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Senate Stories | Technology


Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.

Samuel F. B. Morse, ca. 1845 202405 7“What Hath God Wrought”: Morse’s Telegraph in the Capitol
May 7, 2024
On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse achieved a historic triumph when he successfully transmitted a message over copper wire from the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore, Maryland, the first long-distance demonstration of his electromagnetic telegraph. His invention would revolutionize communications in the United States and throughout the world.

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse achieved a historic triumph when he successfully transmitted a message over copper wire from the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore, Maryland, the first long-distance demonstration of his electromagnetic telegraph. His invention would revolutionize communications in the United States and throughout the world. The son of famed preacher and geographer Jedidiah Morse—whose book The American Geography (1789) was a best-seller in the country for decades—Samuel Morse began his career as an artist. After graduating from Yale College in 1811, he went to London to study painting and returned to the United States in 1815 with hopes of earning public acclaim for his art. His first major painting, a now-famous depiction of the House of Representatives in session, was a commercial failure, leaving him to earn a meager living as a portrait painter. In 1824 he won the commission to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette during his tour of America, and the painting launched him into the upper echelon of New York artists. In the 1830s, Morse went on to found and lead the National Academy of Design and became a professor at the University of the City of New-York (later known as New York University). He also became active in politics as chief spokesman for the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Native American Democratic Association. His career as a painter effectively ended in 1837, when he failed to win a commission for one of four monumental paintings to be added to the Capitol Rotunda, leaving him dejected and embarrassed.1 That same year, Morse’s interest in technology and invention set him on a new path. More than five years earlier, building on what others had learned in the fields of electricity and electromagnetism, Morse had conceived of transmitting messages using electrical current over wire and had built crude devices for sending and receiving these coded messages. In the fall of 1837, news about experiments in electrical telegraphs began to trickle into the United States from Europe. Upon learning this news, Morse quickly began to publicize his earlier work on the electric telegraph and identified himself as its inventor. Amid challenges to this claim from other inventors, and seeking to protect his rights in the invention, Morse reached out to his friend and Yale classmate Henry L. Ellsworth, who was Commissioner of Patents. Ellsworth provided him with a caveat, a document that preserved his claim of priority, while he prepared to apply for a patent.2 Not having expertise in the science of electricity, Morse partnered with a chemistry professor at the University of the City of New-York, Leonard Gale, to build a working telegraph, and in September 1837 the two men gave their first demonstration. Morse then turned to a former student and toolmaker, Alfred Vail, to assist with refining and producing his instruments. In December Morse submitted a proposal to Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury, who had been tasked by the House of Representatives with soliciting proposals for the construction of a telegraph system in the United States. All but one of the respondents presented plans for an optical telegraph—a series of towers with humans sending signals in semaphore to one another, a version of which had already been established in France. Morse was the lone respondent to propose an “electromagnetic telegraph,” with electrical signals sent over long distances by wire. Morse informed Woodbury that his device had sent a signal over 10 miles of spooled wire and that he “had no doubt of its effecting a similar result at any distance.”3 After demonstrations in New York and Philadelphia—in which Morse introduced the now famous code of dashes and dots that bears his name—he set up his equipment in the room of the House Committee on Commerce in the Capitol in February 1838 and gave a demonstration, explaining the technology to a group composed of members of Congress and President Martin Van Buren and his cabinet. In an era when investment funds were scarce and public support for national infrastructure was hotly debated, many inventors came to Congress looking for financial 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 Committee on Commerce, chaired by Francis O. J. Smith, asked Morse to submit a full report on his invention and, once received, recommended to the full House an appropriation of $30,000 to construct a 50-mile test line. Smith was so impressed by the potential of Morse’s telegraph that after losing his bid for reelection, he signed on as one of Morse’s partners.4 Unfortunately for Morse, the financial panic of 1837 had weakened political support for public investment in infrastructure projects, and over the next four years Congress took no action on the Commerce Committee’s bill. The news in 1842 that English telegraphers were seeking investors in the United States and that the Commerce Committee was considering funding a version of a French optical system (at a fraction of the cost of an electromagnetic system) set a fire under Morse, prompting him to finally take steps to acquire his U.S. patent and once again seek funding from Congress.5 Morse began a correspondence with Representative William Boardman of Connecticut to get a petition on the floor of the House urging the Commerce Committee to explore establishing an electromagnetic telegraph system. With improved equipment, Morse began a new round of public demonstrations in New York and succeeded in passing a signal over 33 miles of wire. With the support of Boardman and Representative Charles Ferris of New York, he was able to resume his demonstrations in the Capitol, running wire from the Commerce Committee room across the length of the building to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee room. Ferris then submitted to the full House on behalf of the Commerce Committee a report stating that Morse’s apparatus was “decidedly superior to any now in use” and drafted legislation to appropriate the $30,000 to support the construction of a telegraph line “of such length, and between such points, as shall fully test its practicability and utility.” It passed the House and Senate and was signed into law on the last day of the Congress on March 3, 1843.6 Morse and his partners regrouped in Washington to begin the work on the test line. They chose Baltimore as the destination, with plans to install the wire along the route of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a process delayed by numerous setbacks and frigid temperatures. In April 1844, Morse again set up his equipment in the Capitol, this time in a room on the north end of the Senate wing. One person who saw Morse’s apparatus in the Capitol later characterized the Senate room as “small and dingy” with a window “looking out onto Pennsylvania Avenue,” though the exact location remains unclear. As the wire reached farther east, Morse began sending out test messages, and on May 1, he gave the American public a first taste of what the electric telegraph could do. The Whig Party was holding a convention in Baltimore to nominate its presidential ticket. Alfred Vail, who had set up a station in Annapolis, 22 miles from Washington, intercepted the news of the balloting being carried by rail. He immediately transmitted it to Morse at the Capitol, bringing news of Henry Clay’s nomination to Washington a full hour before the train carrying the same message arrived.7 Finally, on May 24, with the wire stretching 38 miles between Washington and the railroad depot in Baltimore, Morse was prepared to officially open the telegraph line. In front of a small group of guests, he invited Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of the patent commissioner, to compose the first message. She chose the biblical phrase, “What hath God wrought.” Moments later, an identical message was returned from Vail in Baltimore, making the experiment a stunning success. Decades later, accounts stated that this first message was sent from the Old Supreme Court Chamber, and in 1944, to commemorate the centenary of the event, a plaque was placed outside the chamber identifying it as the site of the demonstration. Researchers have found no documentation, however, to suggest that Morse moved from the room in the Senate wing where he had set up his equipment, making it the most likely location from which the famous message was sent.8 The May 24 demonstration was a private event and attracted little press attention. Days later, Morse demonstrated the revolution in communications to a wider audience. As the Democratic Convention met in Baltimore to select their presidential candidate, Vail telegraphed to the Capitol “with the rapidity of lightning” minute-by-minute updates on the balloting and the dramatic nomination of James K. Polk. President Pro Tempore Willie Mangum called the telegraph “a Miraculous triumph of Science” and recounted that a crowd of as many as a thousand eagerly awaited convention news outside of the Capitol. Morse wrote to his brother that the crowd “of some hundreds” called him to make an appearance at the window and offered three cheers to him and the telegraph. “Time and space have been completely annihilated,” declared one correspondent.9 Morse hoped to secure long-term federal funding to extend his line from Baltimore to New York and eventually to sell his invention to the government. Congress, however, appropriated only an additional $8,000 to keep the existing line in operation for another year under the direction of the Post Office, with Morse paid a salary as superintendent. Despite widespread awe at the technological achievement, lawmakers had trouble envisioning the telegraph as a useful, profitable venture. When renewal of the appropriation came up in 1845, Senator George McDuffie of South Carolina asked, “What is this telegraph to do? Would it transmit letters and newspapers?” Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri praised the technology and saw a future for it, but “wanted it to be called for by the commerce of the country, and pay its own expenses.” Congress funded the Washington-Baltimore line for only two more years, and in 1847 the Post Office leased it to private investors.10 Morse spent the next 20 years embroiled in legal fights as he, his partners and agents, and business rivals feuded over the rights and profits of establishing and growing a nationwide telegraph network. Despite Congress’s decision not to fund Morse’s work further and all the challenges that followed, private investment poured into the telegraph industry. Two decades after Morse’s Capitol demonstration, 100,000 miles of telegraph wire connected towns and cities across the United States, and Morse finally reaped the financial rewards of his invention. A few years later, the first transatlantic cable was laid between the United States and Europe. The telegraph revolutionized communications by sending news and information over vast distances almost instantaneously. It hastened westward expansion and spurred economic growth and investment in the United States, providing a handsome return on Congress’s initial investment.
1. Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 3–20; “Samuel F. B. Morse,” National Gallery of Art, accessed April 11, 2024, 2. Silverman, Lightning Man, 147–59. 3. Telegraphs for the United States, H. Doc. 15, 25th Cong., 2nd sess., December 11, 1837; Silverman, Lightning Man, 160–61. 4. Silverman, Lightning Man, 168–71; US Senate, Office of Senate Curator, Isaac Bassett Papers, Box 20, Folder B, p. 3, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Richard R. John, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010), 34–36. 5. Silverman, Lightning Man, 212–14. 6. An Act to test the practicability of establishing a system of electro-magnetic telegraphs by the United States, 5 Stat. 618 (March 3, 1843); Silverman, Lightning Man, 220–21. 7. John W. Kirk, “Historic Moments: The First News Message by Telegraph,” Scribner's Magazine 11 (May 1892): 652–56, (accessed April 9, 2024). 8. Silverman, Lightning Man, 174–214, 220–21. 9. Willie Mangum to Priestly H. Mangum, May 29, 1844, in Henry T. Shanks, ed., Papers of Willie Person Mangum, Vol. IV, 1844–1846 (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1955), 127–28; Morse to Sidney Morse, May 31, 1844, Samuel Morse Papers, Bound volume---15 January–8 June, Library of Congress Manuscript Division,,0.058,1.106,0.66,0 (accessed April 9, 2024); “The Magnetic Telegraph,” Baltimore Sun, May 31, 1844, 2. 10. Congressional Globe, 28th Cong., 2nd sess., February 28, 1845, 366; Silverman, Lightning Man, 257–58; John, Network Nation, 58–61.
George Norris (R-NE) 202305 4Senators Balk at Dial Telephones
May 4, 2023
Adjusting to new technology is never easy. With today’s proliferation of smart phones, smart watches, and virtual reality devices, it might be hard to appreciate that a hundred years ago the rotary dial telephone was cutting-edge technology. And some senators did not like it!

Adjusting to new technology is never easy. With today’s proliferation of smart phones, smart watches, and virtual reality devices, it might be hard to appreciate that a hundred years ago the rotary dial telephone was cutting-edge technology. And some senators did not like it! A telephone was first installed in the U.S. Capitol in 1880, four years after its demonstration by inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Situated in a room near the House Chamber, the telephone was placed under the supervision of the House doorkeeper. On the Senate side of the Capitol, telephones for the offices of the Secretary of the Senate, the Senate Sergeant at Arms, and the Senate Post Office followed in the 1880s. In 1897 the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, which provided phone service to the District of Columbia, installed a switchboard with capacity for 100 lines in the Senate Reception Room with 25 to 30 active lines in service. When users of one of these original phones picked up the receiver, they were connected to a switchboard operator who would patch the call through to an office in the Capitol or to an outside line to reach someone off of Capitol Hill.1 The Senate and House switchboards were replaced in 1901 by a single switchboard that served the entire Capitol. Three operators directed calls on the new switchboard, which was installed in the Capitol’s first floor. As the telephone grew in popularity, Congress installed larger switchboards and hired more operators to connect calls, placing them under the supervision of operator Harriott G. Daley. By 1926, with every office in the Capitol as well as the House and Senate office buildings equipped with a phone, the Capitol switchboard, by then located in the House office building, served almost 1,700 lines, the equivalent of a switchboard serving a small city. Daley supervised 18 operators—almost exclusively women—who handled between 300 and 400 calls per hour.2 In 1930 a new advancement in telephone technology arrived at the Capitol: the dial telephone. Rather than placing a call with an operator, members of Congress would now use the rotary dial to place the call directly, triggering an automatic switchboard to connect to the receiving party. Although the first rotary dial phones and automatic switchboards dated back to the 1890s, they suffered from a number of technical and financial drawbacks and were not widely adopted. More importantly, executives of the Bell Telephone Company—which held a virtual monopoly over the nation’s telephone system—believed that dial phones and automatic switching could not compete with switchboard operators in providing personalized service and individual attention to customers. Companies in the Bell System—controlled after 1900 by American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T)—did not adopt dial phones until 1919, when the company sought cost savings by replacing operators with automatic switchboards. Even then, phone companies prudently introduced the new system gradually, recognizing, as one executive wrote, that “subscribers are prejudiced in favor of the system they have used for forty years, and will not, I am afraid, in their present frame of mind accept the dial.” AT&T thus embarked on a campaign to educate the public on how to use the new phones and the benefits of automatic switching.3 One phone user who did not “accept the dial” was Senator Carter Glass of Virginia. When the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, by then a subsidiary of AT&T, installed dial telephones on the Senate side of the Capitol in May 1930, the 72-year-old veteran lawmaker introduced a resolution:
Whereas dial telephones are more difficult to operate than are manual telephones; and Whereas Senators are required, since the installation of dial phones in the Capitol, to perform the duties of telephone operators in order to enjoy the benefits of telephone service; and Whereas dial telephones have failed to expedite telephone service; Therefore be it resolved that the Sergeant at Arms of the Senate is authorized and directed to order the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to replace with manual phones within 30 days after the adoption of this resolution, all dial telephones in the Senate wing of the United States Capitol and in the Senate office building.
Glass was not alone in his objections to the dial phone. He received correspondence from individuals around the country lauding his resolution and complaining about the decline of personal service that accompanied automatic switching. President Herbert Hoover had banned dial phones from the White House when he took office in 1929, and North Carolina representative Charles L. Abernathy introduced a similar resolution in the House of Representatives.4 Glass’s resolution received broad support in the Senate. Arizona's Henry Ashurst objected to dial telephones and praised Glass for his restrained language in introducing his resolution. The Congressional Record would not be mailable, he said, "if it contained in print what Senators think of the dial telephone system.” (Apparently, Glass’s language was still a little too salty for the Record. A newspaper reported that he exclaimed, “I want those abominable dial telephones taken out,” but that statement did not make it into the Record.) When Joe Robinson of Arkansas pointed out that the dial telephones were “a great conservation measure” in that they would allow for reduction in the number of telephone employees, Glass shot back, “I object to that phase of it, and I object to being transformed into one of the employees of the telephone company without compensation.” When Washington senator Clarence Dill asked why the resolution did not also ban the dial system from the entire District of Columbia, Glass said he hoped the phone company would take the hint and do so. The resolution passed without objection.5 The dial telephone, of course, had its defenders, particularly the national telephone companies working under the umbrella of AT&T. The New York Telephone Company, which began switching to dial phones in 1922, put out a statement a few days after Glass introduced his resolution noting they had received very few complaints about the new phones and that the company could not maintain efficient service for its growing number of customers without the dial phone and automatic switching. The company pointed out that the phones were particularly helpful for immigrants who weren’t fluent in English, as they had a difficult time communicating with operators. “The dial represents the highest type of telephone in existence,” the company concluded.6 Despite Glass and his many allies, some members of the Senate embraced the new technology. Senator George Norris of Nebraska declared, “I like the dials.” He believed that passing the ban meant the Senate was “standing in the road of human progress.” One day before the scheduled removal of all dial phones, Maryland senator Millard Tydings offered a resolution to give senators a choice as to which phone was installed in their offices. Glass objected. He thought it onerous for senators to have to contact the phone company to convey their preference. Beginning the next day, the phone company removed 789 dial phones from the Senate.7 A week later, senators reached a compromise. Senator Claude Swanson of Virginia introduced a resolution to instruct the phone company to install phones that could be operated either by operator or by dial. In acquiescing to the deal, Glass insisted that he had not objected to senators having access to dial telephones, but rather that the changeover appeared to be “purely for the benefit of the telephone company.” Senator Dill, who had complained that the dial phone “could not be more awkward,” added that in opposing the phones he was not against “progress,” as some had charged. “So long as I am not pestered with the dial and may have the manual telephone, while those who want to be pestered with it . . . may have it, all right.”8 The final compromise meant that the Senate’s manual switchboards and operators would remain in place. Harriott Daley managed them until her retirement in 1945. Phone and switching technology continued to advance greatly in the Senate of the 20th and 21st centuries, but today, Capitol operators still play an important role in Senate telecommunications.
1. H. B. Stabler, “Memorandum Regarding Telephone Service for the U.S. Capitol,” undated, included in the files of the Senate Historical Office. 2. Annual Report of the Architect of the Capitol, 69th Cong., 2nd sess., H.Doc. 554, December 6, 1926, 15–16. 3. Kenneth Lipartito, “When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890–1920,” American Historical Review 99, no. 4 (October 1994), 1075–1111; Venus Green, “Goodbye Central: Automation and the Decline of Personal Service in the Bell System, 1878–1921,” Technology and Culture 36, no. 4 (October 1995), 912–94; B. E. Sunny to H. B. Thayer, AT&T Vice President, March 18, 1919, AT&T Archives, quoted in Green, “Goodbye Central,” 944. 4. S. Res. 274, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., May 22, 1920; H. Res. 223, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., May 22, 1930. 5. “Senate Orders Its Dial Phones Off Premises,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 23, 1930, 4; Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., May 22, 1930, 9341. 6. “Company Insists New York Likes Dial Phones,” New York Times, May 24, 1930, 3. 7. Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 19, 1930, 11,161; “Dial Phone Has Senate Friends, But Ban Stands,” Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1920, 3; “Senate’s Dial Phone War Simmering Down Quietly,” Washington Post, June 20, 1930, 1; “Choose Your Telephones,” Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1930, 6; S. Res. 278, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 20, 1930. 8. Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 25, 1930, 11,649; S. Res. 300, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 24, 1930; “Dial Phone Dispute Ends in Compromise,” Boston Globe, June 26, 1930, 11.
Senate Monorail 202301 17Senate Subway
January 17, 2023
Beneath the ground between the Capitol and the three Senate office buildings runs a unique transportation system. Two subway lines shuttle senators and staff between their offices and the Senate wing of the Capitol. The subway system has undergone numerous changes since the Senate’s first office building opened in 1909, and while it has served its main purpose of allowing lawmakers to travel quickly to the Senate Chamber for votes, it has also become a popular Senate attraction.

Beneath the ground between the Capitol and the three Senate office buildings runs a unique transportation system. Two subway lines shuttle senators and staff between their offices and the Senate wing of the Capitol. The subway system has undergone numerous changes since the Senate’s first office building opened in 1909, and while it has served its main purpose of allowing lawmakers to travel quickly to the Senate Chamber for votes, it has also become a popular Senate attraction. During the late 19th century, senators occupied offices in the Capitol, in the nearby Maltby Building (also known as the Senate Annex), and in other rented space on Capitol Hill. When Congress approved a proposal to construct a new building to provide all members with office space, the plans included subterranean tunnels and a rail system to deliver senators to the Capitol. Concerned about construction costs and potential public criticism that a rail line would be seen as a luxury, the commission in charge of the project scrapped the proposed subway.1 The 760-foot tunnel from the newly constructed Senate office building (named for Georgia senator Richard Russell in 1972) to the Capitol had been completed, however, and senators had grown fond of the prospect of some kind of transportation to and from the Capitol. When the building opened in 1909, Capitol Superintendent Elliott Woods arranged for two custom-built lemon-yellow electric battery-powered Studebaker cars to run in the underground tunnel. Each car could hold eight people plus an operator positioned in the center of the car on a reversible seat, avoiding the need for the car to turn around. While the cars could travel up to 12 miles per hour, they moved much more slowly in order to navigate the narrow, winding tunnel. Woods saw the cars as a temporary solution and consulted with Senate Rules Committee chairman Murray Crane of Massachusetts about other options. One possibility was to install a moving sidewalk. Woods also revisited plans for a rail system but warned that it would be quite noisy rumbling through the basement. In the end, the Senate opted to stick with the electric cars, which senators affectionately named “Tommy” and “Peg.”2 Senators found the Studebakers charming and useful, but they soon wanted a vehicle that could move more senators at faster speeds. In search of more efficient travel through the tunnel, engineers finally implemented the rail system, replacing the cars in 1912 with an electric monorail system consisting of a single car suspended from an overhead rail that provided the electricity. The rail car traveled one-way on a track that formed a loop in the basement of the office building rotunda. The monorail car was replaced with a new one in 1915, and an additional car was added in 1920. The new cars held 18 people each and moved at a top speed of eight miles per hour. The monorail line, referred to by senators as the “Toonerville Trolley” after the train station at the center of the then popular Toonerville Folks comic strip, operated for over 50 years.3 “The world’s shortest subway” became a popular attraction for visitors to the Capitol. President William Howard Taft decided in 1911 to make a detour from his usual walking route around the city to take a ride through the tunnel on one of the Studebakers (briefly causing a panic because he did not inform the White House that he was venturing underground and was thought to be missing.) In March 1914, the Boston Daily Globe reported that newlyweds George and Henrietta made their way to the subway tunnel for a joyride, taking six round trips, all while wearing their wedding attire.4 Despite its popularity, at least one senator was not pleased with the new system. In 1913 Senator William Stone of Missouri complained about the noise of the new cars and introduced a resolution to ditch the monorail and bring back the Studebakers. Senator John Bricker no doubt was glad the railway was there in 1947, however, when a disgruntled former Capitol police officer fired two gunshots at him. He was able to escape quickly by jumping into the car and telling the operator, “Let’s get out of here!”5 The construction of a second Senate office building in the late 1950s (named for Illinois senator Everett Dirksen in 1972) led to major changes to the subway system. In addition to a tunnel between the newest building and the Capitol, another tunnel was constructed to maintain the connection between the Capitol and the Russell Building. (The original tunnel was converted to space for the Senate recording studio.) In each tunnel, two lanes of track ran parallel to each other. Four new rail cars were purchased, each able to carry up to 18 passengers at a top speed of 20 miles per hour. At the opening of the new session in January 1960, Senator Dennis Chavez of New Mexico, who chaired the commission that oversaw the construction of the Dirksen Building, cut the ribbon and officially opened the new line to passengers. Senate Chaplain Frederick Brown Harris offered a blessing for what he called the “swift chariots of Democracy.” Chavez and Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart climbed into one car for the maiden ride, while Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia boarded the second car with some journalists, and the two cars raced through the tunnel in what a Washington Post writer dubbed “the Capitol Hill version of Ben Hur,” referring to that film’s famous chariot race.6 But once again, not all senators were happy with efforts to modernize the subway system. Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright stated that he preferred the old “Toonerville Trolley” system, which he found “soothing to jangled nerves.” He called the new system “vulgar,” “noisy,” “disgusting” and “a stupid engineering job completely lacking in thought.” In a proposed Senate resolution, he blamed the new ride for the “irritable, testy, acrimonious atmosphere prevailing in the Senate” that session. If that weren’t bad enough, he charged that the new cars added to senators’ expenses for “frequent repairs to their wives’ coiffeurs” because the open-air cars traveled too fast. Apparently, Fulbright was right that the new cars did have a rather noisy and bumpy ride, and this was alleviated in December 1961 when the Capitol engineers replaced the steel wheels with rubber ones. With these complaints addressed, the system worked reasonably well for more than 20 years.7 The opening of a third Senate office building in 1982 (named for Michigan senator Phillip Hart) placed new strains on the system and led to a major overhaul. Initially, the existing line that served the Dirksen Building was simply extended to reach the Hart Building, but the 50 senators with offices in the Hart Building were served by only one rail car, often leading to excessive wait times. In 1987 Architect of the Capitol George White proposed construction of a new, state-of-the-art automated magnet-powered subway line to serve the Dirksen and Hart Buildings. The new system, modeled after a railway installed at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, was estimated to cost $10 million but promised to be less expensive to maintain than the existing line. Some senators initially balked at the price tag, but grumblings about long waits and missed votes—senators had just 15 minutes to cast their votes—led to more support. When eight senators missed a vote on February 2, 1988, due to congestion on the subway line, Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama took to the Chamber floor to complain that “from an engineering, mathematical, mileage, [and] measurement basis,” the Hart car could not make enough trips in 15 minutes to ensure all senators made votes in time. Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia vowed to take the issue up with the Architect of the Capitol, and soon the Senate approved construction of the new system.8 The new automated line began operating in 1994, with enclosed cars running along a “pinched loop.” (The Russell Building line remained intact.) The new system—with three-car trains that could whisk 25 people at speeds of 14 miles per hour—cut wait times down to a minute and reduced the time to travel the 1,600 feet from the Hart Building to the Capitol to less than two minutes. This modern line also had the added benefit of being wheelchair accessible. Today, no visit to the Senate is complete without a ride on the Senate subway.9
1. “No Cars for Congress,” Washington Post, August 18, 1908, 12. 2. “Capitol Auto Line Tested,” New York Times, March 8, 1909, 2; “Senate Autos Now in Use,” Washington Post, March 9, 1909, 2; “The Capital Subway Buses,” The Power Wagon, July 1909, 5-6; Elliott Woods to W. Murray Crane, June 3, 1909, “Senate Subway,” files of the Architect of the Capitol. 3. “Senate Subway Line,” Washington Post, March 17, 1912, F2. 4. “President Lost, Alarms Capital,” Washington Times, January 14, 1911, 5; “World’s Shortest Subway,” Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 1948, 9; “Honeymoon Joy Riding,” Boston Daily Globe, March 15, 1914, 10; “The Shortest Railroad,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1916, 16. 5. S. Res. 41, 63rd Cong., 1st sess., April 12, 1913; “Gunman Fires 2 Shots at Bricker,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 13, 1947, 1; “Bullets of an Assassin Miss Bricker in Capitol Tunnel,” New York Times, July 13, 1947, 1. 6. “Senators Dedicate Subway with Race,” Washington Post, Times Herald, January 6, 1960, A11; “Modern Subway Ends Toonervillian Era at the Capitol,” Washington Post, Times Herald, May 1, 1961, A2. 7. “Fulbright Mourns Passing of Old Subway Trolleys,” Washington Evening Star, May 30, 1961, 1; “Noise of Capitol’s New Subway Cars Provokes Senatorial Echo and Anger,” Washington Post, Times Herald, July 10, 1961, A1; “Senate Bumps Ironed Out,” Washington Evening Star, Dec 16, 1961, 1. 8. “Architect Wants Driverless Senate Subway,” Roll Call, June 1, 1987, 13; Congressional Record, 100th Cong., 2nd sess., February 2, 1988, 631–32; “Senate Subway Improvement on Track,” Washington Post, August 22, 1989, A11; “Construction of $18 Million Senate Subway Begins,” Roll Call, June 3, 1993, 3. 9. “After Years in Pipeline, Hill Subway Nears,” Washington Post, January 25, 1994, A17.
Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-MI), 1948 202208 1Senate Resists Radio Coverage of Proceedings
August 1, 2022
“It will profoundly change the Senate.” “It will benefit media-savvy members, forcing the retirement of those uncomfortable with new technology.” Such concerns were commonly heard in the 1980s, as the Senate debated bringing television cameras into its Chamber. They also echoed complaints heard 60 years earlier, when the new medium was radio and the question was, “Should Congress go on the air?”
Categories: Technology

“It will profoundly change the Senate.” “It will benefit media-savvy members, forcing the retirement of those uncomfortable with new technology.” Such concerns were commonly heard in the 1980s, as the Senate debated bringing television cameras into its Chamber. They also echoed complaints heard 60 years earlier, when the new medium was radio and the question was, “Should Congress go on the air?” World War I produced significant advances in radio technology, and by 1920 radio pioneers were exploring its entertainment and public service potential. In 1924 Senator Robert B. Howell of Nebraska, a former chairman of a national radio commission, became the first to formally propose that the Senate broadcast its proceedings. A few years later, North Dakota’s Gerald Nye called for a 50,000-watt “superpower station” on Capitol Hill to produce an audible Congressional Record. When research indicated that a whopping $3.3 million would be needed to implement such a plan, the proposal died, but it wasn’t just sticker-shock that killed the idea. As the Senate considered radio coverage, many wondered if senators would have an audience. Some debates “arouse as much public interest as a championship prize fight,” commented a skeptic in 1927, but no one “wants to listen to the monotonous dronings that make up the typical legislative day.” Others argued that the Senate just wasn’t ready to take such a bold step into the modern world. “The chief drawback here is the attitude of the Senate itself,” explained a New York Times reporter in 1929. “Most of its members are . . . constitutionally opposed to the idea of broadcasting its proceedings.”1 The idea surfaced again in 1944, following the successful radio broadcasts of the Democratic and Republican Party conventions. On August 15, Florida senator Claude Pepper introduced a joint resolution calling for radio coverage of congressional debate. If the people of the country “could by the marvel of the radio . . . be witnesses of the deliberations of their Representatives and Senators in Congress,” Pepper said, “I believe it would be in furtherance of the democratic process.” Two weeks later, Representative John Coffee of Washington introduced a nearly identical bill in the House of Representatives. In Pepper's efforts to advance his joint resolution, he challenged his colleagues to consider the optics of not moving forward with the times. "If we don't broadcast the proceeding some time and keep step with the advance of radio," he argued, "the people are going to begin asking whether we are afraid to let them hear what we are saying. It's their business we are transacting." Nevertheless, Pepper's and Coffee's efforts also failed. "The idea of putting Congress on the air might appeal to many a U.S. citizen," Time magazine declared, "but to most Congressmen the idea is nightmarish."2 Finally, in 1945, Congress hit the airwaves with Congress on the Air, a weekly program broadcast at 8:00 p.m. on Sundays. Competing against the popular Fred Allen Show and the mystery series Crime Doctor, the half-hour program featured members of Congress discussing major issues of the day, such as the October 9 debate between New Mexico senator Carl Hatch and Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin on the proliferation of atomic weapons. A modest success, this program fell far short of gavel-to-gavel coverage of Senate action but did lead to other suggestions. “Congress in Action,” for example, was a proposal to air Senate floor debates every Wednesday. Such programming could be very popular, argued proponents, allowing constituents to listen to congressional sessions the way they did baseball games, Frank Sinatra’s voice, or Jack Benny’s jokes. But radio-shy members wondered, who would decide the topic of debate, and how would they avoid just putting on a show for the listening public?3 Although the proponents of radio failed in their attempts to broadcast floor proceedings, they had more success with committee action. Radio microphones became a familiar sight in congressional hearings by the 1940s as resistance to radio coverage diminished, but the change in attitude came too late. By then, a new phenomenon had captured the American imagination, and discussions of radio broadcasts from Capitol Hill soon fell victim to the excitement over television. "A new synthesis of legislative process and mass media is in the making and seems only to wait upon the appropriate catalyst," political scientist Ralph M. Goldman predicted in 1950, "for the elements to be combined are many and the inertia to be overcome is great." Indeed, change did eventually make its way into the Senate Chamber. “Today we catch up with the 20th century,” Majority Leader Robert Dole told the C-SPAN audience on June 2, 1986, as Senate television coverage began. “No longer will the great debates in this Chamber be lost forever.” No doubt, that’s exactly what Nebraska’s Robert B. Howell had in mind—way back in 1924.4
1. “Broadcasting Congress,” Washington Post, December 17, 1927, 6; “Senate Moves to Give Radio Debate Reports,” Washington Post, May 3, 1924, 2; “U.S. Broadcasting is Held Too Costly,” Washington Post, May 12, 1929, A5; “Station Proposed for Federal Use,” New York Times, May 12, 1929, XX21. 2. Congressional Record, 78th Cong., 2nd sess., August 15, 1944, 6931; “Urges Congress Radio,” New York Times, August 16, 1944, 22; "Radio: Congress on the Air?" Time, October 9, 1944, 75. 3. “Speakers Back Bomb Secrecy,” Washington Post, October 9, 1945, 8; “Congress on the Air,” Washington Post, December 25, 1945, 4. 4. Ralph M. Goldman, "Congress on the Air," Public Opinion Quarterly 14, no. 4 (Winter 1950–1951): 744.
Photo of Vice President Charles Curtis 202108 2Cooling Off the Senate
August 2, 2021
Washington, DC, has evolved over the last two centuries from a collection of wetlands, farms, and sparsely developed tracts of land into a world-class city with a diverse population, vibrant neighborhoods, numerous religious centers, and terrific restaurants, museums, theaters, and music venues—a fitting host for our nation’s government. There is one complaint lodged against Washington, DC, however, that has not changed since it was designated as the U.S. capital more than 200 years ago: the summer heat. How to handle Washington’s often stifling heat and humidity has been a perennial challenge for the U.S. Senate.

Washington, DC, has evolved over the last two centuries from a collection of wetlands, farms, and sparsely developed tracts of land into a world-class city with a diverse population, vibrant neighborhoods, numerous religious centers, and terrific restaurants, museums, theaters, and music venues—a fitting host for our nation’s government. There is one complaint lodged against Washington, DC, however, that has not changed since it was designated as the U.S. capital more than 200 years ago: the summer heat. How to handle Washington’s often stifling heat and humidity has been a perennial challenge for the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers of the 19th century were usually away from the capital during the hottest months of the year. Until adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, Congress convened in December, typically stayed in session for six or seven months, and then adjourned sine die in June or early July. Short second sessions convened in December and adjourned in March.1 Complaints from lawmakers in the 1840s about the ineffective heating and cooling of the Capitol led supervising engineer Captain Montgomery Meigs to focus on improved ventilation during construction of the new wings of the Capitol in the 1850s. The Senate wing, featuring a new windowless Chamber, opened in 1859, equipped with large steam-engine powered fans to draw in outside air and push it up through registers in the floor. This system proved to be insufficient. In their first summer session there, during June 1860, senators complained of the hot, stale air in the Chamber. If not for the pressing business of the Civil War, the Senate might have adopted proposals to knock down walls and extend the Chamber to the building’s outside perimeter to allow access to open windows. An 1865 report identified the glass ceiling of the Chamber as a major source of excessive heat. The stained glass allowed the sun’s rays to penetrate and heat the room, and in the evening the gas lights that illuminated the room pushed the temperature even higher. Making matters worse, the air sucked into the building tended to be dirty and dusty, as it was drawn from ground-level inlets on the Capitol terrace.2 In 1872 the Senate once again considered plans to rebuild the Chamber. Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was adamant about the need for a change. “Who ever heard of putting men or animals in a box inside a building,” he asked, “shut out on every hand from the outer air.” Nevertheless, the Senate only approved minor changes to the ventilation system. In 1889 a stone tower was built on the Capitol grounds to increase the volume of air brought into the Senate wing, relatively free of the dirt and dust brought in by ground-level intakes.3 These changes helped to purify the air but did little to keep the Chamber cool, which was especially problematic during years when sessions continued into August. In the late 19th century, for example, the mid-summer heat wreaked havoc on the Senate’s sartorial decorum. Newspaper reporters complained about the many lawmakers who went without a vest or jacket in the halls and cloakrooms. “Dignity has gone to the wind,” wrote one correspondent. A jacket was required on the Chamber floor, and some turned to linen suits to stay cool. Reporters observed that members of both the House and the Senate took great advantage of the marble bathtubs in the Capitol basement to refresh themselves.4 In 1890 the Capitol gained electricity, and with it came a new tool for fighting the summer heat. Electric fans were placed strategically in Capitol hallways, often blowing over blocks of ice to cool the air. Some suggested using giant blocks of ice to cool the Chamber itself, but an 1895 report on Chamber ventilation by engineer S. H. Woodbridge, commissioned by the Senate Rules Committee, pointed out that cooling 600,000 cubic feet of air from 95 to 80 degrees would require melting 1,150 pounds of ice. Woodbridge also reported that “the air so cooled would be more uncomfortable and dangerous than the hotter air of 95 degrees because of its excessive humidity.” To remedy that problem would require cooling a ton of ice per hour.5 The Senate again turned to new technology for a solution. In 1895 senators approved a major renovation of the Chamber’s ventilation system, installing new fans beneath the Chamber and a refrigerant machine that promised to deliver cooled air to both senators on the floor and visitors seated in the galleries. This system also proved to be inefficient, however, cooling the air by no more than five degrees. In 1910 the Bureau of Standards of the Department of Commerce and Labor developed a method for removing humidity from the air using a calcium chloride solution pumped through radiator pipes. In 1912 Congress appropriated funds to put this refrigerator system in place, but the plan was scrapped after the superintendent of the Capitol reported that installation required dramatic changes to the existing ventilation system with a cost dramatically higher than Congress anticipated.6 By the early 20th century, the Senate Chamber had gained the reputation of a death trap. Between 1916 and 1924, 22 incumbent senators died. When Senator Royal Copeland of New York, a practicing physician and former commissioner of the New York City Board of Health, took office in 1923, he blamed the poor quality of the Chamber’s air for the deaths. Copeland introduced a resolution directing Capitol officials to consult with leading architects to develop a plan to improve conditions in the Chamber. The Senate approved Copeland’s resolution in June 1924 as the increasingly warm late-spring days again called attention to this perennial problem. Another 12 senators died in office over the next four years.7 The firm of Carrere & Hastings, designers of the Senate Office Building that opened in 1909, revived the idea of removing several walls to extend the Chamber to the Capitol's northern exterior wall. In removing these interior walls, the Senate would have to sacrifice the Marble Room (a popular senators-only gathering spot), the President's Room, and the vice president's formal office, but it would provide windows to the outside world that senators had pined for since the Chamber opened in 1859. In April 1928 Copeland, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, succeeded in adding $500,000 to an appropriations bill for reconstructing the Senate Chamber. Copeland’s plan was not the only one under consideration. The House, in its version of the bill, proposed funding to allow the Architect of the Capitol to accept bids for “an improved and modern system . . . for conditioning the air” of the Hall of the House and the Senate Chamber. The final bill included both appropriations, but only one plan came to fruition. In 1928 the Carrier Corporation won the contract to install in the Chambers of the House and Senate a new technological innovation, which it called "manufactured weather." The system was installed in the Hall of the House in December 1928 and work began on the Senate Chamber early the following year. By August 1929, in the midst of an unusually long session, the Senate had its first air-conditioning system. With the new system in place, the Architect of the Capitol dropped the plan to redesign the Chamber.8 Between 1935 and 1939, air-conditioning was expanded to the rest of the Capitol and to the Senate Office Building. “Summer work,” a reporter commented, “is no longer the broiling death-dealing business for elder Congressmen that it used to be.” Air-conditioning in the Capitol and the office buildings meant, according to another reporter, that lawmakers were “privileged to wave their arms or pound their typewriters or evolve masterpieces of statecraft in relative comfort.”9 Yet even this air-conditioning system proved inadequate for the hottest days, due in part to the Chamber’s glass ceiling (which was finally removed in a 1949 renovation). Plus, no matter how well cooled the Capitol was, senators still had to contend with the city’s summertime climate outside the building. Few members of Congress lived in air-conditioned homes at this time, which made the air-cooled Senate Chamber a double-edged sword. As one writer opined, walking outside or into a non-air-conditioned building became “twice as oppressive.” Some members fled the city, such as a group of five senators who rented a bachelor pad in Bethesda, Maryland, during the summer of 1929 to escape the heat of the city while their wives were out of town.10 Still, the air-conditioning led to a much more comfortable environment in the Capitol, and it had arrived just in time. Adoption of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution in 1933, which moved the start date of each congressional session to January, meant that long Senate sessions lasting well into summer were about to become much more common.
1. For session dates, see 2. William C. Allen, History of the U.S. Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Structures, and Politics (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001), 361; Congressional Globe, 36th Cong. 1st sess., May 19, 1860, 2191. 3. Congressional Globe, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess., June 7, 1872, 4353, quoted in Allen, History of the U.S. Capitol, 364; Joint Select Committee on the Senate Chamber and the Hall of the House of Representatives, Improvement of the Halls of Congress, S. Rep. 38-128, 38th Cong. 2nd sess., February 20, 1865, 6; Glenn Brown, Glenn Brown's History of the United States Capitol (Washington, DC: U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission, 1994; originally published 1900), 419. 4. “Reed’s Giddy Suit,” Boston Globe, July 20, 1890, 24. 5. Senate Committee on Rules, Report on the Heating and Ventilation of the Senate Wing of the United States Capitol, Washington, DC, S. Rep. 54-713, 54th Cong., 1st sess., December 14, 1895, 15; Brown, Glenn Brown's History of the United States Capitol, 423; “Thermometer Reached 100 Degrees in the Shade,” Baltimore Sun, June 24, 1894, 2. 6. “Senate Chamber Transformed,” Hartford Courant, November 30, 1896, 6; “Try New Device to Cool Capitol,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 22, 1910, 14; “Refrigerated Air for Congressmen,” Boston Daily Globe, August 18, 1912, SM-5; Ventilation of the Senate Chamber, S. Doc. 62-1061, 62nd Cong, 3rd sess., February 3, 1913; Refrigerating Apparatus, United States Capitol, H. Doc. 62-1419, 62nd Cong., 3rd sess., February 24, 1913. 7. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Legislative Establishment Appropriation Bill, 1929: Hearing on H.R. 12875, 70th Cong., 1st sess., March 13, 1928, 1. 8. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Legislative Appropriation Bill, 1929, S. Rep. 70-857, 70th Cong., 1st sess., April 21, 1928; An Act Making appropriations for the Legislative Branch of the Government for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1929, Public Law 70-386, 70th Cong, 1st sess., May 14, 1928, 45 Stat. 526; Joseph M. Siry, Air-Conditioning in Modern American Architecture, 1890–1970 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021), 84–91; Allen, History of the U.S. Capitol, 401–3. 9. Siry, Air-Conditioning in Modern American Architecture, 91–92; “Congressmen Go To Work in Capitol to Keep Cool,” Boston Globe, July 9, 1939, C3. 10. “Five Senators Take House for Summer Place,” Washington Post, June 3, 1929, 7.