done? There were now but seven thousand dollars left of the thirty thousand. To change their plan would be to confess that those who were building the telegraph had made a mistake, and this would make people more suspicious than ever. The machine for digging the ditch in which the wires were to be laid was run against a stone and broken on purpose to make an excuse for changing the plan.

A year had been wasted, when it was decided to put the wires on poles. At last, in 1844, the wires were strung, and Miss Ellsworth sent the first message, which was, "What hath God wrought!" The first news that went over the wire was that James K. Polk had been nominated for President.

But at first people would not believe that messages had come over the wire. They waited for the mails to bring the same news before they could believe it. One man asked how large a bundle could be sent over the wires. A joking fellow hung a pair of dirty boots on the wire, and gave it out that they had got muddy from traveling so fast. A woman who saw a telegraph pole planted in front of her door said she supposed she could not punish her children any more without everybody knowing it. She thought the wire would carry news of its own accord. At first few messages were sent. The operators worked for nothing, and slept under their tables. But after a while people began to use the wires, which were gradually extended over the country. Another kind of electric telegraph had been tried in England, but Morse's plan was found the best.

Before Morse put up his first line he had tried a telegraph through the water. To keep the electricity from escaping, he wound the wire with thread soaked in pitch and surrounded it with rubber. He laid this wire from Castle Garden, at the lower end of New York city, across to Governor's Island, in the harbor. He was able to telegraph through it, but before he could exhibit it the anchor of a vessel drew up the wire, and the sailors carried off part of it.

About 1850, Cyrus W. Field, of New York, got the notion that a telegraph could be laid across the Atlantic Ocean. After much thought to raise the money needed, and two attempts to lay a telegraph cable across the ocean, the first cable was laid successfully in 1858. The Queen of England sent a message to the President of the United States, and President Buchanan sent a reply. Many great meetings were held to rejoice over this union of the Old World with the New. But the first Atlantic telegraph cable worked feebly for three weeks, and then ceased to work altogether.

Mr. Field now found it hard work to get people to put money into a new cable. Seven years after the first one was laid, the Great Eastern, the largest ship afloat, laid twelve hundred miles of telegraph cable in the Atlantic Ocean, when the cable suddenly broke. The next year, in 1866, the end of this cable was found and brought up from the bottom of the sea. It was spliced to a new one, which was laid successfully.


The Great Eastern

Morse lived to old age, no longer pinched for money, and honored in Europe and America for his great invention. He died in 1872, when nearly eighty-one years old.

The latest wonder in telegraphing is the telephone, which is a machine by which the actual words spoken are carried upon a wire and heard at the other end of the line. The invention was made about the same time, in somewhat different forms, by several different men.

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