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

Morse and the Telegraph

Before the railroad and the telegraph were invented it took weeks for news to go from one part of this country to another. The mails were carried by a lad on horseback, or by a stagecoach drawn by horses. The railroad was invented in England and introduced into this country about 1830. The locomotive carried news much more quickly than horses' feet could travel. But now we know to-day what happened yesterday on the other side of the world, and we wonder how people ever got on without the electric telegraph.

Samuel Finley Breeze Morse, who invented the electric telegraph, or that form of it that came into general use, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1791. When he was four years old he was sent to school to an old lady, who was lame and not able to leave her chair. She managed her scholars with a very long rattan stick. This was her telegraph, we might say, but the children did not always like the messages she sent upon it. Morse showed his talent as an artist by scratching a picture of the old lady on a piece of furniture, but he did not like the message she sent him on her rattan telegraph.

When Samuel Morse went to Yale College he took great interest in the experiments in electricity which he saw there. But the chief question with him at this time was how to get a living. He had a talent for making pictures, and he took to painting miniatures of people for five dollars apiece; he also made profiles at a dollar apiece. As there were no photographs then, people who wanted small pictures of themselves had to have them painted. This was usually done on ivory.

We have seen that Fulton, the maker of steamboats, was a painter. Morse became a painter, and went to England to study, where he attracted attention by his good work. After four years in Europe he came to America again, as poor as ever. His clothes were threadbare, and his shoes were ragged at the toes. "My stockings," he said, "want to see my mother." He brought with him a large picture, which everybody admired, but nobody bought it.

He was already thinking about inventions. He and his brother invented a pump, which his brother jokingly named "Morse's Patent Metallic, Double-headed, Ocean-drinker and Deluge-spouter Valve Pump Box." But the pump, for all this, was not a success, and Morse traveled from town to town painting portraits for a living.

Morse went to Europe again, and in 1832 he sailed for America once more. He was now about forty-one years old. One evening, in the cabin of the ship, the talk turned on electricity. A Dr. Jackson, who was one of the passengers, told of an interesting experiment which he had seen in Paris. Electricity had been sent instantaneously through a great length of wire arranged in circles around a large room.

"Then," said Morse, "I don't see why messages can not be sent a long distance instantaneously by means of electricity."

When the conversation was over the rest forgot all about it. But Morse began to plan a telegraph, making drawings of the machine in his sketch-book. But he was much too poor to go on with his invention. His brothers gave him the use of a room for a studio, and here he lived, and made experiments on a rude telegraph. He did his own cooking, and he used to go out at night to buy food, for fear that his friends should discover how little he had to eat.

In 1835 Morse became a professor. He now took a Professor Gale into partnership in the telegraph. But neither of them had money enough to perfect the invention. While they were one day exhibiting their rude machine to some gentlemen, a student named Alfred Vail happened to come into the room. Young Vail was the son of Judge Vail, a wealthy mill owner. He had worked for some years in his father's shops, and was a far better mechanic than Professor Morse or Professor Gale.

Vail's quick eye soon comprehended the new invention, which was being tested with seventeen hundred feet of wire stretched back and forth across the room.

"Do you intend to try the telegraph on a large scale?" Vail asked.

"I do, if I can get the money to carry out my plans," Professor Morse replied.

Vail then proposed to get money for Morse if the professor would make him a partner. This was agreed to, and the young man hurried to his room, locked the door, threw himself on his bed, and gave himself up to imagining the future of the telegraph. He took up his atlas and traced out the great lines which the telegraph would take. It is probable that Professor Morse would have failed if it had not been for the help of this young man.

After getting some further explanations from Morse, Alfred Vail hurried home and talked to his father about it until the judge decided to furnish the two thousand dollars that would be needed to make a perfect telegraph. This was to be taken to Congress, to persuade that body to supply money to build the first line.

Besides furnishing money for the machine, the Vails got Morse to paint some portraits for them, and thus supplied him with money to meet his most pressing wants. Alfred now had a room fitted up in one of his father's workshops at Speedwell, in New Jersey. He kept the place carefully locked, lest the secret of the invention should be discovered by others.

A boy named William Baxter, fifteen years old, was taken from the shop to help Alfred Vail. For many months Alfred and Baxter worked together, sometimes day and night. There was no such thing as telegraph wire in a day when there were no telegraphs. But the ladies of that time wore a kind of high bonnet, which was called a "sky-scraper," and a sort of wire was used to strengthen and stiffen the fronts of such bonnets, which proved to be the best to be had for the purpose of the new telegraph makers. Vail bought all the bonnet wire in the market.


A "Sky-scraper"

Vail made many improvements in Morse's machine. He also made the instrument write, not with the zigzag marks used by Professor Morse, but in dots and dashes for letters, as you will see in the alphabet given on this page. Morse was busy getting his patent, and Professor Gale was engaged in making the batteries.


The Telegraph Alphabet

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