Samuel Finley Breeze Morse (1791-1872) was born and raised in Massachusetts. From a young age he was fascinated by science and art. As a student at Yale College, he became deeply interested in electricity and the possibilities it possessed for communications purposes. He pursued painting as a profession but continued to envision the creation of an electric telegraph. While he was not a trained scientist, he sought the assistance of Leonard D. Gale, a chemistry professor in New York and Alfred Vail, a technician. Morse and his two associates created a model electric telegraph which could send patterns of “dots” and “dashes” over a wire. It was 1837, and the B&O and other railroads were building equipment and expanding westward. After struggling for several years to acquire federal dollars in order to fund his project, he hit the jackpot in 1843 when he was awarded $30,000 to pursue his dream.
The original plan called for wires to be contained in underground pipes along the B&O rail line running between Washington and Baltimore. They encountered difficulties with the use of the pipes and decided to connect the wires to poles along the line. On May 24, 1844 the first telegraph message, “What hath God Wrought,” came from the Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol building to the Baltimore and Ohio’s Pratt St. depot in Baltimore, Maryland.
The triumph of the famous message sent a mere 38 miles was the harbinger for a communications revolution. Telegraph poles sprung up along the railroad lines like wild flowers, connecting the big cities of the eastern seaboard. The telegraph lines moved westward with the railroads. This small machine had a very large impact on the expansion of the nation. The telegraph also allowed railroads to run more safely and efficiently. It is fair to say that Samuel Morse and his assistants changed the world in which we live.
Questions for Reading #1:
Does it seem unusual that Morse was both a talented painter as well as an inventor? Why or why not?
Do you agree with the statement that Morse’s real genius was to see that he needed help?
How did the telegraph contribute to a safer and more efficient railroad industry?