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Impact of the Telegraph | Childhood and Family Life | Art and Travel | Daguerreotype

Invention of the Telegraph

First telegraph message, 24 May 1844

When decoded, this paper tape recording of the historic message transmitted by Samuel F. B. Morse reads, "What hath God wrought?" Morse sent it from the Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore. Morse's early system produced a paper copy with raised dots and dashes, which were translated later by an operator. Across the top of this artifact of his historic achievement Morse has given credit to Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of a good friend, for suggesting the message he sent. She found it in the Bible, Numbers 23:23.


Letter from Samuel F. B. Morse to his brother Sidney, 31 May 1844
Seven days after his great success with the first telegraph message, Morse writes, in a humble and cautious tone, to his brother, Sidney, of the responsibilities of success. Twice he quotes the famous message, "What hath God wrought?" and uses it to invoke his deep religious feelings. Still feeling the flush of success, he quotes a former opponent, now won over, as saying, "It is an astonishing invention."

Telegraph Agreement, March 1838
During his work on the telegraph, Morse needed political help to obtain support from Congress as much as he required technical and financial assistance, and this formal agreement allowed him to achieve all three. By sharing ownership of sixteen shares in a future telegraph system with Congressman Francis Ormond Jonathan "Fog" Smith (four shares), technician Alfred Vail (two shares), and professor of science Leonard D. Gale (one share), Morse (nine shares) forged an alliance that would allow him eventually to succeed.


Morse Code, ca. 1837
Morse Code, ca. 1837
The dots and dashes system of telegraph transmission that became known as Morse Code came into being once Morse began his collaboration with Alfred Vail. One of its earliest versions is seen here in the bottom line titled "2d For Letters." By 1844, what became known as "American Morse" had emerged, with nearly every letter undergoing some small change. This system was, in turn, itself slightly altered to form what was known as "International Morse."


Telegraph Drawing, 1854
Morse's early mechanism to send messages did not involve a key like this one since it used ridged slugs, with each slug representing a letter. His receiver was a pendulum-like device that used a ribbon of paper to record dots and dashes, which were then deciphered and read by the operator. Soon the system was simplified, and a key or hand transmitter similar to the one in this drawing became popular. Clerks eventually learned to read the messages by the sound of the marking lever and, once a "sounder" was added, the Morse telegraph was converted from a paper-based system to an acoustic one.


By 1842, funding from the U.S. Congress was essential if the now-impoverished Morse was to be able to build and prove his telegraph system. On February 23, 1843, his bill for appropriated funding passed in the House of Representatives by a slim majority of 89 to 83 (with 70 not voting), but obviously every vote was crucial. This annotated member list of the twenty-six states may have been used by Morse before, during, or after the vote. The symbol "O" is thought to indicate an assenting vote, "-" a dissenting vote, and ">" no vote.

Member List, United States House of Representatives, December 1842


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