Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On May 24, 1844, Samuel Finley Breese Morse demonstrated his electro-magnetic telegraph in the capitol building in Washington, DC, by transmitting a message sent to a railway station in Baltimore, Maryland, approximately thirty-eight miles away. The message transmitted over the telegraph line was “What has God wrought?” a biblical passage from Numbers 23:23. This demonstration convinced many in both government and industry of the viability and usefulness of the new technology.

Much had happened before that eventful day to bring that demonstration to fruition. Much would happen afterward that would make this demonstration momentous in American history. Morse was not a scientist by training. He had already made his mark, if not his fortune, as an artist who preferred to paint epic, historical scenes but who often resorted to completing commissioned portraits of prominent figures as a way of making money. He became acquainted with advances in electro-magnetic telegraphy in Europe while on a voyage to Europe after the death of his first wife. His discussions with European scientists gave him some background knowledge in the scientific issues that had to be confronted. His own creativity and his dogged willingness to learn from the work of others led him to develop a model telegraphic device that proved to be practical and profitable. Among those who had worked in this field before were William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, who patented an electro-magnetic telegraph in Britain.   Cooke and Wheatstone employed a variety of different circuits and electrical wires to transmit signals to a receiver. When a current was transmitted through different circuits, or different combinations of circuits, signals for different characters were recognized and a needle was turned to point to various letters of the alphabet. However, the Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph message was, in Morse’s words, “evanescent.” It left no permanent record.[1]

Morse developed a telegraph that operated on a single circuit with a single wire situated between the transmitter and receiver. The transmitter employed a lever that would connect and disconnect an electrical current that would start and then stop a magnetic attraction within a mechanism at the receiver. The magnetic attraction would cause the arm of the device to mark a paper tape with dots and dashes, representing the length of time that the circuit was engaged. The innovation achieving the marking of paper may have been the creation of Morse’s assistant, Alfred Vail. What is not in doubt is that Morse created the code that translated combinations of dots and dashes into letters of the alphabet and numerals. The code was essentially a form of binary language that is now in use in computer systems today, except that now the dots and dashes have been replaced by a series of ones and zeroes.[2]

Morse also had to tackle the difficulty of transmitting signals over great distances. The signal strength declined the farther along the line that the message traveled. Morse relied upon the assistance of the famous physicist, Dr. Joseph Henry, later the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry showed Morse how a series of relays situated miles apart from each other could renew the signal strength for an indefinite distance. Morse acknowledged the contribution of Henry in private correspondence before perfecting his invention, but downplayed Henry’s role later during challenges to his patent.[3]

Morse demonstrated his invention in many venues, but had not demonstrated its ability to work over a long distance. Morse approached Congress to gain an appropriation of $30,000 to develop the telegraphic device but also to construct a telegraph over a long distance to demonstrate its feasibility. When the appropriation bill was debated in the House of Representatives, some Congressmen ridiculed the proposal.   A tongue-in-cheek amendment to the bill, proposing an appropriation to send messages through “mesmerism,” was discussed and voted on in the chamber. Ultimately, the appropriation narrowly passed the House, and then passed unanimously in the Senate. The funding could not have come at a better time for Morse, who later estimated that just after the vote he had only thirty-seven-and-a half cents to his name. Morse originally attempted to build a long trench stretching from Baltimore to Washington, in which an insulated telegraph wire was placed.   Preliminary tests proved unsuccessful, so Morse quietly arranged to support the wires over a series of poles that would hold the lines above ground. Once completed, Morse was able to send the famous “What hath God wrought?” message from Washington, D.C. to Vail in Baltimore.  The on-looking Congressmen were amazed by the achievement, and were generous in their praise of Morse.[4]

Under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, Congress was empowered “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”   The exclusive right to the discoveries of a scientific nature takes the form of what is generally known as a patent. Morse had been denied a patent for his invention in the United States when he first applied in 1837, although he had received a “caveat” from the office that would give priority to his claim in front of other applicants seeking a patent for an identical device. He was able to patent his creation in the United States by 1840, but had been denied a patent in Britain in 1838.[5] That same year he received a French patent, which was one reason the U.S. Supreme Court eventually limited the duration of his American patent to fourteen years from the date of his original French patent, October 30, 1838.[6] The Supreme Court also limited the scope of his patent to the telegraph device that Morse had designed. He was not able to enjoy exclusive rights to “use of electro-magnetism, however developed, for marking or printing intelligible characters, signs, or letters at any distances,”  as Morse’s original patent claim held. If that overly broad had been accepted, Morse could plausibly claim patent rights covering modern day fax transmissions and email messages.[7]

Morse was able to sell territorial licenses to his patent which permitted companies to run telegraph services in certain geographic areas but not nationwide. For a time, the telegraphy business was quite decentralized and competitive, but by the late 1860s, one company, Western Union, had achieved a dominant position in the industry. The new invention had major impacts on industrial development, military operations, and government regulation. The telegraph was used by both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. For the first time, commanders far distant from battlefields could provide specific orders to troops in combat. In some instances, President Abraham Lincoln skipped over the normal chain of command to send instructions directly to officers in the field through the telegraph.[8]

The telegraph proved very useful in industry in conveying almost instant   information about price changes in products and securities, as well as news of events that might affect the supply and demand for products and the factors of production. No industry was more greatly affected by the telegraph than the railroads. The speed of communication over long distances allowed railroad management to coordinate the movement of trains moving over single tracks in opposite directions. Railroads aided the expansion of telegraph lines by granting rights-of-way to telegraph companies to set up poles and wires alongside the railroad tracks.[9]

In much of the world, telegraph services were owned and operated by the government. For the most part, this was not the case in the United States and Canada. Governments were still deeply involved in the growth of the telegraph services, both by subsidizing the infrastructure and by regulating the service. States promoted the industry by granting rights-of-way and imposing penalties for damaging lines. They also regulated the industry by imposing penalties for refusing to receive messages sent from other telegraph companies, for transmitting dispatches out of the order in which they were received, and for disclosing private communications to third parties.[10] As telegraph lines crossed state lines, the federal government gained some jurisdiction.   The Post Office operated some limited telegraph services for a time.   Later the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated interstate services, although railroads, not the telegraph industry, were the primary focus of the ICC. Later, the Federal Communications Commission gained jurisdiction, although by then telephony and radio and broadcast television was the major concern of that regulatory body.[11]

If Morse had never worked on telegraphy he would still be remembered today, at least to art historians, as an exceptionally fine painter. His work on the telegraph and, perhaps more importantly, the Morse code was of monumental importance. Morse’s work on communicating messages across enormous spaces in minimal periods of time has had enormous impact upon the way that America and the whole world have developed over the last century-and-a-half.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

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[1] Wheeler, Tom. “The First Electronic Network and the End of Time.” In From Gutenberg to Google: The History of Our Future, 87-116. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019.

[2] Wheeler, op cit..

[3] http://siarchives.si.edu/oldsite/siarchives-old/history/jhp/joseph20.htm

[4] Wheeler, op cit.

[5] https://www.sparks.it/download/00993407.pdf

[6] O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 15 at page 96

[7] Kappos, David J., and Christopher P. Davis. 2015. “Functional Claiming and the Patent Balance.” Stanford Technology Law Review 18 (2): 365–74.

[8] Wilhelm, Pierre. “The Telegraph: A Strategic Means of Communication During the American Civil War.” Revista De Historia De América, no. 124 (1999): 81-9

[9] Du Boff, Richard B. 1980. “Business Demand and the Development of the Telegraph in the United States, 1844-1860.” Business History Review 53 (4): 459-479.

[10] Nonnenmacher, Tomas. “State Promotion and Regulation of the Telegraph Industry, 1845-1860.” The Journal of Economic History 61, no. 1 (2001): 19-36.

[11] Goldin, H. H. “Governmental Policy and the Domestic Telegraph Industry.” The Journal of Economic History 7, no. 1 (1947): 53-68.

 

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