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Tomorrow in History: May 24, 1844

Daniel Walker Howe is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History, the New-York Historical Society American History Book Prize, a finalist in 2007 for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, and winner of the Silver Medal for Non-Fiction, California Book Awards. Clearly his book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, which looks at the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, is a must-read. The book celebrate the invention of the telegraph which was first used on May 24, 1844. Below is an excerpt from What Hath God Wrought about the invention of the telegraph.

Communication has always been a priority for empires, including the Roman, Chinese, and Incan. The messengers of the ancient Persian empire inspired the famous encomium of Herodotus, “Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The first postal system available for public use was created in the fifteenth century by the German Emperor Maximilian I. In the 1790s, the French Revolutionary government originated, and Napoleon subsequently expanded and perfected, the fastest and most efficient communication network the world had yet seen: a system of what we would call semaphores placed about six miles apart, capable of relaying signals whenever visibility permitted. Besides facilitating political control and military operations, it typified the Enlightenment ideal of rationality. Other countries imitated the system on a smaller scale.

To describe long-distance optical signaling, the word “telegraph,” meaning long-distance written communication, came into the European languages. Americans too employed optical signals of various kinds, though seldom in relays; they are commemorated in innumerable “telegraph hills” and “beacon hills.” …by 1840, an optical telegraph line functioned between New York and Philadelphia, though only its owners were allowed to use it.

In May 1844, politicians in Washington felt eager to learn news from the party conventions taking place in Baltimore, forty miles away. Help was at hand, for in March 1843 Congress had finally passed, after years of earnest lobbying, an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars for a Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse (Finley to his family) to demonstrate an electromagnetic telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. Morse and his team first tried laying the wire underground, but insulation problems forced them to string the lines on poles aboveground.

When the Whig National Convention met on May first, the wire still stretched only about halfway to Baltimore. But Morse’s associate Alfred Vail got the news from the train at Annapolis Junction and telegraphed it ahead to Washington. The information that the Whig Party had nominated Henry Clay for president and Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice president arrived an hour and fifteen minutes before the train did. By the time of the formal opening of the telegraph all the way to Baltimore on May 24, no doubt existed that it would work. From the chambers of the United States Supreme Court, Morse transmitted to Vail the famous message, WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT. When the Democratic convention began three days later, some privileged politicians huddled around Morse receiving up-to-the-minute reports, while hundreds of others outside (many of them members of Congress) tried to gain entrance or at least view the information he posted on the door. “Little else is done here but watch Professor Morse’s Bulletin from Baltimore, to learn the progress of doings at Convention,” a reporter for the New York Herald told his paper. The Democratic convention used the telegraph to offer the second spot on its ticket to Martin Van Buren’s friend Silas Wright; he declined it via the same medium, and the party then turned to the Pennsylvania doughface George Dallas.

Professor Morse seemed an unlikely inventor. He was not a scientist, engineer, or mathematician but a professor of fine arts at New York University. A distinguished portrait painter, he had aspired to nurture American nationhood and shape public taste through painting historical panoramas and founding the National Academy of Design.82 When in 1837 Congress denied him a commission to paint a historical mural for the Capitol Rotunda, Morse felt so bitterly disappointed that he gave up painting and turned his energies instead to developing an electric telegraph, a project that had engaged his attention off and on since 1832.

Morse’s surprising combination of artistic and technological creativity has caused him to be labeled (somewhat hyperbolically) “the American Leonardo.” But two important themes provide continuity between Morse’s art and telegraphy: his Calvinistic Protestantism and his American imperialism. Both of these preoccupations he had inherited from his father, Jedidiah Morse, Congregational minister and famous geographer, who prophesied that America would create “the largest Empire that ever existed.” If Finley Morse could not serve America’s providential destiny through painting, he would help fulfill it with electromagnetic current.

A series of international scientific advances paved the way for Morse’s demonstration. Alessandro Volta had invented the electric battery in 1800; Hans Christian Oersted and André Marie Ampère researched electromagnetic signals; William Sturgeon devised the electromagnet in 1824; and in 1831 the American physicist Joseph Henry announced his method for strengthening the intensity of an electromagnet so that the current could be transmitted across long distances… The Jackson administration, ever mindful of the Southwest, had taken an interest in the possibility of an American counterpart to the French optical telegraph to speed communication with New Orleans. The Van Buren administration continued this interest. In September 1837, Morse wrote Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury describing his own plan for a new kind of telegraph, based on electricity… Secretary Woodbury was impressed, but to secure financial aid from the government, Morse needed an act of Congress. When he took his project before the House Commerce Committee, chairman Francis Smith, a Maine Democrat, insisted on being made another partner in Morse’s enterprise. Morse reluctantly consented, whereupon Smith enthusiastically recommended the project to Congress, making no mention of his own interest in it. It proved a bad bargain. The favorable committee report did not win congressional approval for the grant, and in the years ahead Smith’s shameless self-seeking would make trouble for Morse.

…Not until the Whigs controlled Congress did the Democrat Morse get his grant approved in 1843. It carried in the House only narrowly, 89 to 83, with many abstentions. Very likely Morse’s vociferous anti-Catholicism, unpopular with Congress, contributed to both his failure to get the painting commission in 1837 and the later political reluctance to endorse his invention. Morse assumed that the federal government should control the electric telegraph. “It would seem most natural,” he declared, to “connect a telegraphic system with the Post Office Department; for, although it does not carry a mail, yet it is another mode of accomplishing the principal object for which the mail is established, to wit: the rapid and regular transmission of intelligence.”…

In the United States, decades of long-term economic expansion only temporarily reversed by downturns after 1819 and 1837 encouraged the business community to accord the electric telegraph an enthusiastic reception. Investment bankers had always prized quick news. The Rothschilds in London had used carrier pigeons to learn of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo before anyone else did; they bought British government bonds and realized a quick profit when their value rose once the victory became widely known. Following Morse’s demonstration, telegraph lines appeared rapidly in North America, chiefly in order to transmit the prices of stocks and commodities. They helped integrate financial markets so borrowers and lenders could find each other more easily. Accordingly, they first connected commercial centers: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, Toronto. The Philadelphia North American welcomed the telegraph with the pronouncement: “The markets will no longer be dependent upon snail paced mails.” Remarkably, the wires reached Chicago by 1848, enabling the Chicago Commodities Exchange to open that year.

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