May 24, 1844
In February 1837, Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury, responding to a request from the House of Representatives, called for proposals for constructing a telegraph system in the United States. All but one response envisioned an optical telegraph—a series of towers with humans sending signals to one another, a version of which had already been established in France. One respondent, however, proposed an “electromagnetic telegraph,” with electrical signals sent over long distances by wire.
This proposal came from portrait artist and professor Samuel Morse. Morse had been developing his invention since 1832 and used his friendship with Commissioner of Patents Henry L. Ellsworth to acquire a preliminary patent in 1837. With assistance from his early partners, Morse perfected his apparatus, gave demonstrations in New York and Philadelphia, and prepared for a demonstration to Congress in hopes that members would agree to fund its further development and one day buy the rights to his invention.
During an era when investment funds were scarce, many inventors came to Congress looking for support. “It was not an uncommon thing for inventors of all kinds of outlandish and impractical machines to hang around the Capitol buttonholing every senator and member they could meet,” recalled Senate doorkeeper Isaac Bassett.
The House Commerce Committee gave Morse space in their committee room in 1838, where he demonstrated the telegraph for representatives, senators, cabinet secretaries, and President Martin Van Buren. Committee Chairman Francis O. J. Smith enthusiastically recommended an appropriation of $30,000 to construct a 50-mile test. Smith was so interested that he signed on as Morse’s partner and promoter upon leaving Congress.
Although Congress did not act then on Smith’s recommendation, Morse made a renewed push for congressional funding in 1842. Again working in the House Commerce Committee room, Morse stretched wire to the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs for a new round of demonstrations. The House soon approved the $30,000 appropriation to create a test line to Baltimore, and in March 1843, on the last day of the session, the Senate followed suit.
In April 1844 Morse set up a small laboratory in a first floor committee room in the Senate wing of the Capitol across from the Old Supreme Court chamber. On May 24, 1844, after weeks of testing, Morse gathered a small group—reportedly in the Supreme Court chamber, but more likely in the committee room—to send the first message all the way to Baltimore. Morse tapped out the message suggested to him by Ellsworth’s daughter Annie: “What Hath God Wrought.” Moments later an identical message was returned from Morse’s partner Alfred Vail in Baltimore. The experiment was a success.
Although the May 24 test was not a public event, Morse and Vail had been building public interest in the device for weeks. Press attention peaked days later when Vail telegraphed to the Capitol, “with the rapidity of lightning,” news of the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore and the nomination of James K. Polk as a candidate for president. President Pro Tempore Willie Mangum recounted that a crowd of possibly 1,000, eagerly awaiting convention news outside on the west front of the Capitol, cheered loudly upon receipt of the news.
Senators were among the first to appreciate the value of the telegraph. “It is one of the marvelous results of science,” commented Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, “putting people who are … miles apart in instant communication with the accuracy of a face to face conversation.” A telegraph office was installed in the Senate press gallery later that year and regular reports of Senate action soon reached the most distant communities in an instant.
The Post Office assumed control of the Washington-Baltimore telegraph line in October and opened it to the public on a fee-basis, but Congress declined to fund the line’s extension or to purchase Morse’s patents as he had hoped. The tenacious Morse instead secured private investment and licensing, and by 1850, more than 10,000 miles of telegraph wire stretched across the nation.
Updated May 2018
Return to About the Capitol