"He now entered upon that period of the inventor's life which has proved to many so wearying and disheartening—the effort to bring his invention into general use. He applied to Congress in vain for aid. Considerable interest in the subject was aroused in Congress and throughout the country, but he derived no benefit from it. If men spoke of his telegraph, it was only to ridicule it, or to express their doubts of its success."
Before the Internet, before the wireless, before the telephone, there was the telegraph. And as a disruptive innovation, it may rival the Web in how fast and how radically it changed the world, for before it, communication was slow and unreliable, while after it, instantaneous and sure. It is hard for us to imagine news in New York taking weeks or months to reach San Francisco, but that was life before Morse code.
Taken from: Mabie, Hamilton, et. al. "The Great Book of American Biography" (Philadelphia: International Publishing Company, 1896). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
Probably no other invention of modern times has done more to change the face of the world than the electric telegraph. The fact that one man in New York can speak to another in Texas or Brazil is charged with stupendous meaning. Through the telegraph the newspaper brings the whole earth before us at the breakfast table. The electric wire is like a nerve in the body, bringing all nations into sympathetic communication, dispelling ignorance and prejudice, and helping to make all men brothers. To the inventor of this great system is due a debt of gratitude that can not be reckoned.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born at Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the 27th of April, 1791 . He exhibited an early fondness for art, as well as studies of a scientific character, and while a student at Yale College displayed an especial aptness for chemistry and natural philosophy. Upon leaving college he decided to adopt the profession of an artist, and was sent abroad to study under the tuition of West and Copley and Allston. He was obliged by lack of means to return in about four years. His youth was spent in a struggle for success as an artist. In 1829 he again went abroad for the purpose of completing his art studies. During his absence he was elected "Professor of the Literature of the Fine Arts" in the University of the City of New York. He set out on his return home to accept this professorship in the autumn of 1832, sailing from Havre on board the packet ship "Sully."
Among his fellow-passengers on the "Sully" were a number of persons of intelligence and cultivation, one of whom had recently witnessed in Paris some interesting experiments with the electro-magnet, the object of which was to prove how readily the electric spark could be obtained from the magnet, and the rapidity with which it could be disseminated. To Mr. Morse the develop ment of this newly-discovered property of electricity was more than interesting. It showed him his true mission in life. He thought long and earnestly upon the subject, pacing the deck under the silent stars. He had long been convinced that electricity was to furnish the means of rapid communication between distant points, of which the world was so much in need; and he at once set to work to discover how this could be done. He succeeded so well that before the "Sully" reached New York he had conceived "not merely the idea of an electric telegraph, but of an electro-magnetic and recording tele graph, substantially and essentially as it now exists," and had invented an alphabet of signs, the same in all important respects as that now in use.
But though invented in 1832, it was not until 1835 that he was enabled to complete his first poor, rude instrument. By its aid he was able to send signals from a given point to the end of a wire half a mile in length, but as yet there was no means of receiving them back again from the other extremity. He con tinued to experiment on his invention, and made several improvements in it. It was plain from the first that he needed a duplicate of his instrument at the other end of his wire, but for a long time he was unable to have one made. At length he acquired the necessary funds, and in July, 1837, had a duplicate instrument con structed, and thus perfected his plan. His telegraph now worked to his entire satisfaction, and he could easily send signals to the remote end of his line and receive replies in return. Having brought it to a successful completion, he exhibited it to large audiences at the University of New York, in September, 1837.
He now entered upon that period of the inventor's life which has proved to many so wearying and disheartening—the effort to bring his invention into general use. He applied to Congress in vain for aid. Considerable interest in the subject was aroused in Congress and throughout the country, but he derived no benefit from it. If men spoke of his telegraph, it was only to ridicule it, or to express their doubts of its success. He was very poor, and, as one of his friends has since declared, had literally "to coin his mind for bread." His sturdy independence of character would not allow him to accept assistance from any one, although there were friends ready and even anxious to help him.
Alone and manfully he fought his way through these dark days, still hopeful of success for his invention, and patiently seeking to improve it wherever oppor tunity presented itself. At length, in 1840, he received his long-delayed patent from the general government, and, encouraged by this, presented a second petition to Congress, asking its aid in the construction of an experimental line between Baltimore and Washington. He had to encounter a great degree of skepticism and ridicule, with many other obstacles; but finally, on the very last day of the session, when he had given up all hope, a bill was passed appropriating thirty thousand dollars to construct the line. His dearest wish was at last realized, and the hour of his triumph was at hand.
Work on the telegraph line was immediately begun, and carried on actively. At first an insulated wire was buried underground in a lead pipe, but this failing to give satisfaction, the wire was elevated upon poles. On the 27th of May, 1844, the line was completed, and the first trial of it made in the presence of the government officials and many other distinguished men. Professor Morse was confident of success; but this occasion was a period of the most intense anxiety to him, for he knew that his entire future was staked upon the result of this hour.
Among the company present to witness the trial was the Secretary of the Treasury, John C. Spencer. Although very much interested in the undertaking, he was entirely ignorant of the principles involved in it, and he asked one of Professor Morse's assistants how large a bundle could be sent over the wires, and if the United States mail could not be sent in the same way. When all was in readiness, Professor Morse seated himself at the instrument, and sent his first message to Baltimore. An answer was promptly returned, and messages were sent and replies received with a rapidity and accu racy which placed the triumph of the invention beyond the possibility of doubt.
Congratulations were showered upon the inventor, who received them as calmly as he had previously borne the scoffs of many of these same men. Yet his heart throbbed all the while with a brilliant triumph. Fame and fortune both rose proudly before him. He had won a great victory and conferred a lasting benefit upon his race. The success of the experimental line brought Professor Morse numerous offers for the use of his invention. Telegraph companies were organized all over the country, and the stock issued by them was taken up as fast as offered. At the present day, not only the United States, but the whole world, is covered with telegraph lines.
The Morse system is adopted on the principal lines of the United States, on all the lines of the Eastern continent, and exclusively on all the continental lines of Europe, from the extreme Russian north to the Italian and Spanish south, eastward through the Turkish Empire, south into Egypt and northern Africa, and through India, Australia, and parts of China. The rapid growth of the telegraph interest of the United States placed Professor Morse in the possession of a large fortune, which was greatly increased by the adoption of his invention in Europe. Honors, too, were showered upon him from all parts of the world.
In 1848, his alma mater, Yale College, conferred on him the complimentary degree of LL.D., and since then he has been made a member of nearly all the American scientific and art academies. From European governments and scientific and art associations he has received more honors than have ever fallen to the share of any other American. Almost every sovereign in the world has conferred upon Professor Morse some honor or title. In February, 1854, Mr. Cyrus W. Field, of New York, ignorant of Professor Morse's views upon this subject, wrote to him to ask if he considered the working of a cable across the Atlantic practicable. The Professor at once sought an interview with Mr. Field, and assured him of his entire confidence in the undertaking. He entered heartily into Mr. Field's scheme, and rendered great aid in the noble enterprise, which has been described elsewhere in these pages. He was present at each attempt to lay the cable, and participated in the final triumph by which his prediction, made twenty-three years previous, was verified. Professor Morse died in New York in April, 1872.