The Pioneers—The Morse Code—The First Telegraph Line—The English Inventors—How the Telegraph caught a Murderer— Speeding-up Telegraphy—The Chemical Telegraph and the Chronopher.

WHILE some of the properties of electricity have been known for thousands of years, such, for instance, as the fact that rubbed amber will attract small light objects, the world at large remained quite ignorant of the science of electricity until the first of American scientists grew up. I refer, of course, to the great Benjamin Franklin, who was born in 1706. He it was who first snatched lightning from the skies by means of a kite and who proved that lightning is simply one form of electric force. It was he, too, who invented the lightning rod, and it must not be forgotten that all the electrical inventions of to-day are due to the interest aroused by him in this oldest, yet to us still newest, of forces.

Like nearly all the great inventions which have benefited man, the electric telegraph is not the discovery of any one person, but rather the result of much research by many different individuals. It was the great Galileo who first had the idea of two persons at a distance communicating with one another by means of magnetism. A little later another learned Italian, a Jesuit named Strada, wrote a fanciful account of something of the same kind. He speaks of two needles magnetized by a lodestone of such virtue that the needles, balanced on separate pivots, ever afterward pointed in parallel directions. Their possessors, by mounting their needles on dials inscribed with letters or words, would thus be able to communicate with one another at prearranged hours.

More practical was Charles Morison, a Greenock doctor, who in 1753 wrote a letter to the Scots Magazine in which he set down a method for sending news by electric power. This letter proves that Dr. Morison knew more than a little about electricity, yet nothing came of his suggestion for more than half a century.

Somewhere about the year 1820 a certain Mr. Ronalds, who lived at Hammersmith, discovered a method of telegraphy which was worked by frictional electricity. Having actually demonstrated its success over a wire a couple of hundred yards long, he invited the Admiralty to consider his discovery. The answer which he received is worthy of immortality as a monument to Red Tape. Ronalds was informed that "Telegraphs of any kind are wholly unnecessary, and no other than the one in use will be adopted." I may mention that the only telegraph in use was a clumsy arrangement of signal towers with semaphore arms that were raised or lowered like those still in use in the Navy.

A little later a French inventor, Ampère, pointed out the possibility of making an electric telegraph by surrounding the needles with wires, and later still a good many inventors busied their brains with the possibilities of electric communication. The two greatest English inventors were Wheatstone and Cooke; in America the two greatest pioneers were Morse and Vail.

The name of Morse has been preserved in the Morse Code, to-day known all over the world, and although Morse is only one of the several great men connected with the invention of the telegraph, I will begin by telling the story of his discovery.

Samuel Morse was not an inventor by profession, not even a man of science. He was an artist, and a native of Charlestown in Massachusetts, where he was born in 1791. Unlike most of the inventors whom we have been discussing, young Morse had received a very good education, for his father, a clergyman, sent him to the famous Yale University. After taking his degree, he went to England, and was only twenty-two when the Adelphi Society of Arts awarded him their gold medal for a statue of the Dying Hercules. He returned to America and became first president of the National Academy of Design. An artist is generally an unpractical person outside of his own profession, but young Samuel Morse was always keenly interested in chemistry and in the new electrical discoveries which were creating a good deal of interest at the time.

He traveled frequently between London and New York, and it was on one of these voyages, in the packet ship Sully, that he met Dr. Charles Jackson of Boston, who had been attending lectures on electricity in Paris. The Sully was a sailing ship, so the voyage occupied a much longer period than nowadays, and the two men saw a good deal of one another and had long talks.

Dr. Jackson had an electromagnet in his luggage, and one night at dinner he remarked to Morse that the power of a magnet is greatly increased by winding it with wire through which an electric current is passed. Another passenger asked how fast electricity traveled, and Dr. Jackson answered that its speed was too great to be measured. Morse was very interested, and commented that if the electric current could be made visible at any part of the circuit he saw no reason why messages could not be sent by electricity. That night he and the doctor tramped the deck for an hour or more discussing the matter, and this conversation changed the whole course of Morse’s life and led to the invention of the Morse Code and of the first practical electric telegraph.

Morse knew that an electric current would travel any distance on a wire and that the current being broken a spark would appear. The spark might, he thought, stand for one letter, the absence of a spark for another, while the length of its absence might indicate a third. During the remainder of the voyage of six weeks Morse devoted all his spare time to devising a code; and one day, just before reaching New York, he said to the captain: "Captain, if you should in future hear of the telegraph as one of the wonders of the world, please remember that the discovery was made aboard the Sully."

Arrived in New York, Morse returned to his studio, but now he only painted enough to make a bare living. All his best energies were devoted to the attempt to perfect his new invention. Like most inventors he soon ran into trouble; he found that his wire offered a certain resistance to the current traveling through it so that at the end of a comparatively short distance the current became too feeble to make a record. It was Professor Gale of the University of New York who showed him that this could be overcome by a relay system. Morse and Gale together constructed a model telegraph, and found that with it they could both send and receive messages.

By this time Morse had very little money left, and his first model machine was made of such odds and ends as the wheels of a wooden clock, a band of carpet binding, and an old picture frame.

It was in 1832 that Morse had met Jackson. Five years later his invention was complete, but he had no means with which to market it. One day, early in 1837, he was showing his model to friends at the University of New York when Mr. Alfred Vail, son of a wealthy family, happened to be present and was greatly interested. He
Morse's original
Morse's original crude model
The pen above the middle of the strip of paper made marks as this strip moved along-a short mark for a dot and a long mark for a dash. The movement was governed by the magnet above the pen.
had a talk with Morse, who offered him one-third share of the profits if he would provide the necessary money, and Vail accepted the offer. Vail threw himself into the work, supplied money, and helped in every way. Without his assistance it is hardly possible that Morse would ever have succeeded.

The invention was at once patented, a proper model made, and this was exhibited to various people. But months passed, and no one was convinced of the value of the discovery. At last, early in January, 1838, Alfred Vail’s father visited the workshop. He had little belief in the new invention, but decided to test it, and wrote on a piece of paper these words: "A patient waiter is no loser."

"Now," said he to his son, "if you can send this, and Mr. Morse can read it at the other end, I shall be convinced."

Although the signals had to pass through some eight miles of wire the experiment was carried out with perfect success, and it was arranged for Morse to give an exhibition before Congress. On February 21, 1838, Morse demonstrated through ten miles of wire before President Van Buren and his Cabinet, and so greatly were they impressed that a Bill was brought before Congress to grant ten thousand dollars for the construction of a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington. But the Bill never came to a vote, and poor Morse was bitterly disappointed.

Yet he stuck doggedly to his experiments, and even succeeded in laying the first submarine cable across New York Harbor. The wire, two miles long, was insulated with tar and India rubber, and it worked quite well until a ship, getting under way, caught the wire with her anchor and broke it. Congress was still Morse’s chief hope, and at last, in 1842, his Bill was passed and thirty thousand dollars granted for the new land line. It was none too soon, for on the day the money was voted Morse was actually down to his last half-dollar. This small sum was all that lay between him and starvation.

You might imagine that the passing of the Bill saw the end of Morse’s troubles, but this was not the case. Morse tried to lay the wire underground, only to find that this method was so costly that the money voted was totally insufficient. So he decided to use poles, and in this way he got his line finished cheaply and rapidly. On May 1, 1844, twenty-two miles were in working order, and on that day Henry Clay was nominated for President at Baltimore. Morse’s first telegraphic triumph was getting the news to Washington well ahead of the train that was carrying it.

On May 24 the line was formally opened, and the historic message, "What God hath wrought", was transmitted. Congress appropriated eight thousand dollars a year for the upkeep of the new line, and charged a cent for each four letters.

The accounts for those early days are still in existence, and we find that the receipts for the first four days were a cent; for the fifth, twelve and a half cents; for the seventh, sixty cents. Then came a jump to one dollar and thirty-two cents.

Morse offered to sell his whole invention to the Government for one hundred thousand dollars, but luckily, as it turned out for him, the offer was refused. A company was formed and other lines constructed. Money began to pour in, and all sorts of rascally attempts were made to pirate Morse’s invention. But the Supreme Court of the United States handled these thieves according to their deserts, and Morse himself soon became wealthy. Honors were showered upon him by foreign nations, and the French Government voted for him four hundred thousand francs. He lived to enjoy his riches and honors to a ripe old age, and died at last in 1872.

While Morse was busy with his telegraphic invention in America similar experiments were being carried out in England by other workers, and oddly enough the first of these was—like Morse—neither a scientist nor a mechanic. He was, in fact, an army officer, by name William Fothergill Cooke. He belonged to the Madras Army, and in 1836, when home on leave, visited Heidelberg, and there chanced to see a little toy telegraph fitted up in the lecture theater of the University. It consisted of two electric circuits and a pair of magnetic needles which responded to the interruptions of the current.

The young officer was greatly interested; then quite by chance there fell into his hands Mrs. Mary Somerville’s book, "The Connection of the Physical Sciences", and as he read it, suddenly the idea of constructing a practical telegraph flashed into his mind. He resigned his commission, gave up everything else, and with single-hearted devotion set himself to realize his ambition.

Just as Morse found a helper in Alfred Vail so did Cooke discover one fully competent in Professor Wheatstone, a man who had deep practical knowledge of electricity and electrical apparatus. The two between them took out a patent, and in 1837 their telegraph was put into operation between the Euston Square and Camden Town stations of the London and Birmingham Railway.

On July 25, 1837, the first public trial was made, and there were present, besides many other distinguished people, the two great engineers George Stephenson and Isambard Brunel. Mr. Cooke, with these, was stationed at Camden Town, while Professor Wheatstone was at Euston. The latter struck the key and sent the first message. Almost instantly the answer came back from Camden Town. "Never," said Wheatstone, "never did I feel such a tumultuous sensation as, all alone in the still room, I heard the needles click; and as I spelled the words I felt all the magnitude of the invention now proved to be practical beyond all cavil or dispute."

As in America, it was some little time before the public at large realized the extreme importance of the new invention. In America the telegraph’s best advertisement was the rapidity with which the news of a presidential election was transmitted, but in England it was the capture of a thief.

The railway companies were the first to adopt the telegraph in England, and one of the first lines to be constructed ran along the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Reading, a distance of thirty-seven miles. Shortly after the wire had been stretched two thieves left Paddington on a train for Slough. A telegram was therefore sent to the authorities there, informing them as to the carriage in which the thieves were traveling; and when the train stopped at Slough a policeman stood at the carriage door, and before allowing any one to leave asked if any passenger had missed anything.

Almost at once a lady cried out that her purse with two sovereigns had gone. "Fiddler Dick, you are wanted," remarked the policeman to one of the thieves, The man was so thunderstruck that he gave up himself and his booty without making any attempt to escape or even excuse himself.

The news spread through Slough and Eton, and in the record of the day we may read: "Several of the suspected persons who came by the various down trains are lurking about Slough, uttering bitter invectives against the telegraph."

The story went all over England, and soon the police everywhere began to realize what an immense power the telegraph gave them over criminals.

A little later the newly constructed telegraph line received an even more sensational advertisement. On New Year’s Day, 1845, a woman named Sarah Hart was found murdered in a cottage at Salt Hill near Eton. Screams had been heard by a woman who lived in the next cottage and who, running out in alarm, had seen a man hurrying away. She said that he appeared to be dressed like a Quaker, and that she had seen a man in similar attire visiting the cottage from time to time. He had gone, she thought, in the direction of Slough Station. All this she told to a clergyman, Mr. Champneys, who ran to the station, but was only just in time to see a man, answering the description given, jump into a carriage of a train that was leaving the platform.

Mr. Champneys found the telegraph clerk, and at once a message was sent. "A murder has been committed at Salt Hill, and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first-class ticket for London by the train which left Slough at 7.42 P.M. He is in the garb of a Quaker, with a brown greatcoat on, and is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage."

Half an hour later an answer was received. "The uptrain has arrived, and a person answering in every respect the description given came out of the compartment mentioned. I pointed the man out to Sergeant Williams. The man got into a New Road omnibus and Sergeant Williams into the same."

The sergeant followed his quarry to the Mansion House, where the man got out. He then tracked him to a coffeehouse in the Borough and back across the river to Cannon Street, to a lodging house in Scots’ Yard, where he arrested him. The man’s name was Tawell, and, his guilt being proved beyond shadow of doubt, he was executed.

In early days telegraphy was a slow business, but inventors have been constantly busy increasing the speed of working. The first notable invention in this direction was the Edison system of duplex telegraphy. It was while acting as a humble telegraph operator at Boston that Thomas A. Edison first made this invention, but it was not until the year 1872 that he perfected it. Then came his system of quadruplex telegraphy which enabled him to send over a single wire four messages at the same time,—two in each direction, and at the rate of over a hundred words a minute.

As I have said, the English railway companies were the first to adopt the telegraph, but in 1846 the Electric and International Telegraph Company was formed, and took charge of all lines. Two wires were then necessary to send the simplest message, and the wires themselves were badly constructed. The insulation was poor and the poles so badly set that in a storm they went down like ninepins.

The Electric Company introduced the Chemical Telegraph invented by Alexander Bain, an Edinburgh clockmaker, and a great genius who, unfortunately for himself, lived half a century too soon. His invention was marvellously simple. Chemically prepared paper tape was unwound from a roller driven by clockwork. A thin steel needle was made to rest upon the paper, and as this needle received the current blue marks were produced on the strip of paper. Bain’s instrument, elaborated, is the base of all rapid systems of to-day; but Bain himself made little or nothing out of his great invention, and was left to die in poverty.

Tape machine
A tape machine.
Another most interesting invention which was brought in by the old Electric Company was the chronopher, which may perhaps be described as the British Time Keeper. Its function is to automatically convey to all parts of Britain Greenwich mean time at 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. Cromwell Fleetwood Varley was the inventor of this intricate and beautiful piece of mechanism, which will probably continue to be used as long as the present system of telegraphy remains.

The first real printing telegraph which actually printed the message in Roman type was invented by David E. Hughes, a Kentuckian, in 1855, and although his system was gradually superseded in America by other systems, it is still widely used in England and Europe. The multiplex system now in use on the Western Union lines sends eight messages on a single line at the same time and prints them in typewritten form ready for distribution.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman