Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Samuel F. B. Morse and his Successors


"If danger threatens you from our direction, we will warn you by a beacon fire," agreed the early inhabitants of neighboring settlements. This way of sending a message from hilltop to hilltop by signal fires was a custom our ancestors brought with them from across the sea. At best it was uncertain, and the message to be sent had to be agreed upon beforehand.

Later another signaling device, the semaphore, came into use to some extent. The semaphore was made by fastening a movable arm to an upright post, the different angles at which the arm was placed indicating the different words of the message.

Then during the Civil War, flags and rockets were used in signaling on the battlefield, and to notify troops of the approach of the enemy.

The heliographic system was still another form of signaling, and was carried out by reflecting the sun's light from one station to another by means of mirrors. Heliograph signals have been sent more than one hundred and fifty miles. But even this system had its drawbacks. It was only a daylight and pleasant weather system, darkness or cloudy weather, putting an end to communication between the stations.

So you see that the invention of the telegraph supplied a great and pressing need. Here was a means of rapid communication, one that could be used by night as well as by day, and could carry a message long or short. Samuel F. B. Morse was the inventor of the telegraph.


Morse was a Massachusetts boy born there in 1791. While in college at Yale, Morse had for professors two of the most noted scientists of the day in this country, and through them he first became interested in electricity. However, at the time of graduation his ambition was to become an artist, not a scientist. Accordingly he went to London where he worked for four years with splendid results and where, through his father's influence, he came to know many prominent Englishmen.

Samuel Morse

In 1815 he came back to America and set about earning his living through his art. He seems to have been a true Yankee with an active, inventive mind, quick to grasp the possibilities of a suggestion that to many would have meant nothing. At dinner one night, in 1832, when he was returning from another visit abroad, the conversation turned on electricity. Then and there the thought flashed through his mind that this mysterious force might be employed in sending messages.

For the next eleven years Morse's principal interest in life was pushing and perfecting the idea of an electric telegraph. Poor! He was so poor that it was with great difficulty that he managed to carry on his investigations at all. He was even compelled to build his own models and machines. Discouragement followed discouragement; but still he plodded on, always confident of final success.

In 1835 he was appointed professor in the University of the City of New York. Luckily for him one of his pupils became interested in the experiments and induced his father, the owner of brass and iron works, to furnish the necessary materials.

Then came the struggle to raise the money needed to put up a telegraph line. Morse exhibited his apparatus in Philadelphia. He exhibited it in Washington to the President and his Cabinet, and for several years sought an appropriation from Congress with which to build an experimental telegraph line. Finally, in 1843, an appropriation of $30,000 was granted by Congress. The Senate approved the bill late at night on the last day of the session, after Morse had given up all hope of its being reached and had gone home to bed. As he was coming down to breakfast in the morning, a young lady congratulated him on his success. Had the Senate passed his bill? He could hardly believe the news.

A year later the bearer of the good tidings was asked to send the first telegraph message in this country. "What hath God wrought!" were the words she chose. And on May 24, 1844, this message was flashed from Washington to Baltimore over Morse's new telegraph line. Of course the opening of the line created intense interest; and the Chamber of the Supreme Court, the Washington end of the line, was filled with excited people.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


The practical use of the telegraph was shown in a rather dramatic way a few days later. The Democratic National Convention was being held in Baltimore, and Silas Wright was unexpectedly nominated for Vice President. The news was telegraphed to Morse at Washington, and Wright's refusal of the nomination was quickly sent back to Baltimore, and the convention was told of it.

This was beyond belief. It was not possible that a message had really been sent, received, and answered in so short a time. Surely it was some trick of Wright's enemies, nothing more nor less. So the convention adjourned, while a committee went to Washington to see Wright in person, only to learn that the message was correct and that he had refused the nomination.

Soon after the opening of the telegraph line a young lady came to Morse with a sealed letter and asked him to send it by telegraph to Baltimore. When he said that he could not do that, she asked if he would not send her. These and other queer notions about Morse's invention were held by many when it was fast put into operation.

The influence of the telegraph was soon widely recognized, and Morse richly deserved the many rewards he received. By his genius and ability he had contrived a means of overcoming distance, enabling those separated by many miles to communicate with the swiftness of lightning.


After becoming accustomed to the rapidity of communication by telegraph, ten days or more seemed a long time to wait for European news. So Cyrus W. Field interested himself in plans for the laying of an ocean cable.

Cyrus W Field

Early in 1854 the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company was chartered, and the preliminary work was begun. By August of 1857 all the arrangements were made; and on the 7th a steamer started from Ireland for Newfoundland, unrolling the cable as it went. But after a few hundred miles had been laid, the cable broke; and the attempt was put off for a year.

In 1858 another effort at cable-laying proved successful, and for eighteen days England and America were connected. Messages of congratulation were sent by the Queen and the President, and everyone concerned with the undertaking was happy. Then suddenly the cable ceased to work; a break had occurred somewhere.

No further attempt was made to carry out Field's plan until 1865, when the Great Eastern, the largest ship of that time, succeeded in laying more than a thousand miles of cable. At that point came another discouraging break.

Mr. Field still persisted, however; and finally in 1866 a cable was successfully stretched across the Atlantic Ocean. Ever since that time there has been cable communication between this country and Europe. There are to-day more than half a dozen cables across the Atlantic and Pacific; and, as far as news is concerned, New York is as near to the capitals of Europe as it is to Washington.

It is indeed wonderful to be able to send messages over a wire across land and sea. But a still more marvelous invention is now coming into use. This is wireless telegraphy. The inventor is an Italian, Guglielmo Marconi. By Marconi's system messages can be sent, miles through the air from station to station without a wire to carry them. And for the first time ships crossing the ocean can keep in constant communication with land.


Eighteen hundred and seventy-six was the year of the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia, and at that time and place another great electrical invention was exhibited. But in spite of the fact that the telegraph by land and sea had already illustrated the marvelous uses of electricity, the telephone of Alexander Graham Bell was regarded by people generally as a toy.

Few, if any, credited that it could ever be of practical service. And yet there is hardly any modern invention that has done as much to add to the convenience of living as has the telephone. We use it to order our meals, to chat with our friends, or to transact business, near at hand or miles away. Most of us use it a hundred times where we use the telegraph once.

Mr. Bell, its inventor, was born and educated in Scotland, but has lived in this country for many years. His father, too, was a noted man. He it was who evolved the system of "visible speech," as it is called, by which the deaf are taught to speak by imitating the motions of another person's lips.