The Secret to Samuel Morse and His Electric Telegraph

“There is nothing now left for invention to achieve but to discover new before it takes place,” a reporter on the New York Herald reported in 1844. The journalist was referring to the electric telegraph, an invention borne of the Industrial Revolution that transformed how the American West was ‘won.’

In the space of twenty years the telegraph became the standard means of communication for all the disparate elements in this vast landscape. Suddenly soldier, rancher and railroad operator could send messages long distance in minutes through copper wires strung up on poles that snaked across the landscape like a rash. By 1861 the Pony Express, on which the nation had relied, had been consigned to history.

And one man in particular, Samuel Morse, had become very wealthy. It was his single circuit telegraph system that was installed across the country, and his name that is inextricably linked worldwide with its invention.

Yet Nineteenth Century archives reveal numerous examples of individuals working in the field of telegraphy: men such as the Victorian scientist and inventor Charles Wheatstone. He would have been keen to point out that his ABC telegraph system had been operative on the Great Western Railway in Britain for six years when Samuel Morse transmitted “What hath God wrought” in 1844.

Scientists and historians regard the invention of the telegraph as a series of small, interlinking discoveries going back to Roger Bacon, the thirteenth Century monk and philosopher. So how did someone who started his career as an artist triumph over them?

Morse never claimed to be a great scientist, or an accomplished artist. He was an entrepreneur, brimming with ideas, who made things happen. From his days as an undergraduate at Yale he comfortably straddled two worlds.

The young Morse was equally at home with the arts as he was with the sciences. When not listening to Professor Dale lecturing on electricity, he could be found with brush and canvas in a studio. Morse enjoyed studying Art at the Royal Academy in London as much as he relished listening to Professor Dana on electromagnetism and electricity in the New York Athenaeum.

Consciously or unconsciously, Morse refused to be pigeon-holed. Paradoxically, this dual personality may have actually helped him. Echoing the great polymaths of the Enlightenment, his focus was always broad and his mind always open to new ideas.

Samuel Morse absorbed knowledge like a sponge. He never missed an opportunity to discuss and learn from others. Returning home from Europe on the packet ship ‘Sully’ in 1832, he fell into conversation with a fellow passenger, the American physician and scientist Charles Thomas Jackson.

Morse, for whom the idea of using electricity by means of a telegraph came to him in Paris, wasn’t shy about interrogating Jackson. He was keen to ask him about his recent studies with the great French scientists: men like Ampere and his work on electromagnetism.

The two men also shared what they knew on Benjamin Franklin and the velocity of electricity. Once back on American soil, Samuel Morse wasted little time in conversing with the American physicist Joseph Henry, who had recently invented a working telegraph.

Samuel Morse not only accumulated data, he collected people. He was very good at cultivating men of influence and assembling the right people around him. No one man can do it all, he recognised. The inventor was astute enough to judge when to hire influence and expertise, and shrewd enough to recognise it when he saw it.

Morse needed $30,000, a substantial sum, to make his idea a reality and knew the government could provide it. But he realised they weren’t going to give it away willy-nilly and he needed an influential voice.

He was able to call on two such voices. Congressman F.O.J (Francis Ormond Jonathan) Smith from Maine secured the necessary funding, along with long-time friend and first Commissioner of the Patent Office Henry Ellsworth. As a gesture of thanks Morse allowed Ellsworth’s daughter to craft that first telegraphic message.

In Alfred Vail, Morse recognised someone with the mechanical skills needed to build his machine. Vail also had a father, Morse observed, with an ironworks that offered the perfect workshop in which to build the machine. For good measure Vail senior also helped fund trips to Europe to secure patents there. As for the running of the day to day business, Morse knew he could rely on Amos Kendall, the former Postmaster-General.

All of these people helped Morse for a reason. Some, like, Ellsworth, liked him; others, such as Smith, scented money to be made. All saw in this man one particular quality – passion. Morse had an enthusiasm that was infectious. Vail, as a student at the University of the City of New York, watched spellbound as Morse stretched out 1700 feet of wire spanning 2 classrooms. So impressed was the young man that he persuaded his father to back the entrepreneur.

One quality people who met the inventor quickly appreciated was his tenacity. The application for patent of his electric telegraph machine took 5 long years. Vail lost interest and returned to Philadelphia to work for his father, but Morse never gave up.

It perhaps explains why, with his name on the patent, Morse accepted all the recognition when the rewards came – in spite of the fact that Vail contributed in large part to the success of Morse’s Code, including refinement of the sending key and the printing telegraph.

Once patent was granted and sales took off, Morse never relaxed. He fought to the end for recognition as the first to produce a single-circuit telegraph, in the face of governmental as well as peer reluctance to acknowledge his achievements.

Rivals including Alexander Bain and Royal House discovered in the courts that this was one man you challenged at your peril. The final cash payment, $2 million in today’s money, with an assurance of future royalties, was fitting reward, Morse must have felt, for his persistence.