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The secret of Samuel Morse and his electric telegraph

“There is nothing left for the invention to achieve but discover something new before it happens,” reported a New York Herald reporter in 1844. The journalist referred to the electric telegraph, an invention born of the Industrial Revolution that transformed the way in that 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 the soldier, rancher, and railroad operator could send long-distance messages in minutes through copper cables strung from poles that snaked across the landscape like an eruption. By 1861, the Pony Express, which the nation had trusted, had been relegated to history.

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

Yet archives from the 19th century reveal numerous examples of people working in the field of telegraphy – men like the Victorian scientist and inventor Charles Wheatstone. He would have been interested in pointing out that his ABC telegraph system had been operational on the Great Western Railway in Great Britain for six years when Samuel Morse broadcast “What God Has Worked” in 1844.

Scientists and historians regard the invention of the telegraph as a series of small interrelated discoveries dating back to Roger Bacon, the 13th century monk and philosopher. So how did someone who started their 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 student days at Yale, he sat comfortably straddling two worlds.

Young Morse was as comfortable with the arts as he was with the sciences. When not listening to Professor Dale give a lecture on electricity, he could be found with a brush and canvas in a study. Morse liked studying art at the Royal Academy in London as much as he liked listening to Professor Dana on electromagnetism and electricity at the New York Athenaeum.

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

Samuel Morse absorbed the knowledge like a sponge. He never missed an opportunity to discuss and learn from others. Returning home from Europe on the cargo ship “Sully” in 1832, he struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler, the American physician and scientist Charles Thomas Jackson.

Morse, who came up with the idea of ​​using electricity via telegraph in Paris, had no qualms about questioning Jackson. I wanted to ask you about your recent studies with the great French scientists: men like Ampere and your work on electromagnetism.

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

Samuel Morse not only accumulated data, he collected people. He was very good at cultivating men of influence and gathering the right people around him. No one can do everything, he acknowledged. The inventor was smart enough to judge when to hire influence and experience, and smart enough to recognize it when he saw it.

Morse needed $ 30,000, a substantial sum, to make his idea a reality and he knew the government could provide it. But he realized that they weren’t going to give him away in any way and he needed an influential voice.

He was able to call out two of those voices. Congressman FOJ (Francis Ormond Jonathan) Smith of Maine secured the necessary funding, along with his old friend and first commissioner of the Patent Office Henry Ellsworth. As a thank you, Morse allowed Ellsworth’s daughter to compose that first telegraph message.

In Alfred Vail, Morse recognized someone with the mechanical skills necessary to build his machine. Vail also had a father, Morse noted, with a blacksmith who offered the perfect workshop to build the machine. Just in case, Vail senior also helped fund trips to Europe to obtain patents there. When it came to day-to-day operations, Morse knew he could trust Amos Kendall, the former general manager of the Post Office.

All of these people helped Morse for a reason. Some, like Ellsworth, liked him; others, like Smith, perfumed the money that could be earned. Everyone saw a particular quality in this man: passion. Morse had an infectious enthusiasm. Vail, as a student at the University of the City of New York, watched in rapture as Morse stretched 1700 feet of cable spanning 2 classrooms. The young man was so impressed that he convinced his father to back the businessman.

One quality that people who knew the inventor quickly appreciated was his tenacity. The patent application for 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.

Perhaps it explains why, with his name on the patent, Morse accepted all the credit when the rewards came in, despite the fact that Vail contributed a great deal to the success of the Morse Code, including the refinement of the sending key and telegraph of Print. .

Once the 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 government and peer reluctance to acknowledge his achievements.

Rivals like Alexander Bain and Royal House found out in court that this was a man you challenged at your own risk. The final cash payment, $ 2 million in today’s money, with the guarantee of future royalties, was a fitting reward, Morse must have felt, for his persistence.

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