Their judgment was based more upon blind wishing than upon sound reasoning. For it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to thrust aside what they do not fancy. — Thucydides

America First - Lawton 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.


Front Matter

Leif, the Lucky
Spaniards Conquer Mexico
Conquest of Peru
The Fountain of Youth
De Soto and the Mississippi
Sir Walter Raleigh
The Lost Colony
Adventures of John Smith
More about John Smith
Pilgrims and Puritans
Miles Standish
Building a Canoe
Roger Williams
Old Silver Leg
William Penn
The Charter Oak
Bloody Marsh
Saving of Hadley
Sir William Phips
Hannah Dustin
Israel Putnam
A Young Surveyor
Young Washington
Indians and Major Putnam
How Detroit was Saved
Blackbeard the Pirate
Daniel Boone
Sunday in the Colonies
The Salem Witches
Traveling by Stage-coach
King George and the Colonies
Patrick Henry
Paul Revere
Green Mountain Boys
Father of his Country
Nathan Hale
Elizabeth Zane
Capturing the Hessians
Lafayette Comes to America
Lydia Darrah
Captain Molly Pitcher
The Swamp Fox
Outwitting a Tory
Supporting the Colors
Nancy Hart
Mad Anthony
Execution of Major Andre
How Schuyler was Saved
An Indian Trick
Winning the Northwest
Benjamin Franklin
Nolichucky Jack
Eli Whitney
Thomas Jefferson
Burning of the Philadelphia
Lewis and Clark
Colter's Race for Life
Pike Explores Arkansas Valley
How Pumpkins Saved a Family
Old Ironsides
Star Spangled Banner
Traveling by Canal
Lafayette Returns
Osceola, Seminole Chief
Journey by Railroad
Old Hickory
Daniel Webster
Henry Clay
Plantation Christmas
John C. Calhoun
Heroes of the Alamo
Freedom for Texas
Electric Telegraph
Gold in California
Crossing Continent
The Pony Express
Boy Who Saved Village
Rescue of Jerry
Abraham Lincoln
Robert E. Lee
Stonewall Jackson
Stealing a Locomotive
Sam Davis
Escape from Prison
Running the Blockade
Heart of the South
Surrender of Lee
Laying the Atlantic Cable
The Telephone
Thomas A. Edison
Clara Barton
Hobson and the Merrimac
Dewey at Manila Bay
Conquering Yellow Fever
Sinking of Lusitania
Private Treptow
Frank Luke, Aviator
Sergeant York