‘What Hath God Wrought?’ With those words, the invention known as the telegraph was first put into use in a transmission from the Supreme Court chambers in Washington, D.C., to a Baltimore railroad station.
As with any invention, the telegraph had a long journey from idea to reality, and no single person made it happen. But it assuredly would not have sprung to life as it did if it were not for the work of Samuel F.B. Morse, and his Morse code.
Born in Charlestown, Mass., to a Congregational minister and his wife on April 27, 1791, Morse was educated at Yale. He made his first career as an artist, and was highly regarded. He might have stayed on that path, accepting lucrative commissions, but fate had other plans.
In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette was making his final visit to the United States, and Morse received a commission to paint a portrait of the beloved French hero of the American Revolution. While he was in Washington, D.C. to fulfill the commission, his wife died back in New England. Morse was notified that she was sick via standard mail, but by the time he received word she was already dead and buried.
Whether or not this belated message helped inspire Morse to shift his interest to wireless communication, as some of his biographers suggest, isn’t entirely clear. He did, however, soon after take up a profound interest in the science surrounding electricity and the ways it could be used.
In the coming years he regularly attended academic lectures in New York on electricity. In 1832, while on an ocean voyage, he learned of European experiments with sending messages via electric wires. He began experimenting to build his own telegraph.
Painting and Politics
Over the next five years, he would continue painting and teaching. He ran for mayor of New York (unsuccessfully) on an anti-immigration platform. (He would run several times for office unsuccessfully over the course of his life as an anti-Catholic candidate.) But he also continued his work on the telegraph. By 1837, he had abandoned painting, applied for a patent on the telegraph technology and turned to his invention full time.
The next year, Morse would visit Congress to demonstrate his ideas and seek funding. Rather than finding government funding, he and his partners found an influential private backer – Maine Congressman F. O. J. Smith.
The government at the time was planning to establish a communications network along the East Coast. It envisioned a system of towers where flagmen could stand and relay messages via semaphore up and down the country. Massachusetts already had such a system along Boston’s South Shore.
What Morse envisioned was the telegraph, and Smith becomes an important proponent of the idea in political circles.
Finally, with government funding, Morse and his colleagues completed the telegraph line and tested it on May 24, 1844. That was all it took for the idea to catch fire. Within a decade, thousands of miles of telegraph wire were erected throughout the country.
It would take until 1854, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision, for Morse to begin receiving royalties on his patent, but by the time of his death in 1872, the clever young man from Charlestown was a wealthy man and a celebrated inventor.
This story updated in 2022.