Samuel Morse and the Invention of the Telegraph

The First Telegraph
(Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The word "telegraph" is derived from Greek and means "to write far," which describes exactly what a telegraph does.

At the height of its use, telegraph technology involved a worldwide system of wires with stations and operators and messengers, that carried messages and news by electricity faster than any other invention before it.

Pre-Electricity Telegraphy Systems

The first crude telegraph system was made without electricity. It was a system of semaphores or tall poles with movable arms, and other signaling apparatus, set within physical sight of one another.

There was such a telegraph line between Dover and London at during the Battle of Waterloo; that related the news of the battle, which had come to Dover by ship, to an anxious London, when a fog set in (obscuring the line of sight) and the Londoners had to wait until a courier on horseback arrived.

Electrical Telegraph

The electrical telegraph is one of America's gifts to the world. The credit for this invention belongs to Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Other inventors had discovered the principles of the telegraph, but Samuel Morse was the first to understand the practical significance of those facts and was the first to take steps to make a practical invention; which took him 12 long years of work.

Early Life of Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse was born in 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. His father was a Congregational minister and a scholar of high standing, who was able to send his three sons to Yale College. Samuel (or Finley, as he was called by his family) attended Yale at the age of fourteen and was taught by Benjamin Silliman, Professor of Chemistry, and Jeremiah Day, Professor of Natural Philosophy, later President of Yale College, whose teaching gave Samuel the education which in later years led to the invention of the telegraph.

"Mr. Day's lectures are very interesting," the young student wrote home in 1809; "they are upon electricity; he has given us some very fine experiments, the whole class taking hold of hands form the circuit of communication and we all receive the shock apparently at the same moment."

Samuel Morse the Painter

Samuel Morse was a gifted artist; in fact, he earned a part of his college expenses painting miniatures at five dollars apiece. He even decided at first to become an artist rather than an inventor.

Fellow student Joseph M. Dulles of Philadelphia wrote the following about Samuel, "Finley [Samuel Morse] bore the expression of gentleness entirely... with intelligence, high culture, and general information, and with a strong bent to the fine arts."

Soon after graduating from Yale, Samuel Morse made the acquaintance of Washington Allston, an American artist. Allston was then living in Boston but was planning to return to England, he arranged for Morse to accompany him as his pupil. In 1811, Samuel Morse went to England with Allston and returned to America four years later an accredited portrait painter, having studied not only under Allston but under the famous master, Benjamin West. He opened a studio in Boston, taking commissions for portraits


Samuel Morse married Lucretia Walker in 1818. His reputation as a painter increased steadily, and in 1825 he was in Washington painting a portrait of the Marquis La Fayette, for the city of New York, when he heard from his father the bitter news of his wife's death. Leaving the portrait of La Fayette unfinished, the heartbroken artist made his way home.

Artist or Inventor?

Two years after his wife's death, Samuel Morse was again obsessed with the marvels of electricity, as he had been in college, after attending a series of lectures on that subject given by James Freeman Dana at Columbia College. The two men became friends. Dana visited Morse's studio often, where the two men would talk for hours.

However, Samuel Morse was still devoted to his art, he had himself and three children to support, and painting was his only source of income. In 1829, he returned to Europe to study art for three years.

Then came the turning point in the life of Samuel Morse. In the autumn of 1832, while traveling home by ship, Samuel Morse joined a conversation with a few scientists scientific men who were on board. One of the passengers asked this question: "Is the velocity of electricity reduced by the length of its conducting wire?" One of the men replied that electricity passes instantly over any known length of wire and referred to Franklin's experiments with several miles of wire, in which no appreciable time elapsed between a touch at one end and a spark at the other.

This was the seed of knowledge that led the mind of Samuel Morse to invent the telegraph.

In November of 1832, Samuel Morse found himself on the horns of a dilemma. To give up his profession as an artist meant that he would have no income; on the other hand, how could he continue wholeheartedly painting pictures while consumed with the idea of the telegraph? He would have to go on painting and develop his telegraph in what time he could spare.

His brothers, Richard and Sidney, were both living in New York and they did what they could for him, giving him a room in a building they had erected at Nassau and Beekman Streets.

Samuel Morse's Poverty

How very poor Samuel Morse was at this time is indicated by a story told by General Strother of Virginia who hired Morse to teach him how to paint:

I paid the money [tuition], and we dined together. It was a modest meal, but good, and after he [Morse] had finished, he said, "This is my first meal for twenty-four hours. Strother, don't be an artist. It means beggary. Your life depends upon people who know nothing of your art and care nothing for you. A house dog lives better, and the very sensitiveness that stimulates an artist to work keeps him alive to suffering."

In 1835, Samuel Morse received an appointment to the teaching staff of New York University and moved his workshop to a room in the University building in Washington Square. There, he lived through the year 1836, probably the darkest and longest year of his life, giving lessons to pupils in the art of painting while his mind was in the throes of the great invention.

The Birth of the Recording Telegraph

In that year [1836] Samuel Morse took into his confidence one of his colleagues in the University, Leonard Gale, who assisted Morse in improving the telegraph apparatus. Morse had formulated the rudiments of the telegraphic alphabet, or Morse Code, as it is known today. He was ready to test his invention.

"Yes, that room of the University was the birthplace of the Recording Telegraph," said Samuel Morse years later. On September 2, 1837, a successful experiment was made with seventeen hundred feet of copper wire coiled around the room, in the presence of Alfred Vail, a student, whose family owned the Speedwell Iron Works, at Morristown, New Jersey, and who at once took an interest in the invention and persuaded his father, Judge Stephen Vail, to advance money for experiments.

Samuel Morse filed a petition for a patent in October and formed a partnership with Leonard Gale, as well as Alfred Vail. Experiments continued at the Vail shops, with all the partners working day and night. The prototype was publicly demonstrated at the University, visitors were requested to write dispatches, and the words were sent around a three-mile coil of wire and read at the other end of the room.

Samuel Morse Petitions Washington to Build Telegraph Line

In February 1838, Samuel Morse set out for Washington with his apparatus, stopping at Philadelphia on the invitation of the Franklin Institute to give a demonstration. In Washington, he presented to Congress a petition, asking for a money appropriation to enable him to build an experimental telegraph line.

Samuel Morse Applies for European Patents

Samuel Morse then returned to New York to prepare to go abroad, as it was necessary for his rights that his invention was patented in European countries before publication in the United States. However, the British Attorney-General refused him a patent on the grounds that American newspapers had published his invention, making it public property. He did receive a French patent.

Introduction to the Art of Photography

One interesting result of Samuel Morse's 1838 trip to Europe was something not related to the telegraph at all. In Paris, Morse met Daguerre, the celebrated Frenchman who had discovered a process of making pictures by sunlight, and Daguerre had given Samuel Morse the secret. This led to the first pictures taken by sunlight in the United States and to the first photographs of the human face taken anywhere. Daguerre had never attempted to photograph living objects and did not think it could be done, as a rigidity of position was required for a long exposure. Samuel Morse, however, and his associate, John W. Draper, were very soon taking portraits successfully.

Building of the First Telegraph Line

In December 1842, Samuel Morse traveled to Washington for another appeal to Congress. At last, on February 23, 1843, a bill appropriating thirty thousand dollars to lay the wires between Washington and Baltimore passed the House by a majority of six. Trembling with anxiety, Samuel Morse sat in the gallery of the House while the vote was taken and that night Samuel Morse wrote, "The long agony is over."

But the agony was not over. The bill had yet to pass the Senate. The last day of the expiring session of Congress arrived on March 3, 1843, and the Senate had not yet passed the bill.

In the gallery of the Senate, Samuel Morse had sat all the last day and evening of the session. At midnight the session would close. Assured by his friends that there was no possibility of the bill being reached, he left the Capitol and retired to his room at the hotel, broken-hearted. As he ate breakfast the next morning, a young lady with a smile, exclaimed, "I have come to congratulate you!" "For what, my dear friend?" asked Morse, of the young lady, who was Miss Annie G. Ellsworth, daughter of his friend the Commissioner of Patents. "On the passage of your bill."

Morse assured her it was not possible, as he remained in the Senate-Chamber until nearly midnight. She then informed him that her father was present until the close, and, in the last moments of the session, the bill was passed without debate or revision. Professor Samuel Morse was overcome by the intelligence, so joyful and unexpected, and gave at the moment to his young friend, the bearer of these good tidings, the promise that she should send the first message over the first line of the telegraph that was opened.

Samuel Morse and his partners then proceeded to the construction of the forty-mile line of wire between Baltimore and Washington. Ezra Cornell, (founder of Cornell University) had invented a machine to lay pipe underground to contain the wires and he was employed to carry out the work of construction. The work was commenced at Baltimore and was continued until the experiment proved that the underground method would not do, and it was decided to string the wires on poles. Much time had been lost, but once the system of poles was adopted the work progressed rapidly, and by May 1844, the line was completed.

On the twenty-fourth of that month, Samuel Morse sat before his instrument in the room of the Supreme Court at Washington. His friend Miss Ellsworth handed him the message which she had chosen: "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT!" Morse flashed it to Vail forty miles away in Baltimore, and Vail instantly flashed back the same momentous words, "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT!"

The profits from the invention were divided into sixteen shares (the partnership having been formed in 1838) of which: Samuel Morse held 9, Francis O. J. Smith 4, Alfred Vail 2, Leonard D. Gale 2.

First Commercial Telegraph Line

In 1844, the first commercial telegraph line was open for business. Two days later, the Democratic National Convention met in Baltimore to nominate a President and Vice-President. The leaders of the Convention wanted to nominate New York Senator Silas Wright, who was away in Washington, as running mate to James Polk, but they needed to know if Wright would agree to run as Vice-President. A human messenger was sent to Washington, however, a telegraph was also sent to Wright. The telegraph messaged the offer to Wright, who telegraphed back to the Convention his refusal to run. The delegates did not believe the telegraph until the human messenger returned the next day and confirmed the telegraph's message.

Improved Telegraph Mechanism and Code

Ezra Cornell built more telegraph lines across the United States, connecting city with city, and Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail improved the hardware and perfected the code. Inventor, Samuel Morse lived to see his telegraph span the continent, and link communications between Europe and North America.

Replacing the Pony Express

By 1859, both the railroad and the telegraph had reached the town of St. Joseph, Missouri. Two thousand miles further east and still unconnected was California. The only transportation to California was by stage-coach, a sixty-day journey. To establish quicker communication with California, the Pony Express mail route was organized.

Solo riders on horseback could cover the distance in ten or twelve days. Relay stations for the horses and men were set up at points along the way, and a mailman rode off from St. Joseph every twenty-four hours after the arrival of the train (and mail) from the East.

For a time the Pony Express did its work and did it well. President Lincoln's first inaugural speech was carried to California by the Pony Express. By 1869, the Pony Express was replaced by the telegraph, which now had lines all the way to San Francisco and seven years later the first transcontinental railroad was completed. Four years after that, Cyrus Field and Peter Cooper laid the Atlantic Cable. The Morse telegraph machine could now send messages across the sea, as well as from New York to the Golden Gate.

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Bellis, Mary. "Samuel Morse and the Invention of the Telegraph." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). Samuel Morse and the Invention of the Telegraph. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Samuel Morse and the Invention of the Telegraph." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).