Patent History Materials Index - The District of Columbia's Part in the Early History of the Telegraph by Edward L. Morse

Extract from Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 3 (1900), page 161-179

The District of Columbia's Part in the Early History of the Telegraph
By Edward L. Morse
Read before the Society, January 9, 1899

March 3, 1843, was the last day of the Congress of that year. The whole of that day and part of the evening were spent by a tall, thin man of 52 years of age in the gallery of the Senate Chamber. He was eagerly, anxiously, then hopelessly watching the progress of the various bills. On the morning of that day there were one hundred and forty to be acted upon before there should be reached a certain bill, appropriating thirty thousand dollars "To test the practicability of establishing a System of Electro-Magnetic Telegraphs by the United States." The man was Samuel F.B. Morse, and the bill meant to him success or failure. Up to that moment he was a failure, and a failure at 52.

It is true that he had obtained some eminence as a painter; that the title of Professor of the Literature of the Arts of Design had been bestowed upon him by the University of the City of New York; that he was one of the founders and the first president of the National Academy of Design, and that his sterling integrity of character and indomitable perseverance had won him hosts of friends; still, gauged by the world's standard, he was a failure. Should the bill whose slow progress he was anxiously following not pass at this session, he would leave Washington with the fraction of a dollar in his pocket, and with no prospect of earning enough to support himself and his three motherless children. He had no private means, and his art, never very remunerative in the United States of those days, had been neglected in the pursuit of what most thought a chimera. His associates in the telegraph, the Vails of Morristown, N.J., Hon. F.O.J. Smith, and Prof. Leonard Gale, had lost hope. They had furnished the means and helped in the work of carrying on the experiments, and of bringing the invention to the notice of influential men, but now they would do no more. Morse struggled on alone, as his correspondence amply testifies.

As the evening wore on he was assured by his friends that there was no possibility of the bill being reached. Sick at heart he returned to his room. Another year must be passed in some way before another trial could be made, and where would he be then?

As he was breakfasting the next morning a servant called him out, saying there was a young lady in the parlor who wished to speak to him. She was Miss Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of his good friend, H.L. Ellsworth, the Commissioner of Patents. Hastening toward him she said:

"I have come to congratulate you."

"Indeed, for what?"

"On the passage of your bill."

"Oh, no; my young friend; you are mistaken. I was in the Senate Chamber until after the laps were lighted, and my Senatorial friends assured me there was no chance for me."

"But," she replied, "it is you that are mistaken. Father was there at the adjournment at midnight, and saw the President put his name to your bill; and I asked father if I might come and tell you, and he gave me leave. Am I the first to tell you?"

The news was so unexpected that for some moments he could not speak. At length he replied:

"Yes, Annie; you are the first to inform me, and now I am going to make a promise. The first despatch on the completed line from Washington to Baltimore shall be yours."

"Well," said she, "I shall hold you to your promise."

Five years before this memorable year of 1843, in 1838, Morse had come to Washington to bring his invention to the notice of the Government. It was on his return voyage from Europe in 1832, on board the packet ship Sully, that the idea of a telegraph had first come to him. One day the conversation at table chanced to turn on the recent discoveries in electro-magnetism. Morse listened eagerly and entered into the conversation, for the subject had deeply interested him while at Yale College, but he had not kept pace with its recent progress. When he understood what advances had been made since he had studied the subject, he suddenly said:

"If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity."

The talk went on, but Morse was now possessed of the fixed idea, which after twelve years of travel gave birth to the Electro-Magnetic Recording Telegraph.

That very night he drew diagrams and made calculations in a little pocket sketch-book. These sketches embody the main principles of the telegraph of today. A certified copy of this sketch-book I have presented to the National Museum, and it is now in the Morse case in that institution.

Arrived in Washington, "he obtained the use of the room of the Committee on Commerce, in the Capitol, and into it introduced the apparatus, clumsy and rude, indeed, but amply adequate to demonstrate to all comers that it could write at a distance; that is that he had a real telegraph." -- S.I. Prime.

Here he was visited by Members of Congress, men of science and others. Some saw the possibilities of the invention, but the majority looked upon it as a pretty toy.

On February 21, Mr. Van Buren, the President, and the entire Cabinet visited the room and saw the experiments. There were ten miles of wire stretched on the reels around the room. Excited though he may have been at what seemed to him the culmination of his hopes, Morse demonstrated with careful hand and well-chosen words to the President of the United States that it was possible to talk along a wire at a distance.

Nothing definite resulted from this visit to Washington, except that many were interested, and that F.O.J. Smith, the chairman of the Committee on Commerce, a very energetic man, undertook to further Morse's interests. He was given a share in the invention, on condition of his obtaining leave of absence from Congress for the remainder of his term, and of his not being a candidate for re-election. Professor Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail were also made partners in the enterprise. Morse and Smith were to go to Europe to try to secure patents there, and Vail, a most able mechanician, returned to Morristown to perfect the instruments.

The history of the next five years, while intensely interesting, has nothing to do with Washington. Suffice it to say that Congress remained inactive, as the following extracts of a letter of Morse to Smith, dated May 24, 1839, will show:

"You see, therefore, in what condition I found myself when I returned. ... Instead of finding funds raised by a vote of Congress, or by a company, and my associates ready to back me, I find not a cent for the purpose, and my associates scattered to the four winds. ...

"I sometimes am astonished when I reflect how I have been able to take the stand I have with my telegraph in competition with my European rivals, backed as they are with the purses of their kings and the wealth of their countries, while our own Government leaves me to fight the battles for the honor of this invention, fettered hand and foot."

And again November 20, 1839, he wrote to Smith:

"I feel the want of that sum which Congress ought to have appropriated two years ago, to enable me to compete with European rivals. Wheatstone and Steinheil have money for their projects, the former by company, and the latter from the King of Bavaria. Is there any national feeling with us on the subject? I will not say there is not until after the next session of Congress. But if there is any cause for national exultation in being not merely first in the invention as to time, but best, too, as decided by a foreign tribunal, ought the inventor to be suffered to work with his hands tied? Is it honorable to the nation to boast of its inventors, to contend for the credit of their inventions as national property, and not to lift a finger to assist them to perfect that of which they boast?"

Incredible as it may seem, most valuable time continued to be wasted.

Note this extract from a letter to Mr.Smith, of date August 16, 1841:

"Indeed, my dear sir, something ought to be done to carry forward this enterprise, that we all may receive what I think we deserve. The whole labor and expense of showing it all devolves on me, and I have nothing in the world. Completely crippled in means, I have scarcely (indeed, I have not at all) the means to pay even the postage of letters on the subject. I feel it most tantalizing to find that there is a movement in Washington on the subject -- to know that telegraphs will be before Congress this session, and from the means possessed by Gonon and Wheatstone (yes, Wheatstone, who successfully headed us in England!), one or the other of these two plans will probably be adopted. ...

"If Congress would but pass the bill of thirty thousand dollars before them, there would be no difficulty. ...

"I feel at times almost ready to cast the whole matter to the winds, and turn my attention forever from the subject. Indeed, I feel almost induced at times to destroy the evidences of priority of invention in my possession, and let Wheatstone and England take the credit of it. For it is tantalizing in the highest degree to find the papers and the lecturers boasting of the invention as one of the greatest of the age, and as an honor to America, and yet to have the nation by its representatives leave the inventor fairly before his countrymen, or to defend himself against foreign attacks!"

And still nothing was done. In 1840 the first patent was issued, but the session of 1841-42 wore away, and the telegraph was untouched. Ever and anon would come a ray of hope, when interest seemed to be aroused, but again and again these hopes were dashed to the ground.

At last the appointed hour arrived. The Hon. C.G. Ferris, of New York, of the Committee on Commerce, asked for a detailed account of the invention. Still hopeful, Morse wrote him a long letter and petition, of date December 6, 1842, and again repaired to Washington. Again he strung his wires around a room in the Capitol, and once more besought the members of Congress and officers of the Government to come and be convinced.

On December 30 of that year of our Lord, 1842, Mr. Ferris submitted to Congress a bill "To test the Practicability of establishing a System of Electro-Magnetic Telegraphs by the United States."

The bill was favorably reported from the Committee on Commerce and was finally brought before the House on February 21, 1843, by the Hon. John P. Kennedy.

Mr. Prime in his biography of Morse says:

"The debate that followed is fortunately not preserved in the journals of the day, nor in the official reports. That it was exceedingly discreditable to the intelligence of an American Congress is abundantly evident in the meager report that remains. The Congressional Globe, professing to give verbatim reports of the proceedings, disposes of the discussion in a few lines, and this fact is, perhaps, the most striking evidence of the utter indifference of the public to the subject. Every word of the debate in the Globe is here given."

(From the Congressional Globe, Feb. 21, 1843.)

"Electro and Animal Magnetism

"On motion of Mr. Kennedy, of Maryland, the committee took up the bill to authorize a series of experiments to be made, to test the merits of Morse's electro-magnetic telegraph. The bill appropriates thirty thousand dollars, to be expended under the direction of the Postmaster-General.

"On motion of Mr. Kennedy, the words 'Postmaster-General' were stricken out and 'Secretary of the Treasury' inserted.

"Mr. Cave Johnson wished to have a word to say upon the bill. As the present Congress has done much to encourage science, he did not wish to see the science of mesmerism neglected and overlooked. He, therefore, proposed that one-half the appropriation be given to Mr. Fisk, to enable him to carry out experiments, as well as Professor Morse.

"Mr. Houston thought that Millerism should also be included in the benefits of the appropriation.

"Mr. Stanly said that he should have no objection to the appropriation for mesmeric experiments, provided the gentleman from Tennessee (Mr. Cave Johnson) was the subject. (A laugh.)

"Mr. Cave Johnson said he should have no objection, provided the gentleman from North Carolina (Mr. Stanly) was the operator. (Great laughter.)

"Several gentlemen called for the reading of the amendment, and it was read by the clerk, as follows:

"'Provided, that one-half the said sum shall be appropriated for trying mesmeric experiments under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury.'

"Mr. S. Mason rose to a question of order. He maintained that the amendment was not bona fide, and that such amendments were calculated to injure the character of the House. He appealed to the Chair to rule the amendment out of order.

"The Chairman said it was not for him to judge of the motives of members in offering amendments, and he could not, therefore, undertake to pronounce the amendment not bona fide. Objections might be raised to it on the ground that it was not sufficiently analogous in character to the bill under consideration, but, in the opinion of the Chair, it would require a scientific analysis to determine how far the magnetism of mesmerism was analogous to that employed in the telegraph. (Laughter) He therefore ruled the amendment in order.

"On taking the vote, the amendment was rejected -- yeas 22, nays not counted.

"The bill was then laid aside to be reported."

On February 23, on motion of Mr. Kennedy, the bill was taken up, and, under the operation of the previous question, passed -- yeas 89, nays 83, a majority of only six.

Still the bill had passed the House, and Morse began to see light ahead. He would not really believe in the turning of the tide, however, until the bill had passed the Senate, too, which it did on March 3, as described at the beginning of this paper.

And now the inventor threw himself with energy into the task of constructing the line from Washington to Baltimore. It was decided to build it along the line of the railroad, and work was soon begun at the old Baltimore and Washington station.

Professor Leonard D. Gale, Alfred Vail, and Professor J.C. Fisher were appointed assistants. Mr. Vail was to perfect the instruments, and to purchase materials. Professor Fischer was to attend to the installation of the wires, and the placing them in leaden pipes, for the first plan was to bury the wires underground.

Professor Gale was to superintend the work of construction, under the direction of Morse. Mr. Ezra Cornell, a very humble individual at that time, had invented a sort of plow with which to lay the pipe containing the wires underground, and he was given charge of this particular branch of the construction.

Two-thirds of the appropriation had been expended, when it was found that the plan of burying the wires would never do. It was too expensive, and the loss of electricity by induction was so great even at a short distance, that it was apparent that unless other means of insulation were employed, the line would never work over the whole length.

This was a terribly trying time to Morse and his associates. Many thought the inventor would utterly collapse. Should they abandon so much valuable work already done, or should they experiment with better means of insulation?

At length Cornell cut the Gordian knot. One day in March, 1844, he received from Morse an order to stop the work until further experiments could be made, but to do so without letting the public suspect that the work so far done was practically a failure. Cornell, grasping the situation, stepped up to the plow, caught hold of the handles, and shouting to the men:

"Hurrah, boys; we must lay another length of pipe before we quit," deftly managed to smash the machine against a rock.

Now the wires must be strung on poles, as it would take too long to make another plow. Vail and Cornell both submitted plans for the insulation of the wires in fastening them to the poles. Cornell's plan was adopted on the advice of Professor Joseph Henry, to whom Morse submitted both plans.

The work went forward more rapidly, and every effort was made to complete as much of the line as possible before the meeting of the National Whig Convention in Baltimore to nominate candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency. This was to be in the beginning of May, 1844.

Messages had begun to be sent between Morse and Vail as the line lengthened out. Sometimes the wires worked and sometimes they did not. Then there would be much traveling back and forth on the cars to consult and remedy the difficulty. Every day saw the line stretched out a little further, and every day the instruments were brought more nearly to perfection. When the convention met, the line had been completed for twenty-two miles from Washington. Everything was in readiness to practically test the usefulness of the invention. Morse was at the Washington end and Vail at the end toward Baltimore. The latter was to obtain the name of the nominee from the people on the first train bearing the news, and immediately transmit it to Washington.

The convention assembled and Henry Clay was nominated by acclamation. The news by means of the telegraph was all over Washington an hour before the train arrived, and those on the train who thought they would be the first to tell of Henry Clay's nomination found themselves the bearer of stale news.

The remainder of the line between Washington and Baltimore was soon after completed,and now came the day of triumph to the man whose sublime faith in the child of his brain had upheld him through all these many years. Ridiculed, pitied, called a madman or a fool, at length his time had come. On the 24th of May, 1844, Prof. Morse invited his friends to the Chamber of the United States Supreme Court, where his instrument was located.

Many prominent people availed themselves of this invitation, and it is interesting to know that among the spectators was a young girl, Alice Key, daughter of the author of the Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key, and afterwards well known and widely loved and respected as the wife of the Hon. George Pendleton. Mr. Vail was at the Baltimore terminus, in the Mount Clare station. Mindful of his promise to Miss Annie Ellsworth, made a year ago, Morse asked her to dictate the first message, and had not allowed any despatch to be sent over the completed line until hers should have been transmitted. She had chosen a part of the 23d verse of the 23d chapter of Numbers, and the first words that flashed over the now completed line were the inspiring ones: "What hath God wrought!"

The message was received by Mr. Vail in Baltimore and instantly repeated back to Washington, to the great astonishment of the onlookers.

The strip of paper on which the telegraphic characters are printed was claimed by Governor Seymour, of Connecticut, then a member of the House, on the ground that Miss Ellsworth was a native of Hartford. It is now preserved in the archives of the Hartford Museum or Athenaeum.

I shall again quote from Mr. Prime:

"The congratulations of his friends followed. He received them with modesty, in perfect harmony with the simplicity of his character. Neither then nor at any subsequent period of his life did his language or manner indicate exultation. He believed himself an instrument employed by Heaven to achieve a great result, and having accomplished it, he claimed simply to be the original and only instrument by which that result had been reached. With the same steadiness of purpose, tenacity and perseverance with which he had pursued the idea by which he was inspired in 1832, he adhered to his idea to the paternity of that idea, and to the merit of bringing it to a successful issue. Denied, he asserted it; assailed, he defended it. Through long years of controversy, discussion and litigation he maintained his right. Equable alike in success and discouragement, calm in the midst of victories, and undismayed by the number, the violence, and the power of those who sought to deprive hi of the honor and the reward of his work, he manfully maintained his ground until, by the verdict of the highest courts of his country and of academies of science, and the practical adoption and endorsement of his system by his own and foreign nations, those wires which were now speaking only forty miles, from Washington to Baltimore, were stretched over continents and under oceans, making a network to encompass and unite, in instantaneous intercourse for business and employment, all parts of the civilized world."

After the first message had been sent, Morse and Vail talked familiarly with each other over the wires, proving to those present that the messages had not been previously agreed upon.

Morse said, "Stop a few minutes." Vail replied, "Yes." "Have you any news?" "No." "Mr. Seaton's respects to you." "My respects to him." "What is your time?" "Nine o'clock twenty-eight minutes." "What weather have you?" "Cloudy." "Separate your words more." "Oil your clockwork." "Buchanan stock said to be rising." "I have a great crowd at my window." "Van Buren cannon in front with a fox-tail on it."

These latter sentences referred to the candidates who were to come before the National Democratic Convention which was then assembling in Baltimore. In this the infant telegraph played a really important part.

The convention was an exciting one, and it was then, if I mistake not, that the two-thirds rule was first adopted. Mr. Van Buren, although the first choice of a majority, failed to receive two-thirds of the vote, and James K. Polk was finally nominated.

This, of course, was reported to Washington by telegraph, but that was no longer a wonder. Mr. Van Buren's friend, Silas Wright, Senator from New York, was nominated for the Vice Presidency. He happened to be in the Capitol at the time, and Morse immediately sent him word of his nomination. The convention at Baltimore was astonished to receive only a few moments after the nomination had been made a message from Mr. Wright declining it. This was a little too much for the credulity of the politicians of that time, and the convention adjourned over to the following day to find out if it really could be true. The committee appointed to go to Washington to ascertain the truth of the report returned confirming it in every particular, and the telegraph was now most gloriously advertised.

Then the practical usefulness of the invention was put to a further and most successful test. When the convention reassembled in the morning and they found that Mr. Wright had indeed declined, a committee of conference was appointed to communicate with him by telegraph and to endeavor to shake his determination. No one was allowed to approach the instruments except Wright in Washington and the committee in Baltimore, and Morse and Vail officiating at either end. The committee urged Wright to withdraw his refusal, and he explained why he had thought it best not to accept. They still urged, and he remained firm, and finally it was announced to the convention that Wright's decision was irrevocable, and Dallas was nominated. Polk and Dallas were elected in November of that year.

Of course, many amusing incidents occurred during the infancy of the now successful telegraph. All sorts of articles, from boots to bulldogs, were brought to the office to be sent by telegraph. The majority of the stories as related are undoubtedly apocryphal, emanations from the brains of the paragraphers of those days, but the following as related by Mr. Morse is undoubtedly true:

"A pretty little girl tripped into Washington City office and, after a great deal of hesitation and blushing, asked how long it would 'take to send to Baltimore?" The interesting appearance of the little questioner attracted Mr. Morse's attention, and he very blandly replied, 'One second.'

"'Oh! how delightful, how delightful,' cried the little beauty, her eyes glistening with delight. 'One second only -- here, send this even quicker if you can.' and Mr. Morse found in his hand a neatly folded gilt-edged note, the very perfume and shape of which told a volume of love.

"'I cannot send this note,' said Mr. Morse, with some feeling; 'it is impossible.'

"'Oh! do, do,' implored the distracted girl; 'William and I have had a quarrel, and I shall die if he don't know in a second that I forgive him -- I know I shall.'

"Mr. Morse still objected to sending the note, when the fair one, brightening up, asked: 'You will then send me on, won't you?'

"'Perhaps,' said one of the clerks, 'it would take your breath away to travel forty miles in a second.'

"'Oh! no it won't; no, it won't, if it carries me to William. The cars in the morning go so slow. I can't wait for them.'

"Mr. Morse attempted to explain the method of conveying messages along the wires, but after listening impatiently for a few minutes the fair one crumpled up the note, thrust it into her bosom, and left the office in disgust, saying;

"'It's too slow, and my heart will break before William knows that I forgive him; and you are a cruel man, Mr. Morse, that you want let me travel by telegraph to see my William.'"

The Morse Company offered to sell the telegraph to the Government for $100,000, but the Hon. Cave Johnson, then Postmaster General, said in his report on the subject, "That the operation of the telegraph between Washington and Baltimore had not satisfied him that, under any rate of postage that could be adopted, its revenue could be made equal to its expenditure."

Twenty-five years after refusing to purchase the telegraph for $100,000, it was proposed by the Government to parallel or buy the existing lines. But it was found that the cost of a new system would be $11,800,000, and that the market value of the property of the existing telegraph companies was $50,000,000.

Washington again figured prominently in the history of the telegraph, when on January 30, 1854, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered the famous decision, that the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph was the sole and exclusive invention of Samuel F.B. Morse. Chief Justice Taney delivered the decision, which was concurred in by Justices Daniel, Catron and McLean.

And now the last scene of all was in the beginning of April, 1872, when Morse lay dead in New York. He died on April 2. In the House of Representatives Hon. S.S. Cox offered a concurrent resolution, declaring that Congress has heard "with profound regret of the death of Professor Morse, whose distinguished and varied abilities have contributed more than those of any other person to the development and progress of the practical arts, and that his purity of private life, his loftiness of scientific aims, and his resolute faith in the truth, render it highly proper that the Representatives and Senators should solemnly testify to his worth and greatness."

Mr. Fernando Wood, of New York City, gave a brief history of the legislation under which Professor Morse's invention was practically tested in this country. Mr. Wood was a member of the Twenty-seventh Congress, and with pride he told how he had voted in the affirmative, and that he was the only living member of either House who had voted in favor of the bill.

In the Senate, on motion of Hon. J.W. Patterson, of New Hampshire, a similar resolution was adopted. A committee, appointed by both Houses, was charged with making arrangements for a suitable service in memory of Morse. The Morse Memorial Association of the City of Washington combined with this committee, and preparations were made for a solemn service in the hall of the House. This was held on April 16. A crowded audience attended. The Speaker of the House, James G. Blaine, presided, assisted by Vice President Colfax. The President and Cabinet, Judges of the Supreme Court, together with the Governors of the States, in person or by proxy, occupied seats on the inner semi-circle. Senators and Representatives occupied the other seats on the floor. In front of the main gallery was an oil painting of Professor Morse, and around the outer frame of the portrait was the legend, "What hath God wrought."

The ceremonies were opened with prayer by the Rev. Dr. Adams, of New York, and then Speaker Blaine said:

"Less than thirty years ago a man of genius and learning was an earnest petitioner before Congress for a small pecuniary aid, that enabled him to test certain occult theories of science, which he had laboriously evolved. Tonight the representatives of forty million people assemble in their legislative hall to do homage to the name of "Morse." Great discoverers and inventors rarely live to witness the full development and perfection of their mighty conceptions, but to him whose death we now mourn, and whose fame we celebrate, it was in God's good providence vouchsafed otherwise.

"The little thread of wire placed as a timid experiment between the National Capitol and a neighboring city grew and lengthened and multiplied with almost the rapidity of the electric current that darted along its iron nerves, until, within his own lifetime, continent was bound unto continent, hemisphere answered through ocean's depths unto hemisphere, and an encircled globe flashed forth his eulogy in the unmatched elements of a grand achievement. Charged by the House of Representatives with the agreeable and honorable duty of presiding here, and of announcing the various participants in the exercises of the evening, I welcome to this hall those who join with us in this expressive tribute to the memory and to the merit of a great man."

The exercises were then conducted in the following order:
Resolutions by Hon. C.C. Cox, M.D., of Washington, D.C.
Address by Hon. J.W. Patterson, of New Hampshire
Address by Hon. Fernando Wood, of New York
Vocal music by the Choral Society of Washington
Address by Hon. Jas. A. Garfield, of Ohio
Address by Hon. S.S. Cox, of New York
Address by Hon. D.W. Vorhees, of Indiana
Address by Hon. N.P. Banks, of Massachusetts
Vocal music by the Choral Society of Washington
Benediction by the Rev. Dr. Wheeler, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"Telegraphic messages came in and were ready by Cyrus W. Field, sent the same day from Europe, Asia and Africa to America, paying funeral tributes to the memory of the man whose genius and skill had brought these four quarters of the globe into daily intercourse.

"From the British Provinces on the north, from California and the farthest south and east, similar messages came, so that the whole civilized world was actually represented, and in spirit was present at these memorial in the Capitol at Washington." -- S.I. Prime.

The struggles, the heartburnings were all over. The active, indomitable spirit was at rest. The relentless tongues of detractors and calumniators, which had followed him to his very deathbed, yes, and would not even let him rest after he was in his grave, as I know too well, were silenced now.

In the very halls where once he had been jeered and his pretensions turned to ridicule, his genius was receiving a glorious vindication.

Washington had laughed at him, and now all Washington wept.


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