Invention Of The Telegraph
Author: Cornell, Alonzo B.
Invention Of The Telegraph


After the experiments of Franklin that did so much to advance the study
of electrical phenomena, and to suggest practical applications of electricity,
physicists in all countries occupied themselves with investigations along
lines marked out by the American philosopher. In 1749 Franklin devised the
lightning-rod. But notwithstanding the labors of many investigators, it was
more than fifty years before any other practical discovery or invention in
electricity was brought into general use. The first great achievement of the
kind was Morse's improvement of the electric telegraph. That Morse's
fellow-countryman, Joseph Henry, chiefly prepared the way for that triumph,
the following account, with just emphasis, demonstrates.

Among the European scientists and inventors to whom both Henry and Morse
were indebted was the French electrician, Andre Marie Ampere (1775-1836),
whose name (ampere) has been given to the practical unit of electric-current
strength. Ampere was the first and is the most famous investigator in
electrodynamics. He also invented a telegraphic arrangement in which he used
the magnetic needle and coil and the galvanic battery. Others, in the latter
part of the eighteenth century and the earlier years of the nineteenth,
devised similar arrangements. But no strictly electromagnetic apparatus for
telegraphic signalling was put to successful use until 1836, when, in England,
Charles Wheatstone, who is commonly regarded as the first inventor of
practical electric telegraphy, constructed an apparatus whereby thirty signals
were transmitted through nearly four miles of wire. From 1837 to 1843 he had
as an associate William Fothergill Cooke, and the two worked together to
develop the electric telegraph. They afterward quarrelled over their
respective claims to credit, but in 1838-1841 telegraph lines secured by their
patents were set up on the Great Western and two other English railways.

Meanwhile other inventors were still working for the same results, in
many parts of the world, and it has been significantly said that "the electric
telegraph had, properly speaking, no inventor; it grew up little by little."
Nevertheless with respect to the distinctive character of Morse's
improvements, and his title to a peculiar place among those through whose
labors the electric telegraph "grew," there can be no question.

Alonzo B. Cornell, son of the founder of Cornell University, at one time
Governor of New York, was intimately connected with electrical and telegraphic
affairs for many years; therefore on the subject here presented he speaks with
professional authority. His father was the first builder of the Morse

During the early years of the nineteenth century but slight advance was
made in the development of electrical science, although there were many
persons both here and abroad engaged in experimental work, and there was
considerable increase of literature bearing upon the subject. It was reserved
for another illustrious American to accomplish the next important and decisive
step in the pathway of progress. In 1828 Joseph Henry, then professor of
physics at the Albany Academy, afterward a professor at Princeton, and
subsequently for many years secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at
Washington, made the highly important discovery that by winding a plain iron
core with many layers of insulated wire, through which the electric current
was passed, he could at pleasure charge and discharge the iron core with
magnetic power. Thus Henry produced the electromagnet which was the beginning
of the mastery by man of the subtle fluid. He also discovered that the
intensity and power of the electric current were materially augmented by
increasing the number of the series of battery plates without increasing the
quantity of metal used in their construction.

These discoveries of Henry were, beyond all question, the most important
in real and intrinsic value ever made in the progress of electric science, as
they form the solid basis upon which all subsequent inventors have been
enabled to accomplish successful results in their various fields of endeavor.
It is conceded by all familiar with the history of electrical progress that
the name of Professor Joseph Henry is to be honored and cherished as one of
the very foremost of scientific discoverers of any age or country, and it must
remain a cause of sincere and permanent regret that of all the fabulous wealth
that has resulted from the advancement of electrical science, this modest and
unselfish inventor should have passed hence without ever having realized any
substantial reward for his great work. Not only so, but he was never awarded
the appropriate acknowledgment to which he was so eminently entitled for the
inestimable benefits his discoveries conferred upon his countrymen and upon
the world at large.

The possibility of utilizing Professor Henry's electromagnet for the
purpose of transmitting intelligence to a distant point was conceived by still
another American, Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse, of New York, ^1 during
his passage on board the packet-ship Sully, from Havre to New York, in the
winter of 1832. Incidental discussions between himself and Doctor Jackson, a
fellow-passenger, in reference to recent electrical improvements on both sides
of the Atlantic, led Morse to the conclusion that intelligence might be
instantaneously transmitted over a metallic circuit to a distant point, and he
thereupon determined to devote himself to the solution of the problem
involved. The following day he exhibited a rough sketch of a plan for
recording electric impulses necessary to convey and express intelligence. He
pursued the subject with great devotion during the remainder of the voyage,
and after arrival in New York began the construction of the necessary
apparatus to accomplish his purpose.

[Footnote 1: He was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, April 27, 1791. - Ed]

Morse was by profession a portrait painter of more than ordinary merit,
and was obliged to continue his artistic labors for a livelihood. He was a
graduate of Yale College, where his attention had first been attracted to
electrical experiments. He was thus, in a measure, prepared for carrying
forward the important work he had undertaken, and pursued his labors with
great assiduity. Devoting every spare moment to the pursuit of his object,
which was attained but slowly by reason of his lack of mechanical skill and
ingenuity, not until 1837 had he so far succeeded in his efforts as to be
prepared to make application for letters-patent to enable him to secure and
protect his rights of invention in the electromagnetic telegraph.

In explanation of the slow progress of his experimental work, Professor
Morse, in writing to a friend, said: "Up to the autumn of 1837 my telegraphic
apparatus existed in so rude a form that I felt reluctance to have it seen. My
means were very limited, so limited as to preclude the possibility of
constructing an apparatus of such mechanical finish as to warrant my success
in venturing upon its public exhibition. I had no wish to expose to ridicule
the representative of so many hours of laborious thought. Prior to the summer
of 1837 I depended upon my pencil for subsistence. Indeed, so straitened were
my circumstances that in order to save time to carry out my invention and to
economize my scanty means I had for months lodged and eaten in my studio,
procuring food in small quantities from some grocery, and preparing it myself.
To conceal from my friends the stinted manner in which I lived, I was in the
habit of bringing food to my room in the evenings; and this was my mode of
life for many years."

After the continuance of this heroic struggle for more than five years,
Morse found himself compelled to seek the aid of more accomplished mechanical
skill than he possessed, to perfect his apparatus, and was obliged to
surrender a quarter interest in his invention in order to obtain pecuniary aid
for this purpose.

Having thus succeeded in obtaining, at such serious sacrifice, the
requisite financial assistance to enable him to perfect the mechanism
necessary to demonstrate his invention, Professor Morse lost no time in
completing his apparatus and presenting it for public inspection. On January
6, 1838, he first operated his system successfully, over a wire three miles
long, in the presence of a number of personal friends, at Morristown, New
Jersey. In the following month he made a similar exhibition before the
faculty of the New York University, which was an occasion of much interest
among the scientists of the metropolis. Shortly thereafter the apparatus was
taken to Philadelphia and exhibited at the Franklin Institute, where he
received the highest commendation from the committee of science and arts, with
a strong expression in favor of government aid for the purpose of
demonstrating the practical usefulness of the system.

From Philadelphia, Morse removed his apparatus to Washington, where he
was permitted to demonstrate its operation before President Van Buren and his
Cabinet. Foreign ministers and members of both Houses of Congress, as well,
also, as prominent citizens, were invited to attend the exhibition, and
manifested much interest in the novelty of the invention. A bill was
introduced in Congress making an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars for
the purpose of providing for the erection of an experimental line of telegraph
between Washington and Baltimore, to illustrate, by practical use, its general
utility. The bill was in good time favorably reported from the committee on
commerce, but made no further progress in that Congress. Similar bills were
subsequently introduced and diligently supported in each succeeding Congress,
but it was not until the very closing hour of the expiring session of 1843
that the necessary enactment was effected and the appropriation secured.

The plan of construction devised by Professor Morse for the experimental
line of telegraph to be erected between Washington and Baltimore, under the
Congressional appropriation, provided for placing insulated wires in a lead
pipe underground. This was to be accomplished by the use of a specially
devised plough of peculiar construction, to be drawn by a powerful team, by
which means the pipe containing the electric conductors was to be
automatically deposited in the earth. This apparatus was entirely successful
in operation, and the pipe was thus buried to the complete satisfaction of all
concerned, at a cost very much lower than the work could have been
accomplished in any other manner. Two wires were to be used to form a
complete metallic circuit, for at that time it was not known, as was shortly
afterward discovered, that the earth could be used to form one-half of the
circuit. For purposes of insulation the wires were neatly covered with
cotton-yarn and then saturated in a bath of hot gum-shellac, but this
treatment proved defective in insulating properties, for when ten miles of
line had been completed the wires were found to be wholly useless for electric

No mode had been devised for the treatment of india-rubber to make it
available for purposes of insulation, and gutta-percha was wholly unknown as
an article of use or commerce in this country. Twenty-three thousand dollars
of the Government appropriation had been expended, and the work thus far
accomplished was an acknowledged failure. Only seven thousand dollars of the
available fund remained unexpended, and this was regarded as inadequate to
complete the undertaking under any other plan. The friends of the enterprise
were in despair, and for some time saw no other alternative than to apply to
Congress for an additional appropriation. This, however, was regarded as
almost hopeless, and the difficulty of the situation was extremely

An amusing incident was related of the means used to keep from public
knowledge the desperate situation. Professor Morse finally visited the scene
of activity where the pipe-laying was proceeding, and, calling the
superintendent aside, confided to him the fact that the work must be stopped
without the newspapers finding out the true reason of its suspension. The
quick-witted superintendent was equal to the occasion, and, starting the
ponderous machine, soon managed to run foul of a protruding rock and break the
plough. The newspapers published sensational accounts of the accident and
announced that it would require several weeks to repair damages. Thus the
real trouble was kept from the public until new plans could be determined

After long and careful consideration, Professor Morse very reluctantly
decided to erect the wires on poles. This plan was, at first, considered
wholly objectionable, under the apprehension that the structure would be
disturbed by evil-minded persons. It had, however, become manifest that this
was the only mode of construction that could be accomplished within the
remainder of the appropriation, and, finally, upon ascertaining that pole
lines had already been adopted in England, it was determined to proceed in
this manner. The line was thus completed between Washington and Baltimore
about May 1, 1844, and proved to be successful and in every way satisfactory
in its operation.

Shortly after the completion of the line the National Democratic
Convention, which nominated Polk and Dallas for President and Vice-President,
assembled in Baltimore [May, 1844]. Reports of the convention proceedings
were promptly telegraphed to the capital city, where the telegraph office was
thronged with Members of Congress interested in the news. These reports
created an immense sensation in Washington and speedily removed all doubts as
to the practical success of the new system of communication. A despatch from
the Honorable Silas Wright, then United States Senator from New York, refusing
to accept the nomination for Vice-President, was read in the National
Convention and produced an extraordinary interest from the fact that very few
of the delegates had ever heard of the telegraph, and it required much
explanation to satisfy them of the genuineness of the alleged communication.

Having thus established beyond all reasonable question the practical
utility of the telegraph as a superior means of public and private
communication, Professor Morse and his associates offered their patents to the
United States Government for the very moderate price of one hundred thousand
dollars, with a view of having the system adopted for general use in
connection with the postal establishment. This proposition was referred to
the Postmaster-General for consideration and report. After due deliberation
that officer reported that "Although the invention is an agent vastly superior
to any other ever devised by the genius of man, yet the operation between
Washington and Baltimore has not satisfied me that, under any rate of postage
that can be adopted, its revenues can be made to cover its expenditures."
Under the influence of this report Congress very naturally declined the offer
of the patentees, and the telegraph was thereupon relegated to the domain of
private enterprise. The result was that the patentees finally realized for
their interests many times the amount of their offer to the Government.

During the autumn of 1844 short exhibition lines were erected in Boston
and New York, for the purpose of familiarizing business men of those cities
with the characteristics of the new invention, but they attracted little
attention and the promoters had much cause of discouragement on account of
public indifference. For the purpose of arousing more attention to the
system, appeals were made to the public press for favorable notice, which were
also generally declined. The proprietor of one of the most prominent and
enterprising of the New York daily papers distinctly refused to encourage the
establishment of telegraph lines, for the reason, as he freely acknowledged,
that if the new method of transmitting intelligence were to come into general
use his competitors could use it as well as himself, and he would therefore be
deprived of his present advantage over them for procuring early news by the
use of an expensive system of special despatch then maintained by his paper.
Two years later he refused to join other papers in receiving the Governor's
message by telegraph from Albany, and was so badly beaten by his rivals in
this instance that his paper was thenceforward one of the most generous
patrons of the telegraph.

Early in the year 1845 a corporate organization was effected for the
extension of the telegraph from Baltimore to Philadelphia and New York, under
the name of the Magnetic Telegraph Company, for which a special act of
incorporation was obtained from the Legislature of the State of Maryland.
Nearly all of the capital of this company was subscribed by Washington people.
Baltimore and Philadelphia furnished only a few hundred dollars, while New
York contributed nothing. Slow progress was made toward the construction of
the line on account of the difficulty of obtaining the right of way either
upon railways or highways, and it was not until January, 1846, that the line
was completed to the west side of the Hudson River, which formed an impassable
barrier to further progress for a considerable period.

No method of insulation had yet been devised that would permit the
operation of an electric conductor under water, and it was doubted whether a
wire could be maintained for a span sufficient to cross the river overhead.
Finally however high masts were erected on the Palisades near Fort Lee, and on
the heights at Fort Washington on the New York side, and a steel wire was
suspended upon them. This plan was successful, except that occasionally the
wire was broken by an extraordinary burden of sleet in the winter season. This
method of crossing the lower Hudson was continued for more than ten years,
when it was superseded by submarine cables.

During the year 1846 incorporated companies were formed, under which
telegraph lines were extended from New York to Boston, Buffalo, and Pittsburg;
and within the next three years nearly every important town in the United
States and Canada, from St. Louis and New Orleans to Montreal and Halifax, was
brought into telegraphic communication. Thus, after fifteen years of struggle
with all the pains of poverty, often lacking even the common necessaries of
life, Professor Morse and his faithful colaborers had the supreme
satisfaction, in 1847, of knowing and realizing that the telegraph system had
finally achieved, not only scientific success, for this had been proven years
before, but that financial success, ample and complete, had come to pay them
richly for all the dark days and wearisome years through which they had

Once generally established, the telegraph won its way to popular
appreciation very rapidly. It was in harmony with the spirit of the age, and
it was not long before every town of any considerable importance regarded
telegraphic facilities as an indispensable necessity. The small cost soon
induced the construction of rival lines, regardless of the rights of the
patentees, and within a very few years unwise competition began to bring many
lines to a condition of bankruptcy. The weaker concerns soon passed through
the sheriff's hands and found purchasers only at an extreme sacrifice, at the
bidding of the more provident and conservative proprietors of competing lines.
Instead of inducing a more prudent course, these disastrous results only
served to feed the spirit of rivalry, and general insolvency seemed to
threaten the permanent prosperity of the telegraph business, in consequence of
the wild and reckless competition which appeared to be inherent in its nature.

This extremely unsatisfactory condition of telegraph rivalry drifted on
from bad to worse until 1854, when, from dire necessity of self-preservation,
a few of the more prudent and far-sighted proprietors of telegraph property
were induced to combine their interests with some of their competitors and
thus avoid the ruinous policy which had been so rapidly exhausting their
vitality. Accordingly the principal telegraph lines in Ohio, Indiana,
Michigan, and some of the neighboring States were brought into fraternal
relations and formed the nucleus of the Western Union Telegraph Company.

The new policy soon brought prosperity in place of waste and
improvidence. Profits were devoted to the purchase of additional lines, thus
enlarging their domain and strengthening their position. Prosperity increased
with rapid strides; and the beneficial effects of extirpating wasteful rivalry
and building up a substantial system with superior facilities and provident
management gave the new organization a dominating influence among the
telegraph companies of America. The same general policy has been pursued to
the present time [1894], and has resulted in the establishment of a prosperous
corporation of magnificent proportions, carrying on a useful and beneficent
business under a greater number of governmental jurisdictions, great and
small, than any other corporate organization in existence.

For the development of the telegraph enterprise in America no thanks are
due to the wealthy capitalists. As a rule they would not listen to
suggestions of investing their money in what was contemptuously termed rotten
poles and rusty wires. They wanted something more substantial and
conservative as the basis of their investments. An early pioneer and builder
of telegraph lines, whose name is now held in grateful memory for deeds of
philanthropic beneficence visited the city of Chicago in 1847 to solicit
subscriptions to the capital stock of a company then engaged in construction
of the first line of telegraph between that place and the city of Buffalo. He
presented a carefully prepared prospectus showing an estimated earning
capacity of the projected line of one hundred dollars per day. The merits of
the contemplated enterprise were freely canvassed at a meeting of bankers, at
which one of the most prominent declared that any man who ever expected to see
one hundred dollars per day paid for telegraphing west of Buffalo must be
crazy and unworthy of belief. This oracular declaration prevailed, and the
project was ignominiously rejected by the wise men of Chicago. Fortunately,
citizens of smaller towns, like Ypsilanti, Kalamazoo, South Bend, Kenosha, and
Racine, took a more sensible view of the proposed enterprise, and the line was
built despite the contempt of Chicago capitalists. Now, however, the men of
Chicago pay more than five thousand dollars a day for telegraphing at rates
far lower than would have been thought possible in that early day.

The true spirit of enterprise, which has so grandly developed the
resources of our imperial domain, has generally been found to prevail among
people of modest means. Thus, nearly every dollar of capital contributed
toward the establishment of telegraph lines in this country came from the
offerings of people in very moderate circumstances. In this connection,
therefore, it is extremely gratifying to state that very few enterprises of
any kind have returned such generous recompense for the amount of capital
invested as the telegraph and telephone lines in America. Considering the
apparently temporary and short-lived character of the structures erected for
these purposes, it seems difficult to comprehend the truth of this statement.

The method of telegraphic communication devised by Professor Morse has
been continued in general use in this country, but instead of requiring
separate wire for each circuit as formerly, six independent circuits are now
operated simultaneously over a single wire by the use of the sextuplex


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