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Retro Baltimore

Samuel F.B. Morse gave the first public telegraph demonstration 178 years ago in Baltimore. The federal government was less than impressed.

A neglected anniversary of sorts came and went May 24; it was the first public demonstration of Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph 178 years ago at B&O Mount Clare Station, today the home of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.

As with so many things, tragedy can be the mother of invention, and Morse’s development of the telegraph was born from a deep personal tragedy.

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Samuel Finley Breese Morse, born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale University and made his living as a portrait painter.

He was in Washington working on a commission in 1825 when word reached him that his wife, Lucretia Pickering Walker Morse, had died of a heart attack in New Haven, Connecticut, shortly after giving birth to their third child.

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In an era when news traveled via horseback, railroad, steamboat and carrier pigeon, it took seven days for word to reach him in Washington from New Haven of his wife’s death, and by the time he returned home, her funeral already had been held, and she was buried in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery.

It was during his tenure at Yale that Morse began attending lectures on electromagnetism presented by Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day, and in 1832, while returning from Europe by ship, he made the acquaintance of Charles Thomas Jackson, a Bostonian who was also an acknowledged expert in electromagnetism.

Morse then began experimenting with what he called “galvanic fluid,” his term for electromagnetism, believing that it was possible to send messages over a single copper wire, but the outside world’s faith in such a phenomenon was limited.

In the face of wide skepticism, Morse obtained from Congress a $30,000 appropriation that allowed him to pursue his work for what eventually became known as the telegraph.

Morse also created what’s known as Morse Code, the dot and dash code used for sending messages. Morse used different combinations of dots and dashes to represent the letters in the English alphabet and the 10 digits.

His friend, Baltimorean John H. B. Latrobe, legal counsel to the B&O Railroad, eventually convinced the reluctant railroad’s president, Louis McLane, who thought Morse was nothing more than a crank and a dreamer, to allow him to string his “singing wire” from a basement room in the Capitol in Washington along the railroad’s right of way to the station at Mount Clare in Baltimore.

“By the way,” McLane said told Latrobe one day, according to The Baltimore Sun, “there was a man in here named Morse this morning. He has a scheme to dig a trench along the railroad and place a wire in it and talk over it. It’s all nonsense of course and the government has no right to throw away the people’s money in that way.”

“Mr. McLane,” replied Latrobe, “you have been Minister to the Court of St. James, you have been Secretary of the United States Treasury and now you are president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad: but I will tell you this man’s name will live when your name and that of your children, yes, and those of your grandchildren’s children, shall be forgotten.”

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Curiously, on the day before Morse was to publicly unveil his invention, there was no mention of it in The Sun, but on May 7 and again on May 18, the newspaper covered it.

“Professor Morse’s electro-magnetic telegraph, in course of construction between Washington and Baltimore, is now in full operation,” the newspaper reported in its May 7 editions, which conveyed the news that the Whig convention that was held in Baltimore had selected Henry Clay as its presidential nominee. “The fluid traversed the whole 22 miles and back again — making 44 miles — in no perceptible part of a second.”

A passenger aboard a B&O train bound for Baltimore learned of the death of his father, Mr. Godsby, former proprietor of the National Hotel in Washington, when the train paused at Relay, and he received the news that had been telegraphed ahead to the station by the new electro-magnetic telegraph, the newspaper reported May 18.

On May 24, 1844, the first public demonstration of Morse’s telegraph took place at Mount Clare Station, when he tapped out the Biblical quotation, “What Hath God Wrought” from Washington to Baltimore.

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Morse immediately saw the vast commercial possibilities of his invention when he tapped out a second message: “Have you any news.”

The next day, The Sun reported the event in a one paragraph item:

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“The magnetic telegraph of Professor Morse was completed yesterday to the depot in Pratt Street near Light in its preliminary arrangement, the wires having been laid and everything ready for communication. The result of the conventions on Monday next in this city will be sent to Washington by this means, where it will be known long before it would be possible to convey the information to the extremities of our own city. Verily, this is ‘wire-working’ to some purpose.”

By May 31, The Sun was crowing: “Prof. Morse’s Telegraph has already, during the first week of its operations, been proved to be of the greatest public importance. Time and space has been been completely annihilated.”

A.S. Abell, founder of The Sun and no slouch when it came to embracing technology in news-gathering and production — he saw the commercial and financial usefulness of the Linotype machine, telephone and typewriter — was a friend and an early supporter of Morse.

Abell “aided and promoted the establishment of the telegraph in every way in his power, foreseeing how valuable an instrument for the advancement of civilization it was bound to be,” reported the newspaper in a 1904 article.

In an ironic twist, Morse offered to sell his invention to the federal government for $100,000, but the offer was politely declined on the basis that the telegraph was merely a toy and would never pay for itself.


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