Samuel Morse and the Telegraph

"Samuel F. B. Morse"
Unidentified Artist, after Alonzo Chappel, after photograph

Constantino Brumidi
ca. 1862


Prof. Morse

Professor Morse was above the medium height, well made, dark hair and eyes, large square forehead, prominent nose, wide mouth, projecting chin, hair thrown up on one side of his head. He dressed plain. His face was smooth shaven. He had the appearance of a man always engaged in deep thought & intense study & seemed to be entirely absorbed with the one great subject of the telegraph which has made his name immortal. He was a frequent visitor at the Capitol, & exhibited his first instrument in the room of the Committee on (Patents). I well remember with what earnestness and enthusiasm he would explain the working of his invention & try to induce senators to see the merits of & value of it as he did, and how at first he was looked upon by many of the senators as (what we would in these days call) a crank. It was not an uncommon thing for inventors of all kinds of outlandish and impractical machines to hang around the Capitol buttonholing every senator & member they could meet & pouring into their ears a tireless and many times unintelligible but always enthusiastic & glowing account of their inventions & the revolution it would cause in this, that, & the other branch of trade or manufacture, etc., & if it could only be properly introduced. I remember one man (no doubt deranged) who claimed to be the inventor of a flying fish & he thought everybody either crazy or a fool who did not at once manifest interest in it & see its merits.

The first telegraph wire erected in this country extended from Capitol Hill to Bladensburg an historic little village lying about five miles north of Washington on the Eastern branch of the Potomac River, this was extended as far as Baltimore 39 miles distant in the year 1844? The first public message transmitted by telegraph was the announcement of the nomination of James K. Polk, as the Democratic candidate for the presidency of Baltimore [Convention]. [20B34-20B35]

A Reminiscence

Great excitement in the Senate and Capitol over the discovery of Professor Morse of the telegraph in 1843—after standing back for years from an experiment then regarded silly and the professor being reduced to great poverty by the time and means which he had expended on experiments, senators agreed to vote for an appropriation of $40,000 to aid Professor Morse. The bill having passed the House at a late hour on the last night of the session of the 27th Congress, as soon as it reached the Senate Mr. Wright of New York called the bill up in the Senate and it was passed. I think it was about 10 o’clock that night Professor Morse left the Senate despairing of aid from Congress. I remember well a special friend of his a young lady, waited at the Senate Chamber all night to witness the fate of the bill. When it pass, she went and informed him that it had passed—he did not believe it.

He aided by the appropriation experimented successfully between Baltimore and Washington and as tardy as were senators in giving him aid—the moment the triumph was announced they all gathered around him avowing that they were his friends.

I well remember of going into the committee room and witness[ing] him putting up the wires, and regulating the mechanism, and looking at it operate with wonder. Crowds of Senators and Members of the House came to see the operation. [13A5-13A6, 13A9]

Editor's Note:

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Massachusetts on April 27, 1791. He became an artist, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in England between 1811 and 1815. He later returned to America to teach art at the University of the City of New York. In addition to his training in art, he became immensely interested in electromagnetism. After years of development, on May 24, 1844, Morse tested the first long-distance telegraph by sending the message, “What hath God wrought,” from the Capitol to the railway depot in Baltimore. After sending the same message back, the telegraphers in Baltimore asked, “What is the news from Washington?” Morse responded with the latest political news, and Baltimore newspapers became the first to publish telegraphic dispatches. Several days later, news arrived via the telegraph that Speaker of the House James K. Polk had won the nomination for president at the Democratic convention in Baltimore.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Potomac River - Bassett is actually referring to the Anacostia River, which flows into the Potomac at Washington, DC.
  • House - The U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Silas Wright, Jr. (Jacksonian, Democrat - NY) U.S. senator 1833-1844.