Morse Sends First Telegraph Message Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Samuel F. B. Morse’s successful transmission of a telegraphic message from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore was a major breakthrough in long-distance communication that launched a revolution in communications in North America.

Summary of Event

The invention of the electric Electricity;and telegraph[Telegraph] Inventions;telegraph telegraph was undoubtedly one of the most significant events in U.S. history, profound in its impact on not only communications but also other aspects of life. It is thus ironic that this tremendous development was given a major boost by a man who was trained in the art of communication, but in communication of an entirely different nature. Samuel F. B. Morse was at the time a highly regarded artist. The improbable details of his career and the origins of the telegraph are the sort from which folktales and legends are born. Telegraph;invention of Morse, Samuel F. B. Inventions;telegraph [kw]Morse Sends First Telegraph Message (May 24, 1844) [kw]Sends First Telegraph Message, Morse (May 24, 1844) [kw]First Telegraph Message, Morse Sends (May 24, 1844) [kw]Telegraph Message, Morse Sends First (May 24, 1844) [kw]Message, Morse Sends First Telegraph (May 24, 1844) Telegraph;invention of Morse, Samuel F. B. Inventions;telegraph [g]United States;May 24, 1844: Morse Sends First Telegraph Message[2320] [c]Inventions;May 24, 1844: Morse Sends First Telegraph Message[2320] [c]Communications;May 24, 1844: Morse Sends First Telegraph Message[2320] [c]Science and technology;May 24, 1844: Morse Sends First Telegraph Message[2320] Gale, Leonard D. Henry, Joseph Vail, Alfred

Experiments with the magnetic Magnetism;and telegraph[Telegraph] telegraph go back to the eighteenth century in both Europe and the United States, paralleling the discovery and development of electricity. Electricity;and telegraph[Telegraph] The first major breakthroughs were made by two Englishmen, William F. Cooke Cooke, William F. and Charles Wheatstone Wheatstone, Charles , and one American, Joseph Henry Henry, Joseph . Wheatstone and Cooke patented a telegraph that worked by electromagnetism Electromagnetism in 1837, and their system was dominant in Great Britain until 1870. Henry developed an improved electromagnet and in 1831 devised an apparatus that rang a bell attached to the end of a mile of wire. Samuel Morse was apparently unaware of these other discoveries at the time he developed his own version of the telegraph.

The son of a prominent Massachusetts clergyman, Jedidiah Morse, Samuel Morse graduated from Yale University Yale University in 1810 and spent the next several years in England studying art. Although he failed to gain economic security, he became a successful portraitist after his return to the United States in 1815. Between 1829 and 1832, Morse again traveled in Europe. Shortly before coming back to America again, the direction of his life began to change. On the eve of his return, he saw the Paris semaphore Semaphores system and was intrigued by its inefficiency and slowness. The possibilities of transmitting messages by electricity Electricity;and telegraph[Telegraph] began to interest him. He brought a limited amount of earlier experience to this interest. At Yale, he had attended lectures and demonstrations on electricity by Benjamin Silliman Silliman, Benjamin and Jeremiah Day Day, Jeremiah , and he had taken courses in electricity given by James Freeman Dana Dana, James Freeman at the New York Athenaeum. However, Morse was entirely ignorant of Joseph Henry’s Henry, Joseph discoveries in electromagnetism Electromagnetism and of the various European experiments with electromagnetic needle telegraphs.

Samuel Morse sending a telegraphic message during a ceremony honoring him at New York’s Academy of Music in 1871.

(Library of Congress)

During his voyage back to the United States in October, 1832, Morse was enthralled by conversations with Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson Jackson, Charles Thomas concerning the electromagnet and other discoveries in electricity. Electricity;and magnetism[Magnetism] Magnetism;and electricity[Electricity] Morse is reported to have commented, “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.” Morse then supposedly became obsessed with the problem of turning this vision into reality. Financial and artistic disappointments forced him to abandon his artistic career and to accept a position as professor of arts and design at the University of the City of New York (later, New York University). Simultaneously, he returned to work on the telegraph. Several of his university colleagues supported his endeavors.

By 1836, Morse had devised a crude apparatus that he showed to Leonard D. Gale Gale, Leonard D. , a lecturer in chemistry. Gale made valuable suggestions for improvement of the device, and Morse later received additional recommendations from Alfred Vail Vail, Alfred and Joseph Henry Henry, Joseph . In his system, which came to be known as Morse telegraphy, an electric circuit, customarily using an overhead wire and the earth as the other conductor, is set up. An electromagnet Electromagnetism in the receiver is activated by alternately making and interrupting the circuit. Audible clicks known as the Morse code provide a fast and reliable system of signaling. Relays eventually were provided to channel the signals over great distances. However, by the time Morse created his version of the telegraph, several of its aspects had already been anticipated in Great Britain, France, and Germany, and Morse’s claim to being the inventor were questioned. Subsequently, he was compelled to defend his invention in court.

By 1837, Morse could transmit messages over nearly one-third of a mile of wire, and he entered his discovery with the United States Patent Office. Lacking funds, he then appealed to Congress for financial aid, but it was not until 1843 that Congress voted thirty thousand dollars for construction of a forty-four mile telegraph line between Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C.;telegraph line and Baltimore, Baltimore;telegraph line Maryland. On May 24, 1844, this line transmitted the first formal telegraph message, as Morse sent the greeting “What hath God wrought” to Vail Vail, Alfred in Baltimore. Coupled with the earlier transmission of news emanating from the Whig National Convention and later from that of the Democrats, Morse’s demonstration attracted the attention and interest of many congressmen and other citizens. However, the first line was rarely used and fell into disrepair. For several years, development of the telegraph industry was hampered by business problems, litigation, and disputes over patents.

The federal government originally considered operation of the telegraph to be part of the U.S. Post Office Post Office, U.S.;and telegraph[Telegraph] , but this scheme was abandoned, and aggressive commercial promoters moved into the field. No other industry, not even the railroads, experienced more rapid growth. Telegraph poles began to dot the landscape as the lines were extended to most major cities east of the Mississippi River. Within a few years, fifty telegraph companies were operating in the United States. In 1848, every state east of the Mississippi, except Florida, was connected to the growing network. By the beginning of 1852, more than twenty-three thousand miles of telegraph lines had been strung. The system comprised fifty thousand miles by 1861, when San Francisco was reached, signaling the completion of the transcontinental telegraph Telegraph;transcontinental . The creation of the Western Union Telegraph Company Western Union Telegraph Company in 1856 standardized and consolidated the system of widely divergent characteristics and practices.

As it expanded, the industry became more technologically complex, and the problem of overcrowded single lines, uninsulated wires with resulting feeble messages, toppling telegraph poles, and flimsy construction were overcome speedily. Improved wire-stringing techniques, the use of better poles to support the wires, the application of insulators, and improved conductors helped to establish the reliability of the telegraph. By 1860, improvements in synchronizing the sending and receiving apparatuses of the several systems made it possible to send and print as many as sixty words a minute. During the Civil War (1861-1865), the telegraph Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);telegraphs was used by both sides in field operations.


As telegraph lines expanded, so did speed and reliability, and the original hesitancy to use the telegraph disappeared. Newsgathering, business, financial, and transportation interests were revolutionized. The invention became an important force in the rise of big business because financiers, manufacturers, and tradespeople of all kinds could now communicate directly and almost instantaneously with distant businesspersons or their representatives. Steamboat Steamboats;and telegraph[Telegraph] operators and shippers benefited from early notification of changes in navigation conditions.

After the Civil War, some railroads Railroads;and telegraph[Telegraph] Telegraph;and railroads[Railroads] began to string their own telegraph lines to trace the locations of their trains and to direct traffic. Trains were first dispatched by telegraph in 1851, which greatly increased the speed and safety of railroading. Finally, the invention of the stock ticker—a special type of telegraph—was a major element in the explosive growth of Wall Street stock market Stock market Wall Street;stock market operations during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The teletype, also an extension of the telegraph, followed in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

In many ways, the telegraph symbolized the advent of a new electrical era in which distances among individuals, businesses, and governments would be drastically reduced. Along with the railroads, the telegraph and its associated inventions—the telephone, Telephone the transatlantic cable, the teletype, and others—laid the foundation for a new age of rapid mass communications and globalism. Although the original Morse telegraph apparatus soon became obsolete, Samuel Morse’s contribution to its invention and development are widely accepted.

The telegraph eventually gave way to other means of electronic communication. By the early twentieth century, the telephone and radio were providing alternative means of rapid communication. By the early twenty-first century, instantaneous communication was becoming widley available through the Internet, cell phones, and text messaging. In January, 2006, Western Union Western Union Telegraph Company finally gave in to the competition and stopped providing telegraphic message services.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beauchamp, Ken. History of Telegraphy. London: Institution of Electrical Engineers, 2001. Detailed history of telegraphy of the first two centuries of the telegraph.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse’s Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993. A onetime telegraph operator puts Morse’s invention in perspective. Appendix includes biographical sketches of “Men of the Telegraph” and discusses how some of them felt slighted by Morse’s seeming attempt to monopolize credit.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hearn, Chester G. Circuits in the Sea: The Men, the Ships, and the Atlantic Cable. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. History of the long project to lay a telegraphic cable across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean—a feat that was first achieved in 1858.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kieve, Jeffrey. The Electric Telegraph: A Social and Economic History. Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1973. Emphasizes Great Britain’s development of the electric telegraph by William Fothergill Cooke, Charles Wheatstone, and others, with little reference to Samuel Morse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mabee, Carleton. The American Leonardo: The Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: Octagon Books, 1969. The standard biography of the inventor, promoter, businessman, and amateur politician. Discusses the role that Leonard Gale, Alfred Vail, and others played in Morse’s work on the electric telegraph.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morse, Samuel F. B. Samuel F. B. Morse: His Letters and Journals. Edited by Edward Morse. 1914. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972. Illustrations and details of the frustrations and triumphs experienced by the inventor of the telegraph. Recognizes the assistance that Morse received from contemporaries and the claims to his innovation made by others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moyer, Albert E. Joseph Henry: The Rise of An American Scientist. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Biography of the American scientist whose work in electric telegraphy preceded Morse’s developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silverman, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Meticulously researched biography that portrays Morse as a naïve dreamer who went through life thinking of himself as a failure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century On-Line Pioneers. New York: Walker, 1998. A history of nineteenth century telegraphy, likening the telegraph to the Internet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Robert L. Wiring a Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States, 1832-1866. New York: Arno Press, 1972. The first two chapters deal with the beginnings of telegraphy, from 1832-1845. A succinct and objective account.

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Categories: History