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Samuel Morse's Capitol Experiment

Samuel F. B. Morse

"What Hath God Wrought?" That was the message sent by "magnetic telegraph" from the U.S. Capitol to a railroad depot near Baltimore on May 24, 1844. Previously, inventor Samuel Morse—who had a laboratory in the Capitol—had tested his telegraph machine by sending messages between the House and Senate wings, but many lawmakers remained skeptical about how the device would work over a long distance. "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," recalled Senate Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett, "and how at first he was looked upon by many of the senators as (what we would in these days call) a crank."

On the day of the experiment, a large crowd gathered to watch Morse send his message. Moments later his identical message was returned from Baltimore. The experiment was a success. Soon after, another message arrived from Baltimore, asking: "What is the news from Washington?" The telegraph brought a revolutionary change to congressional action, tying senators more closely to the citizens of their states and vastly increasing the level of participation in American political discourse.