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The Telegraph – What Hath God Wrought?

During the early Nineteen Eighties, I rented a small studio house on Capitol Hill, simply two blocks from the Library of Congress. I loved the eating places close by, and glorious museums have been inside simple strolling distance. Although the eating places have been dear, the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall have been free, so I typically wandered their galleries on chilly, wet weekends. While visiting the National Gallery of Art at some point, I noticed a 6′ x 9′ portray entitled The Gallery of the Louvre and was stunned to study the artist’s title – Samuel F. B. Morse. Surely, I assumed, there couldn’t be two Samuel F.B. Morses. I learn the outline of the portray. The artist was the identical Samuel F.B. Morse (1791–1872) whose easy code of dots and dashes spurred the best revolution in communication since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press within the fifteenth century. I discovered that day that Morse was a gifted artist. However, his methodology of electromagnetic communication made Morse wealthy and well-known, not his inventive expertise. 

The Genesis of an Idea

Morse’s inspiration for the telegraph got here throughout a dialog with a fellow passenger on a trans-Atlantic crossing. Initially, Morse hoped to make electrical present “visible” on {an electrical} circuit. “If the presence of electricity can be made visible,” he mentioned, “I see no reason why intelligence cannot be transmitted instantaneously by electricity.” Later, he realized {that a} educated operator may shortly transcribe the sounds they heard into readable messages. 

History of the Telegraph
[Samuel F.B. Morse, half-length portrait, posing with left hand on a telegraph apparatus, facing slightly left]. Mathew Brady (c. 1850). Library of Congress,

Like many different inventors related to new applied sciences, comparable to Robert Fulton and the steam engine and Henry Ford and the car, Morse didn’t invent the telegraph. Instead, he utilized current science and simplified current applied sciences, making them extra accessible to on a regular basis American life. According to financial historian John Steele Gordon, “the only part of the Morse telegraph system that was entirely original was his marvelously efficient code, which assigns dots and dashes according to the frequency with the letters occur in English.” Even the phrase “telegraph” didn’t initially apply to electromagnetic communication. It denominated a signaling system over lengthy distances utilizing flags. 

Morse loved success as a portrait artist in America. However, he needed to color massive panoramic footage. After being rejected for a fee to color a mural for the Capitol Rotunda in 1837, he spurned artwork, turning his consideration towards the technical problem of the right way to use electrical currents, new batteries and electromagnets, and cheaper and improved wire to transmit info over lengthy distances. 

Producing the Telegraph

History of the Telegraph
Knight, Edward H. Morse equipment and alphabet. Illus. in: Knight’s American mechanical dictionary. New York : Hurd and Houghton, 1877, vol. 2, fig. 3225. Library of Congress,

It took Morse a number of years to safe the financing essential to check his methodology. Finally, in 1843, with the assistance of Congressman F. O. J. Smith, Morse secured $30,000 in federal funds (about 1.2 million in at this time’s {dollars}) and commenced establishing a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore for a proper check of his system. On May 24, 1844, Morse, seated within the chambers of the United States Supreme Court, tapped the code for his now-famous message: “What Hath God Wrought.” His colleague in Baltimore, Alfred Vail, precisely transcribed Morse’s communication and repeated the message to Morse. 

The Telegraph’s Impact

The pace at which this new communication system swept the nation—as soon as confirmed sensible—is astonishing, even to trendy Americans so accustomed to fast technological advances. Two years after Morse’s demonstration, newspaper publishers organized a pony categorical from New Orleans to Charleston, SC, the place information from the Mexican War was telegraphed to New York. By the tip of the last decade, wires related most massive American cities. In lower than a era, the telegraph reached the west coast, and it crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1866.

Modern Americans may be much less stunned about how the advance in communication impacted American enterprise. Used primarily for industrial functions—later, the phone related Americans socially—the telegraph allowed Wall Street to ship extra up-to-date info on inventory trades. Railroads telegraphed stations down the road to warn conductors of delays and accidents, making journey safer and extra predictable. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln spent numerous hours within the War Department’s telegraph room awaiting information from the entrance, enhancing his communication with army commanders within the discipline. Reporters within the discipline filed their first-hand accounts of the conflict’s carnage by telegraph, enabling Americans to expertise the horrors of conflict in a approach no earlier era had. 

The Communications Revolution

History of the Telegraph
Waud, Alfred R. Signal Telegraph Machine and operator – Fredericksburg. United States Fredericksburg Virginia, 1862. [ca. December] Photograph.

As John Steele Gordon factors out in his e book, An Empire of Wealththe telegraph was not the one technique of communication quickly altering within the nineteenth century.  Aided by the telegraph, newspapers have been altering the best way Americans discovered about occasions and shopped for brand new merchandise. The New York Herald, printed by Scottish immigrant James Gordon Bennett used the telegraph and new, quicker, steam-powered rotary presses to vary the enterprise of gathering and reporting the information into one thing like trendy media shops. Unlike earlier American newspapers, the Herald was formally non-partisan in its information articles. It was the primary to cowl climate and sports activities often. The Herald coated sensational crime tales that different newspapers prevented out of considerations for “respectability.” Bennett took full benefit of the telegraph. He fought Congress for entry to information from D.C, thus establishing the roots of a Washington information bureau. 

The Herald‘s success and that of rival newspapers led the editors of the North American Review to proclaim in 1866 that “The daily newspaper is one of those things which are rooted in the necessities of modern civilization.” The newspaper business, buoyed by newer and quicker printing presses, and entry to telegraph studies filed from any city in America, discovered a brand new income—promoting. Railroads, the telegraph, and promoting enabled entrepreneurs to market their items nationwide. The industrial use of the telegraph grew to become an important ingredient within the industrial combine that turned the United States right into a world financial powerhouse. 

The Increasing Speed of Communication

Before the Morse Code revolutionized communication, the quickest approach for information to journey was through a courier driving a quick horse. Word of the Battles at Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, the primary bloody confrontation of the American Revolution, didn’t attain Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, till April 28, 9 days after the struggle. It didn’t attain London for one more month, May 28. In distinction, a message carrying the information of Samuel Morse’s demise lower than a century later reached India in a number of hours. 

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, together with with members of the nationwide safety group, obtain an replace on the mission in opposition to Osama bin Laden within the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Please observe: a categorized doc seen on this {photograph} has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)..

Information from the battlefield arrives in our houses a lot quicker at this time. President Barrack Obama watched the mission that carried out the killing of Osama bin Laden from the state of affairs room within the White House. Although I’m removed from an skilled on digital communication at this time, it strikes me that, in some methods, we nonetheless observe Samuel F.B. Morse’s method. I hit particular keys on my keyboard, and a pc code turns them into comprehensible textual content. Another system of pc codes immediately transmits my draft to my colleagues in California and Colorado. They polish my draft and put up it, utilizing different pc codes on the Teaching American History web site. Perhaps college students could be extra more likely to see historical past as part of their lives at this time—not merely occasions previously—if we assist them see that the expertise we use at this time makes use of numerous advances from nice minds previously. When they textual content their pals, are they not working a code—not not like dots and dashes—that makes their message accessible to the particular person receiving the textual content? What form of image would that paint for college kids to think about? 

Ray Tyler is a MAHG graduate and a former Teacher Programs Manager at TAH.


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