Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Samuel F. B. Morse,
the Discoverer of Electric Telegraphy

In 1844 a Whig National Convention for the nomination of a President was in session at Baltimore. Henry Clay, the people's favorite, was the most prominent candidate, and a good deal of interest was felt by those waiting for the news. In Washington, forty miles away, the interest was great, and many waited eagerly for the coming of the first railroad train with tidings of the result.

Suddenly the word went from mouth to mouth that Clay had been nominated. People heard the news with surprise and incredulity. How could any one know? No train had arrived, no mail or messenger reached the capital. When it was told that the news had come by lightning message, flashed over a wire which led from Baltimore to a room in the Capitol building, many laughed in scorn. They would wait for the train, they said. It was impossible for news to come in a minute from Baltimore to Washington.

But when the train came in, confirming the report, there was a sudden change of feeling. An awe spread over the people. What did this mean? Were space and time to be annihilated? Had man made a discovery which would carry thought in a moment from end to end of the land? Men walked home sobered and wondering. All interest in the nomination was lost before the interest in this new and magical discovery. The name of Professor Morse, the discoverer, suddenly rose from obscurity to fame.

Twelve years before this Samuel Finley Breese Morse, an American painter of much talent, was on his way home from Europe in the ship "Sully "to accept the professorship of Literature of the Fine Arts at the University of the City of New York. He was then forty-one years old, having been born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the 27th of April, 1791. Until now all his time and attention had been given to the art of painting, and no dream had come to him of the strange history of his later life.

Inspiration came to him in a talk of some passengers on the "Sully," one of whom had seen in Paris some experiments with the electro-magnet. These proved that the electric spark could be obtained by means of the magnet, and that the current of electricity which gave this spark could be carried very rapidly to a distance along an iron wire.

The story immediately interested Mr. Morse. If sparks could thus be obtained at the end of a long wire, could not some system of signals be devised? Morse talked it over with the gentleman, considering how this could be done, and trying to devise a working plan. He thought deeply on the subject himself, walking the deck alone under the stars and debating inwardly on the possibilities of the current and the magnet.

Mr. Morse was not a tyro on the subject of electricity. He knew what had been done in it, and what had been discovered of its ways of action, and his thought bore remarkable fruit. Before the "Sully "reached New York he had worked out in his mind a complete plan, devising "not only the idea of an electric telegraph, but of an electro-magnetic and recording telegraph substantially and essentially as it now exists." He is said to have even invented an alphabet of signs, closely the same as that which is now in use, but it is probable that this was a later device.

Mr. Morse had no time to give to a Fine Arts professorship when he landed in New York. A new idea had taken possession of his mind, and during the rest of his life most of his time and thought was given to telegraphy. He had a desperate struggle before him. It is one thing to lay out a plan in one's mind and another thing to make it work in matter. Many difficulties are sure to arise to trouble the inventor and sadden his soul.

Morse had been something of an inventor already, and had made experiments in electricity and galvanism. This had been for mere pastime; now it was to be serious work. He went into his new labor with vim and energy, but the path before him was long and hard. Wires were stretched, experiments made, but again and again they failed to work. His money went, he had three children to support, starvation threatened him, but he kept on, doing enough painting to bring him some slight support. He had faith in himself, he had sympathy and aid from his brother and friends, but there were days when he had to go hungry for want of food. When his instruments refused to do what he expected, he studied them till he found out what was wrong, and made it right.

At length he had ready a working model, but this was not until 1835, after three years of continued experiment and endless discouragement. He had a wire circling round his room half a mile in length and was able to send signals to its end, but he could not yet bring them back again. A duplicate instrument was needed at the other end of the wire, and he was so poor that two years more passed before he was able to have one made.

Now all was right. His telegraph worked splendidly. He could send signals both ways over his wire and read them easily. In September, 1837, he set it up in the University of New York and exhibited it to large audiences, who saw it with wonder and delight.

But this was only a lecture room experiment. To make it a practical working affair was another matter. Money, far more money than he could hope to command, was needed to bring it into general use. He applied to Congress, but in vain. Some interest was awakened, but no grant of money was made. Most men were disposed to ridicule the whole affair. Then he went to England, but with the same result. "Even if it does work," said one wise man, "what good will it be? Men get news now as fast as any one is likely to want them. Your idea is good, Mr. Morse, but it won't pay."

Back to Washington again, and a new bill in Congress. It was the early spring of 1843. At midnight of March 3 the Congress then in session would end. Morse's bill had passed the House on February 23, but it hung in the Senate, quite crowded out of sight by the rush of bills deemed of more importance. Morse waited about the Senate chamber until nearly midnight, and then, seeing the confusion growing every minute greater, and his case apparently hopeless, he gave it up in despair and walked sadly home.

When he came down to breakfast the next morning his face was a picture of gloom. He was fairly ready to give up the fight and go back to the painter's brush. A young lady met him at the door with a smiling face.

"I have come to congratulate you, Mr. Morse."

"For what, my dear friend?"

"For the passage of your bill."

"what I" He stood aghast. "The passage of my bill I" he faltered.

"Yes. Do you not know of it?"

"Nothing at all."

"Then you came home too soon last night. Congress has granted your claim. I am happy in being the first to bring you the good news."

"You have given me new life, Miss Ellsworth," he exclaimed. "As a reward for your good tidings, I promise you that when my telegraph line is completed you shall have the honor of selecting the first message to be sent over it."

Eleven and a half years had passed since the conversation on the ship "Sully," years of incessant work and bitter discouragement. Now success seemed to shine on the horizon. The grant was for thirty thousand dollars only, but he hoped that would be enough. The plan he had worked out on the "Sully "was the following: There was to be an alphabet of some kind of marks, a revolving ribbon of paper to receive these, and a method of carrying the wires underground in tubes. He had thought also of supporting them in the air, but the other plan seemed to him the best.

What he now wanted was a contrivance to make a ditch to lay the wires in. A man named Ezra Cornell was applied to. No one knew of him then, but he is now known as the founder of Cornell University, for he afterwards became famous and rich. He had an inventive mind, knew much about ploughs, and in a short time devised a machine that would cut a trench in the ground, lay the pipe at its bottom, and cover in the earth behind it.

In ten days the machine was ready. A yoke of oxen was attached to it, one man managed it, and in five minutes it had laid one hundred feet of pipe and covered it with earth. It was a decided success. The pipe, with the wire within it, was laid so rapidly that in a few days ten miles were down.

Here it stopped. Something had gone wrong. No trace of a current could be got through. The insulation of the wire was imperfect. Another kind of pipe was tried. Still the current would not go through. Many experiments were made, a year passed by, only seven thousand dollars of the money remained, the inventor was in despair.

"I fear it will never work." said Cornell. "The pipe plan is a failure."

"Then let us try the air plan. If electricity won't go underground, we must try and get it to go through the air."

The new plan was to string the wire on poles, with an insulator to keep the current from the wood. Professor Henry, of the Smithsonian Institution, a man who was an expert in electricity, suggested a suitable insulator, and the work went rapidly on. To raise poles, put a glass bulb at their top, and string wires over them, was an easy and rapid process. And the signals passed perfectly. All the old trouble was at an end.

On the day of the nomination by the Baltimore convention the wire was only partly laid. It began at Washington, but was still miles from Baltimore. But the train from Baltimore that carried the news of the nomination to Washington carried also one of the telegraph experts. He left the train at the end of the wire, telegraphed the news to Washington, and when the train reached that city its passengers were utterly astounded to find that they brought stale news, that the story of the nomination was already spread through the capital. It was an overwhelming proof of the power of the electric telegraph, and Professor Morse sprang into fame. The wire was completed to Baltimore by May 24, 1844, and, as Morse had promised, Miss Ellsworth was given the honor of choosing the first message to be sent over it. She selected an appropriate passage of Scripture: "What hath God wrought?" With these significant words began the reign of that marvellous invention which has since then tied the ends of the world together and fairly annihilated space. So strange was its principle to most people that, as we are told, even so high a dignitary as John C. Spencer, Secretary of the Treasury, asked one of Morse's assistants how large a bundle could be sent over the wires, and if the postal mails could not be sent in that way.

While Morse was working on his telegraph system, others were working in Europe. While he was fighting Congress, inventors in England were experimenting with short lines, with the wire carried in buried pipes. But the system adopted there was one of signals by vibrating needles, and was so inferior to the Morse system that the latter is now used almost throughout the world.

Professor Morse no longer suffered from poverty. Telegraph companies were soon organized all over the country, his invention was adopted in Europe, and in a few years he was the happy possessor of a large fortune. Honors also were showered upon him. Yale College complimented him with the degree of LL.D., and tokens of recognition came to him from many other quarters, many of them from Europe, gold =dale and insignia being presented him by several monarchs.

The telegraph was not the last of the Morse inventions, several others being made by him. He also took the first daguerreotypes in America, made a pump-machine for fire-engines, and laid the first telegraph under water. This was a short line, but he afterwards took great interest in the efforts of Cyrus W. Field to lay a submarine cable, and gave him important aid and advice in the project. He died in New York, April 2, 1872, having lived to see the telegraph working across the Atlantic.