The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17

Author: Alonzo B. Cornell  | Date: A.D. 1844

Invention of the Telegraph

A.D. 1844


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 telegraphs.

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.

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. 1 had no wish to expose to ridicule the representative of so many hours of laborious thought. Prior to the summer of 18371 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 conduction.

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 embarrassing.

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 upon.

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 Post-master-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 passed.

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 selfpreservation, a few of the more prudent and farsighted 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 shortlived 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 apparatus.

1He was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, April 27, 1791.—ED.


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Chicago: Alonzo B. Cornell, "Invention of the Telegraph," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024,

MLA: Cornell, Alonzo B. "Invention of the Telegraph." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Cornell, AB, 'Invention of the Telegraph' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from