On January 6, 1838, at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey, Samuel Morse demonstrated his invention, a telegraph system.
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.
Morse spent the next several years developing a prototype with two partners, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail.
In 1838, he demonstrated his invention using Morse code, in which dots and dashes represented letters and numbers.
- 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!”
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.