In 1828 Joseph Henry, then professor of physics at the Albany Academy, afterward a professor at Princeton, and subsequently for many years secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, made the highly important discovery that by winding a plain iron core with many layers of insulated wire, through which the electric current was passed, he could at pleasure charge and discharge the iron cone with magnetic power. Thus Henry produced the electromagnet which was the beginning of the mastery by man of the subtle fluid. He also discovered that the intensity and power of the electric current were materially augmented by increasing the number of the series of battery plates without increasing the quantity of metal used in their construction. These discoveries of Henry were, beyond all question, the most important in real and intrinsic value ever made in the progress of electric science, as they form the solid basis upon which all subsequent inventors have been enabled to accomplish successful results in their various fields of endeavor.
The possibility of utilizing Professor Henry's electromagnet for the purpose of transmitting intelligence to a distant point was conceived by still another American, Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse, of New York,2 during his passage on board the packet-ship Sully, from Havre to New York, in the winter of 1832. Incidental discussions between himself and Doctor Jackson, a fellow-passenger, in reference to recent electrical improvements on both sides of the Atlantic, led Morse to the conclusion that intelligence might be instantaneously transmitted over a metallic circuit to a distant point, and he thereupon determined to devote himself to the solution of the problem involved. The following day he exhibited a rough sketch of a plan for recording electric impulses necessary to convey and express intelligence. He pursued the subject with great devotion during the remainder of the voyage, and after arrival in New York began the construction of the necessary apparatus to accomplish his purpose.
Morse was by profession a portrait painter of more than ordinary merit, and was obliged to continue his artistic labors for a livelihood. He was a graduate of Yale College, where his attention had first been attracted to electrical experiments. He was thus, in a measure, prepared for carrying forward the important work be had undertaken, and pursued his labors with great assiduity. Devoting every spare moment to the pursuit of his object, which was attained but slowly by reason of his lack of mechanical skill and ingenuity, not until 1837 had he so far succeeded in his efforts as to be prepared to make application for letters-patent to enable him to secure and protect his rights of invention in the electromagnetic telegraph. In explanation of the slow progress of his experimental work, Professor Morse, in writing to a friend, said:
"Up to the autumn of 1837 my telegraphic apparatus existed in so rude a form that I felt reluctance to have it seen. My means were very limited, so limited as to preclude the possibility of constructing an apparatus of such mechanical finish as to warrant my success in venturing upon its public exhibition. I had no wish to expose to ridicule the representative of so many hours of laborious thought. Prior to the summer of 1837 I depended upon my pencil for subsistence. Indeed, so straitened were my circumstances that in order to save time to carry out my invention and to economize my scanty means I had for months lodged and eaten in my studio, procuring food in small quantities from some grocery, and preparing it myself. To conceal from my friends the stinted manner in which I lived, I was in the habit of bringing food to my room in the evenings; and this was my mode of life for many years."
After the continuance of this heroic struggle for more than five years, Morse found himself compelled to seek the aid of more accomplished mechanical skill than he possest, to perfect his apparatus, and was obliged to surrender a quarter interest in his invention in order to obtain pecuniary aid for this purpose.
Having thus succeeded in obtaining, at such serious sacrifice, the requisite financial assistance to enable him to perfect the mechanism necessary to demonstrate his invention, Professor Morse lost no time in completing his apparatus and presenting it for public inspection. On January 6, 1838, he first operated his system successfully, over a wire three miles long, in the presence of a number of personal friends, at Morristown, New Jersey. In the following month he made a similar exhibition before the faculty of the New York University, which was an occasion of much interest among the scientists of the metropolis. Shortly thereafter the apparatus was taken to Philadelphia and exhibited at the Franklin Institute, where he received the highest commendation from the committee of science and arts, with a strong expression in favor of government aid for the purpose of demonstrating the practical usefulness of the system.
From Philadelphia Morse removed his apparatus to Washington, where he was permitted to demonstrate its operation before President Van Buren and his Cabinet. Foreign ministers and members of both Houses of Congress, as well, also, as prominent citizens, were invited to attend the exhibition, and manifested much interest in the novelty of the invention. A bill was introduced in Congress making an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars for the purpose of providing for the erection of an experimental line of telegraph between Washington and Baltimore, to illustrate, by practical use, its general utility. The bill was in good time favorably reported from the committee on commerce, but made no further progress in that Congress. Similar bills were subsequently introduced and diligently supported in each succeeding Congress, but it was not until the very closing hour of the expiring session of 1843 that the necessary enactment was effected and the appropriation secured.
The plan of construction devised by Professor Morse for the experimental line of telegraph to be erected between Washington and Baltimore, under the Congressional appropriation, provided for placing insulated wires in a lead pipe underground. This was to be accomplished by the use of a specially devised plough of peculiar construction, to be drawn by a powerful team, by which means the pipe containing the electric conductors was to be automatically deposited in the earth. This apparatus was entirely successful in operation, and the pipe was thus buried to the complete satisfaction of all concerned, at a cost very much lower than the work could have been accomplished in any other manner. Two wires were to be used to form a complete metallic circuit, for at that time it was not known, as was shortly afterward discovered, that the earth could be used to form one-half of the circuit. For purposes of insulation the wires were neatly covered with cotton-yarn and then saturated in a bath of hot gum shellac, but this treatment proved defective in insulating properties, for when ten miles of line had been completed the wires were found to be wholly useless for electric conduction.
No mode had been devised for the treatment of india-rubber to make it available for purposes of insulation, and gutta-percha was wholly unknown as an article of use or commerce in this country. Twenty-three thousand dollars of the Government appropriation had been expended, and the work thus far accomplished was an acknowledged failure. Only seven thousand dollars of the available fund remained unexpended, and this was regarded as inadequate to complete the undertaking under any other plan. The friends of the enterprise were in despair, and for some time saw no other alternative than to apply to Congress for an additional appropriation. This, however, was regarded as almost hopeless, and the difficulty of the situation was extremely embarrassing.
Am amusing incident was related of the means used to keep from public knowledge the desperate situation. Professor Morse finally visited the scene of activity where the pipe-laying was proceeding,3 and, calling the superintendent aside, confided to him the fact that the work must be stopt without the newspapers finding out the true reason of its suspension. The quick-witted superintendent was equal to the occasion, and, starting the ponderous machine, soon managed to run foul of a protruding rock and break the plow. The newspapers published sensational accounts of the accident, and announced that it would require several weeks to repair damages. Thus the real trouble was kept from the public until new plans could be determined upon.
After long and careful consideration, Professor Morse very reluctantly decided to erect the wires on poles. This plan was, at first, considered wholly objectionable, under the apprehension that the structure would be disturbed by evil-minded persons. It had, however, become manifest that this was the only mode of construction that could be accomplished within the remainder of the appropriation, and, finally, upon ascertaining that pole lines had already been adopted in England, it was determined to proceed in this manner. The line was thus completed between Washington and Baltimore about May 1, 1814, and proved to be successful and in every way satisfactory in its operation.
Shortly after the completion of the line the National Democratic Convention, which nominated Polk and Dallas for President and Vice-President, assembled in Baltimore [May, 1844]. Reports of the convention proceedings were promptly telegraphed to the capital city, where the telegraph office was thronged with members of Congress interested in the news. These reports created an immense sensation in Washington and speedily removed all doubts as to the practical success of the new system of communication. A dispatch from the Honorable Silas Wright, then United States Senator from New York, refusing to accept the nomination for Vice-President, was read in the National Convention and produced an extraordinary interest from the fact that very few of the delegates had ever heard of the telegraph, and it required much explanation to satisfy them of the genuineness of the alleged communication. . . .
Once generally established, the telegraph won its way to popular appreciation very rapidly. It was in harmony with the spirit of the age, and it was not long before every town of any considerable importance regarded telegraphic facilities as an indispensable necessity. The small cost soon induced the construction of rival lines, regardless of the rights of the patentees, and within a very few years unwise competition began to bring many lines to a condition of bankruptcy. The weaker concerns soon passed through the sheriff's hands and found purchasers only at an extreme sacrifice, at the bidding of the more provident and conservative proprietors of competing lines. Instead of inducing a more prudent course, these disastrous results only served to feed the spirit of rivalry, and general insolvency seemed to threaten the permanent prosperity of the telegraph business, in consequence of the wild and reckless competition which appeared to be inherent in its nature.
This extremely unsatisfactory condition of telegraph rivalry drifted on from bad to worse until 1854, when, from dire necessity of self-preservation, a few of the more prudent and far-sighted proprietors of telegraph property were induced to combine their interests with some of their competitors and thus avoid the ruinous policy which had been so rapidly exhausting their vitality. Accordingly the principal telegraph lines in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and some of the neighboring States were brought into fraternal relations and formed the nucleus of the Western Union Telegraph Company.
The new policy soon brought prosperity in place of waste and improvidence. Profits were devoted to the purchase of additional lines, thus enlarging their domain and strengthening their position. Prosperity increased with rapid strides; and the beneficial effects of extirpating wasteful rivalry and building up a substantial system with superior facilities and provident management gave the new organization a dominating influence among the telegraph companies of America.
1 Mr. Cornell became Governor of New York in 1889. His father, Ezra Cornell, was the founder of Cornell University. Ezra Cornell was associated with Morse as the contractor who constructed for Morse his first telegraph lines. He thus laid the chief foundation of the fortune out of which to contribute the fund with which the university was founded.
2 Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1791.
3 This work was being done by Ezra Cornell.
I had spent at Washington two entire sessions of Congress, one in 1837-38, the other in 1842-43, in the endeavor so far to interest the Government in the novel telegraph as to furnish me with the means to construct a line of sufficient length to test its practicability and utility.
The last days of the last session of that Congress were about to close. A bill appropriating thirty thousand dollars for my purpose had passed the House, and was before the Senate for concurrence, waiting its turn on the calendar. On the last day of the session (3d of March, 1843), I had spent the whole day and part of the evening in the Senate chamber, anxiously watching the progress of the passing of the various bills, of which there were, in the morning of that day, over one hundred and forty to be acted upon, before the one in which I was interested would be reached; and a resolution had a few days before been passed, to proceed with the bills on the calendar in their regular order, forbidding any bill to be taken up out of its regular place.
As evening approached, there seemed to be but little chance that the Telegraph Bill would be reached before the adjournment, and consequently I had the prospect of the delay of another year, with the loss of time, and all my means already expended. In my anxiety, I consulted with two of my senatorial friendsSenator Huntington, of Connecticut, and Senator Wright, of New Yorkasking their opinion of the probability of reaching the bill before the close of the session. Their answers were discouraging, and their advice was to prepare myself for disappointment. In this state of mind I retired to my chamber, and made all my arrangements for leaving Washington the next day. Painful as was this prospect of renewed disappointment, you, my dear sir, will understand me when I say that, knowing from experience whence my help must come in any difficulty I soon disposed of my cares, and slept as quietly as a child.
In the morning, as I had just gone into the breakfast-room, the servant called me out, announcing that a young lady was in the parlor, wishing to speak with me. I was at once greeted with the smiling face of my young friend, the daughter of my old and valued friend and classmate, the Hon. H. L. Ellsworth, the Commissioner of Patents. On expressing my surprize at so early a call, 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 till after the lamps 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 I could not speak. At length I replied: "Yes, Annie, you are the first to inform me; and now I am going to make you a promise: the first dispatch on the completed line from Washington to Baltimore shall be yours." "Well," said she, "I shall hold you to your promise."
In about a year from that time the line from Washington to Baltimore was completed. I was in Baltimore when the wires were brought into the office and attached to the instrument. I proceeded to Washington, leaving word that no dispatch should be sent through the line until I had sent one from Washington. On my arrival there, I sent a note to Miss Ellsworth, announcing to her that everything was ready, and I was prepared to fulfil my promise of sending the first dispatch over the wires, which she was to indite. The answer was immediately returned. The dispatch was, "What hath God wrought!" It was sent to Baltimore, and repeated to Washington, and the strip of paper upon which the telegraphic characters are printed was claimed by Governor Seymour, of Hartford, Connecticut, then a member of the House, on the ground that Miss Ellsworth was a native of Hartford. It was delivered to him by Miss Ellsworth, and is now preserved in the archives of the Hartford Museum, or Atheneum.
I need only add that no words could have been selected more expressive of the disposition of my own mind at that time, to ascribe all the honor to Him to whom it truly belongs.
1 This account is contained in a letter which Morse wrote from Paris in 1866. Morse was an artist as well as an inventor. Having graduated from Yale in 1810, he studied art in London under Benjamin West, and opened a studio in New York in 1823, becoming the first president of the National Academy of Design (1826-42). Morse first designed the electric telegraph in 1832, and three years later exhibited a working model of it. In 1837 he applied for a patent, and in 1848 Congress granted an appropriation for the construction of a line as here described between Baltimore and Washington, the same being completed in 1844.