On January 6, 1838, at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey, Samuel Morse demonstrated his invention, a telegraph system.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse

Most popular in the 1920s and 1930s, the telegraph which uses electric impulses to transmit encoded messages over a wire, revolutionize long-distance communication.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He attended Yale University, where he was interested in art.  He was also interested in a new concept, electricity.   He became a painter; however it was his hearing about the new electromagnet while sailing home from Europe in 1832 that lead to his great work, the telegraph.  He was not the only person working on this concept.

In 1825, British inventor William Sturgeon (1783-1850) revealed an invention that laid the foundations for a large scale evolution in electronic communications: the electromagnet.

In 1825, British inventor William Sturgeon (1783-1850) revealed an invention that laid the foundations for a large scale evolution in electronic communications: the electromagnet.

Morse spent the next several years developing a prototype with two partners, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail.

Leonard D. Gail

Leonard D. Gail

Alfred Vail

Alfred Vail

In 1838, he demonstrated his invention using Morse code, in which dots and dashes represented letters and numbers.

Samuel Morse Portrait in Morse Code

Samuel Morse Portrait in Morse Code

  • 1843 – Morse finally convinced a skeptical Congress to fund the construction of the first telegraph line in the United States, from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore.
  • May 1844 – Morse sent the first official telegram over the line, with the message: “What hath God wrought!”
Samuel  Morse Telegraph Receiver Used to receive the message, "What hath God wrought" during the demonstration to Congress in 1844. Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Samuel Morse Telegraph Receiver
Used to receive the message, “What hath God wrought”
during the demonstration to Congress in 1844.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Morse-WhatHath

  • Under Morse’s patent, private companies set up telegraph lines around Northeastern United States.
  • 1851 – The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was founded; it would later change its name to Western Union.
Early Western Union Sign

Early Western Union Sign

  • 1861 – Western Union finished the first transcontinental line across the United States.
  • Five years later, the first successful permanent line across the Atlantic Ocean was constructed
  • By the end of the century telegraph systems were in place in Africa, Asia and Australia.

Because telegraph companies typically charged by the word, telegrams became known for their brief prose regardless of the message.  The word “stop,” which was free, was used in place of a period, for which there was a charge.

Western Union Telegram copy

In 1933, Western Union introduced singing telegrams.

During World War II, Americans came to dread the sight of Western Union couriers because the military used telegrams to inform families about soldiers’ deaths.

WesternUnionMIANotice-042744

Over the course of the 20th century, telegraph messages were largely replaced by cheap long-distance phone service, faxes and email. Western Union delivered its final telegram in January 2006.  Even email has moved over to make way for instant messages and social media.

Samuel Morse died wealthy and famous in New York City on April 2, 1872, at age 80.

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