May 24, 1844
First Telegraph Messages from the Capitol
Upon the wall outside the Old Supreme Court Chamber is a bronze plaque honoring the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse. It commemorates the first long-distance telegraph message that he sent from the Capitol on May 24, 1844: “What Hath God Wrought.” Morse had earlier demonstrated the telegraph by sending messages between the House and Senate Chambers, but it remained a question whether the device would work over any distance. Congress appropriated $30,000 to underwrite an experiment, and Morse strung wire along the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks from Washington to a station just outside of Baltimore. On the appointed day in 1844, a crowd gathered in the Supreme Court Chamber to watch Morse send the message—which a young woman had given him, sight unseen—and receive it back from Baltimore as confirmation.
That is the familiar part of the story. Less known is that the next message from Baltimore was: “What is the news from Washington?” Right away, political news began speeding over the wires between the two cities. By chance, the national Democratic convention was then meeting in Baltimore. Democrats nominated their first dark horse candidate, former House Speaker James K. Polk, and chose New York senator Silas Wright to run for vice president. Senator Wright was in Washington, however, and when this news arrived via telegraph, he declined the nomination, notifying the convention by telegraph. Unwilling to trust the machine, the convention sent a rider to confront Senator Wright directly. Again he declined, and Democrats nominated George M. Dallas instead.
While all this was occurring, Samuel Morse posted news bulletins in the Capitol. Newspapers in Washington and Baltimore became the first in the world to publish telegraphic dispatches. The news value of the telegraph became apparent and within four years the Associated Press had been formed to collect and distribute telegraphic news to newspapers that subscribed to its services. U.S. senators came to appreciate that the speeches they delivered in Washington could appear the next day in their hometown newspapers. A telegraph office was opened in the Senate press gallery, where it operated for the next century and a half. Reporters would type their stories and shout “Western.” A runner would grab their copy and deliver it to the Western Union telegrapher to send back to their papers. Computers and e-mail eventually made the first form of electronic communication obsolete, and the telegraph office was removed from the press gallery in 1990.
Taken out about the same time was the large teletype machine that stood in the lobby just behind the Senate Chamber. There, senators used to congregate to read and tear off breaking news dispatches—in the days before BlackBerries, Tweets, and texts. Although much has changed since Samuel Morse sent that first message, communications remain central to the work of Congress, requiring senators, willingly or begrudgingly, to embrace the latest technology.