Biographies & Memoirs


Hurrah Boys Whip Up the Mules


JANUARY and February 1843 were the most anxious months Morse had ever experienced. Staying on in Washington, he awaited the fate of his bill as it went through Congress, “painful and trying to me,” he said, “but there is no help for it but patience.” Every day, tantalizing gossip reached him from the Capitol: his bill might be moved as an amendment to a military bill; might be referred to a committee of the whole; might be opposed by some members from Maine. He asked Sidney to get notices placed in the New York Journal of Commerce and Evening Post, saying that the American press and public supported the appropriation: “it will be read here and produce an effect.” Prodded or not, the representatives felt obliged to “define their position” by idle speechifying, so the House moved with agonizing slowness.

Morse tried to talk himself into the right mood, not pessimistic yet prepared for the worst—although the worst, if it came, would be “disastrous in the extreme.” Deeply as he wished to trust in Providence, he found it difficult, “easier to say ‘Thy will be done’ than at all times to feel it.” And his long stay in the city had used up everything he had. Nearly his every last cent was in his pocket. He steadied himself by thinking that his hard work could not have gone for nothing, that he could not have been brought to Washington, at the urging of congressmen and others in government, merely to be deluded. But he often felt oppressed and headachy, “still waiting, waiting.”

The suspense eased a little on February 21, when the appropriation bill at last came up for vote in the House. Twenty years earlier, Morse had impressively painted the House chamber as a symbol of republican ideals. But the day’s proceedings had less the spirit of Washington and Lafayette than of Punch and Judy Cave Johnson, a congressman from Tennessee, rose to say that since Congress had done much to encourage science, he did not wish to neglect the science of Mesmerism. He therefore proposed an amendment to the bill: half the $30,000 should be given to a mesmerist, enabling him as well as Morse to experiment. As reported in the Congressional Globe,

Mr. [Edward] Stanly said he should have no objection to the appropriation for mesmeric experiments, provided the gentleman from Tennessee was the subject. [A laugh.]

Mr. Cave Johnson said he should have no objection provided the gentleman from North Carolina [Mr. Stanly] was the operator. [Great laughter.]

A more sober congressman objected that the amendment demeaned the character of the House, and asked the chair to rule it out of order. The chair refused, rousing more laughter by quipping that only scientific analysis could show the analogy between the electromagnetic telegraph and the “magnetism of mesmerism.”

Two days later the appropriation bill passed, barely. Aided by a Whig majority in the House that favored internal improvements, it squeaked through by 89 votes to 83. Morse put the best face on it—“six votes are as good as a thousand”—but he had undergone an ordeal: “I can truly say that I have never passed so trying a period.” And the vote in the Senate remained. There, with only eight days of the session remaining, and six inches of snow on the ground, the bill faced a crowded legislative calendar that included conflicting U.S. and British claims to the huge Oregon Territory.

On March 3, the final day of the session, Morse’s appropriation passed the Senate unopposed and was signed by President John Tyler. His two months of faith and patience had paid off, especially his faith. Often verbose and self-dramatizing, he summed up his reaction in two words: “Laus Deo.”

Morse leaped in to begin work on his experimental line, the first feat of electrical engineering attempted in the United States. He hoped to finish in about eight months, in time for the opening of the next session of Congress, in December. He decided to run the line between Washington and Baltimore, a distance of about forty-four miles, installing it alongside the route of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Having in mind often-expressed opinions that exposed wires invited vandalism, he chose to inter the circuits in a trench two and a half feet deep. He had considered simply insulating the wires, winding them in rope, and binding the bundle in asphalt. Now, however, he decided to string the wires out in tubes made of lead for cheapness and durability.

Once Morse got the appropriation, including annual salaries for a staff, his partners returned happily, even greedily. He assigned each a particular task. For a salary of $1000, Vail would make and help operate the instruments. Gale, returned from New Orleans, would receive $1500 and oversee the pipe—inspecting the metal for defects, checking the soldering joints, testing the effects of the soil on the lead. Smith would handle the legal work. He would draw no salary, but profit by contracting for the tubing and trenching, besides his one-quarter share in hoped-for profits from the patent. Morse also invited his Washington assistant James Fisher to join the team, for $1500, to superintend the preparation of the wire from its manufacture to its placement in the tubes. Morse as overall superintendent would receive $2000—more money than he had seen in years.

The superintendence burdened Morse with endless paperwork. The appropriation required him to submit to the Secretary of the Treasury a detailed monthly account of expenses, and keep all vouchers in duplicate (more than eight hundred, it turned out). He had to register weekly salaries for lab assistants, brass and iron workers, varnishers, solderers, a battery man, assorted mechanicians and laborers. He also had to account for elephantine quantities of material: 160 miles of No. 16 copper wire, weighing five tons; 25 dozen glazed stone cups to hold mercury for the batteries; 200-pound bales of twine; 70,500 yards of lead pipe—not to mention screws, stationery, and other incidentals. Morse meticulously documented every payment and purchase, well served by having earlier submitted to his father penny-for-penny accounts of his school expenses. The drudgery of bookkeeping was perhaps offset by pleasure in sporting a new title. He now routinely signed himself “Superintendent of the Electromagnetic Telegraph.”

Morse planned to begin the trenching no later than October 1, hoping to proceed at the rate of two and a half to three miles a day. Before that, contractors had to manufacture the insulated wire circuits and lead tubing. The production of the circuits went smoothly, except for minor delays owing to an imperfect batch of solder or weak vinegar. By late July, Morse had 160 miles of wire, insulated by windings of colored cotton thread and two coats of varnish. He decided to test it, once more taking on the old problem of the action of galvanic electricity through long wires. Twenty years earlier, the English electrician Peter Barlow had made experiments which showed that the current along a wire diminishes approximately as the square root of its distance from the battery. He concluded that a long-distance telegraph was theoretically impossible. Morse believed, however, that his still-under-wraps relay system overcame the problem.

Early in August, Morse invited several prominent scientists to witness an experiment in long-distance telegraphy, at a ropewalk on the outskirts of New York City. He used a so-called Grove battery, recently invented, consisting of a hundred cells of nitric acid, one pair of its plates being made of platinum. By far the strongest battery available, it sent Morse’s current effectually through all 160 miles of wire, even when he reduced the number of cells by half. The wire came in two-mile units on eighty spools. In a further experiment, Morse joined the units to make not a single 160-mile circuit, but several circuits of different lengths. He used them to test and compare the lifting power of a magnet and the falling off in current at various distances from the battery.

Morse wrote up his experiments for Benjamin Silliman’s American Journal of Science—his one substantial piece of published research, and a bid for scientific respectability. Professor John Draper, his former partner in daguerreotyping, appended a mathematical analysis of the results. They illustrated, Draper wrote, “the law of the conducting power of wires”: as the length of the wire increased, the diminution in electrical effect decreased and at a certain point became insignificant. Thus if Morse’s telegraph could operate over 160 miles, it could also transmit over far greater distances: “It is … possible to conceive a wire to be a million times as long as another, and yet the two shall transmit quantities of electricity not perceptibly different.”

In reporting his long-distance experiments to the Secretary of the Treasury, Morse invoked Draper’s “law” to prophesy the future. He had become fond of making such predictions, and in this case, as he would often point out, he was not mistaken: “a Telegraphic communication on my plan may with certainty be established across the Atlantic! Startling as this may seem now, the time will come when this project will be realised.”

While the insulated wire worked nicely, serious problems developed with the lead tubing. F. O. J. Smith had contracted for its manufacture with a young New Yorker named James Serrell. In Serrell’s patented process, lead was first cast into eighteen-inch ingots, through which ran a lengthwise hole. The ingots were threaded on a mandril (a cylindrical rod) and passed between rollers that pressed the lead around the mandril, shaping it into half-inch tubes. But in August, with the wire insulated and ready to be inserted in the tubing, Serrell failed to deliver—“not one foot,” Morse moaned. Serrell explained that an unusual rainstorm had flooded the basement in which he manufactured his pipe. To Morse, however, the problem seemed to be that the young man lacked drive, “a yankee contriving go ahead management.” A few weeks later, Serrell reported that he was halted again, this time by damage to the furnace that powered his steam engine. In the end he admitted that he could produce no more than ten of the forty miles of pipe that Morse required.

Badly set back in his schedule, Morse had Smith hire a different manufacturer for the remaining thirty or so miles. Smith contracted with Benjamin Tatham & Company, which agreed to deliver all of the tubing, in three installments, before November 20. Morse had planned to demonstrate his Baltimore-Washington line when Congress convened in December. Tatham’s delivery date would at least allow him to demonstrate it before Congress closed, at the beginning of March—though the timing would be close and meant working into the early winter. He got Tatham to use a hollow mandril that he and James Fisher had invented. The insulated wires could be laid in the mandril beforehand and inserted into the tubes at the moment they were shaped from the lead ingots. Morse appointed Fisher to inspect the results at Tatham’s New York manufactory, using an air pump to make sure the tubing was free of leaks and cracks before shipment by schooner to Baltimore.

To get things moving, Morse decided to put down the existing ten miles of pipe. The trenching—the last of the three major steps in constructing the line—gave no less trouble than the manufacture of the tubing. To excavate the forty-mile-long trench, Smith contracted with a New Yorker named Levi S. Bartlett, who happened to be his wife’s brother. Morse objected, not because of the nepotism but because Bartlett’s rate of $153 per mile exceeded the estimate he had given the government. He had stayed painstakingly within his budget. He hoped to produce the Baltimore-Washington line for the government and the country as cheaply as possible. What most threatened the future of his telegraph, he believed, was that it might be seen as an extravagance.

Smith took offense, but arranged for his brother-in-law to subcontract the trenching to a different excavator, Ezra Cornell (1807–1874). Born to a Quaker family in Westchester, New York, but now settled upstate in Ithaca, Cornell had had a rural upbringing and little education. Like Morse, he had scrambled for a living—in his case for a wife and nine children. Off and on he had worked as a potter, carpenter, sheep raiser, machinist, millwright, and real estate speculator. Having recently bought the rights to a new sort of plow, he traveled the country to market it, sometimes doing forty miles a day on foot. In Portland, Maine, he met F. O. J. Smith, who persuaded him to design a machine for laying pipe underground. Cornell saw Morse’s telegraph enterprise as his financial salvation. If the new line worked, lines would be laid all over the country, and his trenching machine would be worth a fortune.

Morse went to Portland for a few days to inspect Cornell’s machine, liked it, and authorized its use. In essence the machine was a combination plow and cart, drawn by a team of eight mules. The plowshare, rather like a hatchet blade, cut a deep narrow slit in the earth. Atop the cart stood a large drum wound with lead pipe containing the wire circuits. As the plow advanced, tubing was at the same time fed behind it into the just-dug trench. The narrow furrow collapsed into itself, covering the tube with earth. Almost simultaneously, the machine cut the trench, laid the pipe, and buried it.

The trenching got under way at eight o’clock on the morning of October 21, three weeks behind Morse’s schedule. Working from Baltimore toward Washington, Cornell began laying the ten miles of Serrell pipe from a hill on which stood the depot of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Because of the city terrain, he and his men had to entrench the first two thousand feet by hand. Once outside the depot area, early in November, Cornell set to work with his machine. He discovered that while the mule team could lay from half a mile to one mile a day, the plumbers who soldered together the drum-length sections could join no more than a quarter of a mile. As a result, the two crews worked out of step, the time lag increasing day by day. Morse applied to Washington for permission to hire extra solderers. But to his grief, the new pipe manufacturer, Tatham & Company, announced that they were running late and could not produce the rest of the tubing before early December.

Existing documents leave the sequence of events during the first few weeks in December unclear. By then Cornell had laid the Serrell pipe from the Baltimore depot to a point about ten miles outside the city. But Morse’s troubles were piling up, money running out, winter coming on. “I shall need driving able faithful men,” he lamented, “men capable of bearing the cold weather if it should so happen.” This excluded Leonard Gale, who fell ill; too thin and weak to work outdoors, he resigned. Worse, a section of the entrenched Serrell pipe was found, ominously, to contain water.

Much worse, when the new pipe from Tatham & Company arrived, the insulated circuits inside turned out to be severely damaged. Unlike Serrell, Tatham had shaped the lead tubes from hot rather than cold ingots. The heat had in many places charred the varnished cotton that insulated the wire. Morse blamed Fisher, having carefully instructed him to visit Tatham’s New York manufactory to examine the tubing and test the wires before they were shipped. Believing that Fisher had simply neglected to do so, Morse discharged him—reluctantly, since he felt grateful to Fisher for his help in Washington the year before.

Sometime in early December, Morse suspended the trenching in order to study his deteriorating situation. Thirty years later, Ezra Cornell recalled that Morse took him aside and confided that he did not want the newspapers to know that work had been deliberately stopped; he needed an excuse. Cornell said he could manage that. Stepping back to his machine he called out “hurrah boys whip up the mules.” His teamsters cracked their whips. As the mules started off, Cornell grasped the handles of the trenching machine and intentionally steered it into a rock, breaking it. Cornell’s recollections are often unreliable, and Morse may have given out a milder explanation of the stoppage. The Baltimore Patriot reported that having laid his circuit ten miles, Morse was now “making a trial in order to ascertain its capacities before going further.”

During the time-out Morse seems to have weighed several possibilities. He might withdraw the defective wire from the Tatham tubes and revarnish it. Or lay down a short line in Washington between the Patent Office and the Capitol, to have at least something to show. Or try putting the conductors above ground. His friend Ellsworth advised him against making major changes, which might weaken public and government confidence in the telegraph. With cold weather setting in Morse resigned himself to storing his materials and halting work until the spring. “I have difficulties and trouble in my work,” he told Sidney, “but none of a nature as yet to discourage.”

Discouragement was not far off, however, plenty of it. Work on the line no sooner stopped than Morse got into a heated quarrel with Professor James Fisher. Fisher resented having been summarily fired “without a hearing, without any examination of the facts.” In fact, he said, he did test the wire in the pipe from Tatham & Company, but had been given a weak battery that did not reveal its defects. Condemning Morse’s “imperious manner,” he not unreasonably reminded him of his labors in Washington to secure the appropriation. At a time when Morse’s partners had deserted the venture, he had left his family and borrowed money to get to the capital: “you were willing to avail yourself of my assistance to obtain that which you wished & then to whistle me off as of no further use.”

Though fond of Fisher, Morse did not take well to what he regarded as insolence from a subordinate. He got off a high-toned reply sternly charging Fisher with “unfaithfulness to your trust.” Opinion in Washington was that Fisher had done more harm than good, “that where you gained one friend for the telegraph you made two enemies.” Fisher slashed back, demanding that Morse pay him $55 for his board in Washington the previous winter, at the home of a Reverend Rich. Morse checked with the minister and learned that Fisher had been a welcome guest, at no charge. He refused to pay. Fisher demanded the money again, this time adding interest as a late penalty: “I wish you … no longer to trifle with me.” To convince Morse that he meant to be taken seriously, he threatened to show their correspondence to “leading scientific gentlemen” and to publish part of it.

At the same time, Morse began squabbling with F. O. J. Smith. Although about fifteen years younger than Morse, the ex-congressman was far shrewder. From his marriage into the wealthy Bartlett family—whose members included a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a governor of New Hampshire—and from his own questionable bank deals and land speculation, he had built a mansion on thirty-four acres near Portland, crowned by a dome of colored glass. He passed through the city’s streets in a fine carriage driven by a black coachman and drawn by expensive blood grays. His political foes had often accused him of double-dealing and chicanery. One dubbed him “F. O. J. Smith, L.S.C.”—Liar, Scoundrel, and Coward.

Morse discovered that Francis Ormond Jonathan Smith knew something about wheeling and dealing. In arranging contracts for the tubing and trenching, Smith had seen a chance to make some fast cash at government expense. He had bargained for an advantageous rate with Tatham & Company, a savings in Morse’s cost estimate of about a thousand dollars. He proposed to Morse that they split the money—“all perfectly fair,” he said. Morse was less certain, and after consulting Sidney he said no. Smith pocketed $500, while Morse credited the rest to the government as so much saved from the appropriation.

On another bit of financial legerdemain, Smith tried to cut in his brother-in-law, Levi Bartlett. Clearly with Smith’s connivance—probably at his urging—Bartlett protested that the work stoppage violated his contract. The trenching, he said, had been halted after ten miles not through any fault of his or of his subcontractor, Cornell, but because of damage to the lead pipes. He therefore insisted on being paid in full for trenching the entire forty miles, some $4600. Smith wrote out a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury for Morse to sign. Morse would say that he had vouchers for all of Bartlett’s work, and in effect ask the government to pay him the full amount.

Morse’s scrupulous sense of personal honor gasped at the crude scheming. Smith asked him, he said, for “a sacrifice of what to me is dearer than life.” Nothing if not brazen, Smith in response took the high moral ground. He grandly accused Morse of casting “undeserved reproach” on his motives: “I fear not the strictest scrutiny. I have done nothing secretly.” In reality it was Morse who had a “secret purpose,” he charged, namely, to evade the Bartlett contract altogether, as if it had never existed. Smith prepared a substitute letter for Morse’s signature, asking the Secretary of the Treasury merely to pay Bartlett proper damages.

Morse had been inclined to do something like that. But in Smith’s offensive tone of injured innocence he detected a clawing opportunist who held in contempt his own ideal of public service. He told Smith he had read his reply with “much surprize,” unable to reconcile it with “the professions of regard you have so often expressed towards me.” He would tell the Secretary no more than how much of the trenching had been completed, and how much money paid out for it; the Secretary could decide whether to award damages to Bartlett. Not to be denied, Smith personally took his case to the Secretary, complaining about Morse’s superintendence. As it happened, the Secretary had no authority to investigate the merits of Bartlett-Smith’s case or to entertain any claims for damages. Smith denounced him as a “knave at heart” and asked Morse to join in an appeal to the President.

Morse declined, but as the new year approached he again began to feel desperate. “I was never so tried,” he wrote to Sidney from Washington. “Troubles cluster in such various shapes, that I am almost overwhelmed.” He had come to realize that he was locked in partnership with a slick-tongued finagler, a bully on the make: “where I expected to find a friend I find a FIEND.” It appalled him that he had nearly fallen for Smith’s attempt to skim government money from the Tatham contract. And now, for having repulsed his shabby trickery, Smith was hounding him: “because I refused to accede to terms which, as a public officer, I could not do without dishonor and violation of trust, he pursues me thus malignantly.” The recognition that he now had a hell-raising enemy made prospects for the Baltimore-Washington line look dark, “but I know,” he said, “who can bring light out of darkness, and in Him I trust.”

While uneasily waiting to resume work in the spring, Morse spent most of the winter in Washington. He put up at the house of Henry Ellsworth, who allowed him to store the telegraph apparatus and materials in the basement of the Patent Office. Alfred Vail and Ezra Cornell remained in the capital too, busy but discontented.

Vail roomed near the Patent Office, indulging before breakfast his mineralogy hobby, collecting petrified hickory from nearby streams and railroad beds. Mostly he spent the interlude studying Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches, laboring as always to improve the components of Morse’s ever-more-demanding system. While working on the line he had invented many perhaps useful devices, such as a machine for winding magnets in fine, silk-covered copper wire. Skilled in mechanical drawing, he set down detailed illustrations of them in his lab books. But he still griped that his salary was inadequate and confided to his wife that Morse’s management was inefficient and indecisive: “I should not at all wonder if the appropriation is exhausted before we are able to do a thing, such is his manner of proceeding.” He stayed cheerful and lost no sleep, he said, but he also thought of quitting.

Cornell too read up on electricity, in books he withdrew from the Library of Congress. Mostly he looked after the mules, enthusiastic about being part of the government project—and grateful. He saw a real chance of improving the hand-to-mouth existence of his much-loved family by getting a permanent place with Morse, who had put him on the payroll as a full-time “Assistant” to replace Fisher. Just the same, in debt and patching his work pants he considered peddling his pipe-laying machine in Washington and grumbled that he was treated unfairly: “I do more work myself than the other men that Professor Morse has attached to the Telegraph put together and one of them at least [i.e., Vail] receives as much pay as I do.”

During the break, relations between Smith and Morse grew so tense that they could no longer speak to each other without wrangling. Morse’s first mistake had been to involve himself with the conniving Smith. His second was to rile him, for Smith was rabid about settling scores. It seems certain that it was Smith who prodded Tatham & Company to now demand full payment for their lead tubes, as Bartlett had for his trenching. Tatham claimed (not unreasonably) that the charring of the wires inside was the result of the hollow mandril devised and supplied to them by Morse and Fisher. Smith backed up the Company in a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, attributing the damage to “the error in Professor Morse’s whole theory of laying his wires.”

Smith also took sides against Morse with the dismissed Fisher—unjustly accused of negligence, he said, when the real fault was Morse’s “supposed knowledge of electric current.” He stirred up further trouble by protesting Vail’s receipt of a government salary, on the ground that Vail’s agreement with the other proprietors of the patent required him to give his personal services without pay. Aware of friction between Vail and Cornell regarding which “Assistant” had the higher authority, Smith played on it by advising Cornell to badmouth Vail to Morse: “I would just take Professor Morse aside, & tell him in plain terms how utterly worthless Vail is in all the practical matters of constructing the work.” Needling Morse more directly, he asked reimbursement now for postage, cabs, and other alleged expenses during his legal service in England and France six years earlier.

Morse still hoped to settle their differences amicably. For all his intelligence and imagination, he was easily flustered by worldly men, fearful that they might undo his prestige and his financial independence. And he had yet to fathom Smith, whom an adversary described as “one of the most heartless and vindictive villains that ever trod in shoe leather.” To inject real torment into the petty feuding, Smith joined Charles Jackson and François Gouraud in branding Morse an intellectual thief. Morse’s inventions, Smith told him, were shams, “pieces of deception & humbuggery” filched from Steinheil and others. “The day of exposure in this matter is fast approaching,” he threatened. “You have driven me by the interest of self protection & self defence to hasten it.” He reportedly began knocking Morse’s telegraph to others, calling it “not such a great affair”; “it will be superseded by other plans.” In his reckless rage, Smith apparently did not care that his threats to destroy Morse recoiled on himself, that as one of the proprietors of Morse’s patent he stood to lose if the telegraph failed. “He seems bent on his own ruin,” Vail said.

Morse replied to the bullying with a dozen dignified letters, lecturing Smith on every issue between them in a controlled, unperturbed tone. But his wounds showed. Waiting out the winter at Ellsworth’s house he sometimes went sleepless, and became bedridden with a bad cold. To Vail he seemed more than usually overbearing and irritable, making a “great fury” if one of his crew was absent even when there was nothing to do. Morse understood that Smith’s assaults had shaken him. “I am fully aware that of late I have evinced an unusual sensitiveness,” he told Ellsworth. “My temperament, naturally sensitive, has lately been made more so by the combination of attacks from deceitful associates without and bodily illness within.”

Morse also understood that his difficulties in constructing the line had inspired criticism and unfavorable publicity. To counter it he placed a notice in the Journal of Commerce:

In an enterprise so entirely new, it can hardly be expected that every part can be conducted with that precision and perfectness which is gained only by experience. Unforeseen difficulties will be encountered and are to be overcome, and delays will of course be incurred. There are no intrinsic ones as yet of a nature to shake the confidence of the most sanguine in the final triumph of the enterprise.

Morse meant to reassure the public, but his statement was no mere cover-up. Every new technology encounters unforeseen problems and undergoes a process of refinement. Quite as Morse said, his work on the line had been a hands-on education that by exposing defects and raising unfamiliar questions produced practical understanding. The confidence he expressed in “the final triumph of the enterprise” was also no twaddle. He, Vail, and Cornell had an almost impersonal faith in the possibilities of the telegraph that transcended failures, setbacks, and bickering, a zeal beyond ambition and desire to see it succeed.

In mid-March, Morse and his crew set to work again on building the Baltimore-Washington line. His experience during the fall with punctured tubes and burnt insulation had left him skeptical of interring the circuit. In addition, Leonard Gale warned that acid in the soil would corrode the pipes, and Joseph Henry said he believed that contact between the wires inside would cause a short circuit. Morse decided to experiment with the alternate method he had described to Congress six years ago, when first requesting an appropriation—stretching his conductors in the air on poles.

Proceeding this time from Washington toward Baltimore, Ezra Cornell headed a work gang of more than twenty-five men to bore auger holes in the earth and set up the posts. These were mainly rough-hewn chestnut trees, barks left on, cut to a height of 30 feet, planted to a depth of 4 feet, about 200 feet apart. Two wires ran on from post to post, attached to cross arms. The fastening of the wires presented a critical problem in insulation. Morse adopted Cornell’s idea of wrapping them at the point of contact in shellac-saturated cloth. The packet was sandwiched between two plates of glass, kept in place by a wooden cover nailed to the post.

By the last week in March, Cornell’s gang had put up some seven miles of timber—distance enough for trials to determine whether to extend the line all the way to Baltimore. The short-range tests were successful, and early in April construction began in earnest. Cornell toiled from six in the morning to six at night, sometimes in rain and wind, shuttling back and forth between Washington and Baltimore on the railroad cars, in which some of his men also ate and slept. Morse remained mostly in two rooms assigned him in the Capitol building, where a transmitter and receiver had been set up.

Each day, as the line of poles marched eastward, Morse tested the ever longer circuit for several hours. He telegraphed back and forth with Vail or Cornell at the other end in some town or village ever closer to Baltimore—Bladensburg, Beltsville, White Oak Bottom:

[April 27] … day rainy and cold wind N. E. 60 pairs, nitric acid twice used. Mr. Vail at Bladensburg. Much perplexed in the morning to arrange connections, but about 30 minutes past 10 found all right. Corresponded till 12 then disconnected and tried long circuit to the Junction 22 miles, had slight indications for a few moments, when all action ceased … Either the rain affects it, the battery is too weak, or there is defective connection somewhere in the line.

Experiments continued, for instance with using the earth itself as part of the conducting circuit. And in fine-tuning the line, adjustments were continually made in batteries, magnets, and other apparatus. Yet construction of the overhead line went briskly, better than a mile a day. Worries persisted that someone might maliciously damage the exposed wire. No one did, although at least once the wire broke at a faulty joint. “Professor Morse is on tiptoe,” Vail observed.

On May 1, Morse staged a dramatic stunt that gave the public a peek at what was to come. The Whig national convention was meeting in Baltimore to choose candidates for President and Vice President. Morse stationed Vail at Annapolis Junction, a train stop some twenty-two miles from Washington. There Vail would intercept the results of the balloting as they were being forwarded to Washington by railroad. Vail would then telegraph the results to him, so that the much-awaited news would reach the capital an hour and a quarter before arriving by train. Vail reported by wire that the Whig delegates had nominated Henry Clay for President and Theodore Frelinghuysen for Vice President. As the news spread through the capital, Morse found himself “over run” with visitors. Some asked him to have Vail transmit their names, which they could say had been written down in Washington by someone at Annapolis Junction.

As the line neared Baltimore over the next three weeks, Morse arranged other means of “exciting wonder.” He again had Vail intercept the train, this time to send on to Washington items from New York or Philadelphia newspapers, and short sentences by the passengers. Messages flew back and forth, Morse beamed, “with the rapidity almost of common conversation.” While sending the messages, he and Vail tried to improve their transmission of the still unfamiliar code. “Separate your words a little more,” Morse instructed him in one case. “Strike your dots firmer, and do not separate the two dots of the O so far apart. Condense your language more; leave out ‘the’ when ever you can, and when h follow t, separate them so that they shall not be 8.”

As public curiosity and excitement swelled, Morse’s mood, never very stable, fluctuated wildly. “He changes oftener than the wind,” Vail complained. “Now he is elated up to the skies, then he is down in the mud.” Vail said he had his hands full trying to keep his employer from becoming ill: “Professor Morse is a complete granny.” Some of Morse’s downswings may have been brought on by F. O. J. Smith. He kept pressing Morse to persuade the Secretary of the Treasury to settle with him and his brother-in-law for the unfinished trenching, even though the Secretary had made it clear that he lacked authority to do so. Morse scoffed at Smith’s demand as a “hallucination.” But Smith had bought a half interest in Cornell’s pipe-laying machine, and now was also miffed by Morse’s decision to string the wire on posts. He chafed like “a wild boar,” Morse said, determined to be “as ugly as he can.”

Register used in the Baltimore-Washington trials (Smithsonian Institution)

During the last week of construction, Morse petitioned the mayor of Baltimore for the right to plant twenty-five or thirty posts within city limits. The system now nearly in place differed beyond recognition from the printer’s composing stick and crude frame-stretcher that Morse had cobbled together a dozen years earlier. Vail had reinvented the cumbrous port-rule, replacing it with the simple classic telegraph key that opened and closed the circuit, sending a sequence of dots and dashes. After much experiment, Morse or Vail or both together had also transformed the unwieldy register into a compact clockwork machine that embossed incoming signals on a paper tape.

Telegraph key of the 1840s (Smithsonian Institution)

Morse powered his instruments by a bulky Grove battery, eighty cups of nitric acid. The use of an overhead line allowed him to at last introduce his relays. He also installed his so-called receiving magnets. Kept hidden from the general public until now, these relay-like devices actuated registers at local telegraph stations along the main line. According to Cornell, the receiving magnets weighed 150 pounds and were housed in yard-long boxes about two feet wide and eight inches deep. Renewing the current, passing it along, and switching in intermediate circuits, Morse’s relay system promised future networks of enormous versatility and range.

Morse’s Washington-to-Baltimore telegraph line officially opened on May 24, 1844. For the inaugural transmission Vail brought his apparatus to the so-called upper depot in Baltimore, about a mile outside the city. Morse set up his instruments in the chamber of the United States Supreme Court.

Morse invited Annie Ellsworth, the commissioner’s daughter, to compose the first message. He spoke of her as “my dear young friend” and was rumored to be romantically interested. But the invitation, he explained, was a form of thanks. When Congress passed the appropriation bill, it was Annie who brought him the news. In thinking up an appropriate message she consulted her mother, who suggested the exclamation of the prophetic Balaam in Numbers 23:23: “What hath God wrought!”

Unfortunately, no graphic account of what transpired in the Supreme Court chamber survives. Morse tapped the message to Vail in Baltimore, who tapped it back to him. Next morning, Vail removed his apparatus to the railroad warehouse in the lower depot, within city limits. Morse again transmitted the same biblical text. He kept the line open for several hours, allowing the perhaps two dozen spectators in Washington and Baltimore to exchange names and send compliments to each other.

The now-famous transmission on May 24 attracted little more attention in the press than an item Morse himself wrote for the Observer, headed “The Electric Telegraph Triumphant.” The acclaim began three days later, as the Democratic convention convened at Baltimore’s Odd Fellows’ Hall, the city’s largest auditorium. Because of intense interest in the proceedings, the place was jam-packed. Delegates strenuously contested the nominations for president, one major issue being the annexation of Texas and what it would mean for the controversial extension of slavery. With the nomination deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass, the convention picked the first presidential dark horse candidate, James K. Polk.

Morse generated enormous publicity by having Vail telegraph news of the raucous proceedings to Washington. Mobbed by people eager to watch the transmission, Vail had to keep the door locked so as to admit only fifteen or twenty spectators at a time. “Hundreds begged and pleaded to be allowed mearly to look at the instrument,” he told Morse. “They declared they would not say a word or stir and didn’t care whether they understood or not, only they wanted to say they had seen it.” At the same time, Morse in Washington found himself surrounded by politicians eager for results of the balloting. A Washington correspondent of the New York Herald reported that “little else is done here but watch Professor Morse’s Bulletin from Baltimore, to learn the progress of doings at Convention.”

Those seeking up-to-the-minute news of the convention were not disappointed. Vail’s dispatches to Morse, recorded in his detailed transcript of them, included the choice of Polk on the ninth ballot, and the rush of state delegations to change their vote in order to demonstrate loyalty to the party’s compromise choice:

V[ail] Mr. Brewster of Pa is speaking in favour of Buchanan M[orse] yes….

V Mr Brewster says his delegation go for VB but if VB’s friends desert them, the Delegation go for Buchanan…. The vote taken will be nearly unanimous for J K Polk & harmony & union are restored

M Is it a fact or a mere rumor

V Wait till the ballot comes…. Illinois goes for Polk … Mich goes for Polk. Penn asks leave to correct her error so as to give her whole vote for Polk….

M Intense anxiety prevails to … hear the result of last Balloting V Polk is unanimously nom

At this point Morse telegraphed back to Baltimore the effect on those around him of Polk’s nomination:

M 3 cheers have been given here for Polk and 3 for the Telegraph.

By Morse’s account, the hundreds of people outside the room, mostly members of Congress, called for him to appear at the window, where they added three cheers for him. He and Vail closed up shop on a less stirring note:

V Have you had your dinner

M yes have you

V yes what had you

M mutton chop and strawberries.

Morse created more excitement the following day by making his system part of the process for selecting Polk’s running mate. The Baltimore convention nominated Silas Wright, an anti-slavery senator. The delegates’ choice was telegraphed to Wright, who immediately telegraphed back from Washington that he declined. A second message went out from Baltimore asking him to reconsider, but he wired back that his mind was made up. A third message informed him that the convention had adjourned for the day but that five delegates had been appointed to confer with him in the capital, where they would arrive next morning. The long-distance political bargaining, the National Register reported, went on “with lightning speed.”

Morse kept the line in operation after the Democratic convention closed, with spectacular results. Like New York, Philadelphia had been riven by nativist debates about the relation of Catholic citizens to the public schools. A week after the convention, Catholic-Protestant fighting with fists, knives, and pistols broke out in Philadelphia, eclipsing in violence the sack of Boston’s Ursuline Convent School in 1834.

Vail intercepted news of the bloodletting as it arrived by express train in Baltimore. Then he telegraphed reports to Morse, who brought them personally to Secretary of State John C. Calhoun: “continued riots at Philadelphia…. The mob has possession of the city … Gen Cadwallader has fled for his life … 40 or 50 killed and wounded.” With two Catholic churches and many Irish homes burned to the ground, Morse’s line also showed its potential by sending on to President Tyler a request for aid from the mayor of Philadelphia. Throngs gathered around Vail and Morse to watch the urgent transmissions: “The Rooms are crouded with gazing spectators,” Cornell wrote to his wife, “whose countinances are not unfrequently distorted with wonder and amazement.”

In June, Morse opened the line to selected members of the public. A Washington post office employee was informed of the birth of his Baltimore grandson: “Mother and son doing well.” From Baltimore, the incendiary Samuel Colt detonated a fuse of gunpowder in the antechamber of the Supreme Court building. Members of the Washington Chess Club played Baltimoreans an intercity over-the-wire match, “with the same ease,” Morse remarked, “as if the players were seated at the same table.” The celebrated Antarctic explorer Captain Charles Wilkes conducted a three-day experiment in the more exact determination of differences of longitude.

Morse had suggested this scientific use for the telegraph five years earlier. Establishing longitude meant knowing the time in two far-apart places at once, a one-hour difference representing fifteen degrees of longitude. Wilkes was able to place Battle Monument Square in Baltimore 1 m. 34 sec. 868 east of the Capitol, correcting former measurements by .732 of a second. “Your Telegraph,” he told Morse, “offers the means for determining Meridian distances more accurately than ever before within the power of Instruments and Observors.” The improvement mattered because communities all over America defined their own local time, and travelers had to readjust their watches from city to city. By making possible the all but instantaneous synchronization of distant places, Morse’s telegraph augured the introduction of a uniform national time.

Morse produced his most impressive show during the fall presidential elections. He assigned Vail to the Washington station and positioned a new assistant, Henry Rogers, at the Baltimore end. As election returns from the southern states arrived at the capital, Vail sent them on to Baltimore. At the same time, Rogers tapped out from Baltimore incoming returns from the northeastern states. Expectant crowds collected around the telegraphs in both cities, including cabinet members and other government officials.

Into the late evening, Vail had the tallies announced out the window of his Washington office. Morse cautioned him to give only official results, not mere rumors, and in announcing them to leave no impression of political partisanship. Vail estimated the number of Whig and Democrat voters gathered outside at three to four thousand: “their shouts go up like peals of thunder,” he said. “It is royal sport to see the breathless interest felt just before the telegraphic communication is announced…. Then the 3 cheers from one party or the other as the case may be.”

In proving the efficiency and usefulness of his invention, Morse revealed the coming into being of a remarkable new technology. His telegraph was the subject of relatively as much discussion in the newspapers and magazines of the mid-1840s as the Internet became in the mass media of the 1990s. Americans could not read enough about his “Lightning Line,” as they began calling it. The press published his dot-dash code in full; explained in elementary terms his conductors and galvanic batteries; offered capsule histories of the discovery of electromagnetism—matters little if at all known to American readers. “Is this mysterious power a substance or an effect?” asked the New York Daily Times. When Morse tried to explain his invention to several members of Congress, a bystander observed, they looked blank, “as if he had spoken in Hebrew.”

Bafflement was the common reaction to Morse’s system. It seemed to operate by “an almost supernatural agency,” one newspaper said; “we stand wonder-stricken and confused.” Americans compared it to a bottle-imp, a spell, a classical myth, something from the Arabian Nights. The wonderment stemmed in part from the awesome harnessing of power they believed the telegraph represented. Most conceived the electric current in Morse’s circuits not in terms of batteries but in terms of lightning. In many minds, he had “chained the very lightning of heaven,” commanding his wires to program and propel the most destructive force in Nature. Marveling at his invention as the “climax of all human might,” they experienced something of the all-transforming awakening that later accompanied the dawn of the atomic age.

Just as bafflingly, Morse’s telegraph “annihilated space and time.” No other description of his device was so often and so widely repeated. Through his before-unthinkable lightning-wires, information could hurtle across forty miles instantaneously (actually, at nearly the speed of light). Better than that: given the difference in clock-time between cities, a message could arrive at one before being sent from the other, transmitted in “less than no time.” Americans conceived telegraphic transmission not so much as communication, however, than as a sort of teleportation. Morse had transmuted Thought, abstract human Thought, into metal strips and jars of acid. A congressional report on the telegraph noted: “If machinery don’t think, it does that which nothing but severe and prolonged thinking can do, and it does it incomparably better.” Americans spoke of creating a “new species of consciousness” separated from the body, a discorporate electronic telepresence. Dizzyingly, Mind could be at one place but also at another: “this extraordinary discovery leaves … no elsewhere—it is all here.”

For the United States, the annihilation of space was as much a political as a scientific achievement. From the beginning, the spread of the American people over so large a territory had raised doubts about whether the Republic could be governed. Such concerns became acute as the population increased during the first half of the nineteenth century by about 450 percent, and the nation expanded westward across the continent. And the five years after the opening of the Washington-Baltimore line would enlarge the problem. Into the Union would come Texas, the huge Oregon Territory, and the half-million square miles of land including the present states of Nevada, Utah, and California, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and part of Wyoming and Colorado.

But Morse’s “magic chords” put to rest any fears that the swelling United States was doomed to burst apart. As a government report explained:

Doubt has been entertained by many patriotic minds how far the rapid, full, and thorough intercommunication of thought and intelligence, so necessary to a people living under a common representative republic, could be expected to take place throughout such immense bounds. That doubt can no longer exist. It has been resolved and put an end to forever by the triumphant success of the electro-magnetic telegraph of Professor Morse….

Many likened this interconnectedness to the central nervous system: “Touch but one nerve with skilful hand, /Through all the thrill unbroken flies.” Now American institutions could be extended indefinitely, the nation becoming a lightning-bound network of communities within minutes’ reach of each other, a single neuro-electropolis. Despite the vastness of the territory across which their tens of millions were spread, Americans would become more and more one people, thinking and acting alike.

In forecasting other social changes that Morse’s invention might bring, antebellum futurologists adapted their thinking to the Gospel of Progress. The New York Sun proclaimed the telegraph “the greatest revolution of modern times and indeed of all time, for the amelioration of Society.” It would create civic order, strengthen domestic ties, bring harmony among nations, and redeem mankind.

In this spirit, the Utica Gazette anticipated an “immense diminution” in crime. Felons would give up hope of escaping justice: “fly, you tyrants, assassins and thieves, you haters of light, law, and liberty, for the telegraph is at your heals [sic].” Domestic joy and sorrow would thrill along the wires: “the absent will scarcely be away,” rhapsodized the Philadelphia North American, “the mother may, each day, renew her blessing upon her child a thousand leagues away; and the father, each hour, learn the health of those around his distant fireside.” The author of “The Song of the Telegraph” promised that war would cease:

With the olive branch extended,

Swift I go to every shore;

Soon all nations shall be blended,

They shall learn of war no more.

Ultimately nations would be wired to each other, making the planet a neural map, what the Christian Observor called a “sensorium of communicated intelligence.” Acting through the global cyborg, God’s grand processes would realize His grand design of leading humanity toward salvation. As the New York Herald put it, “What a future!”

In its more practical effects, the telegraph would whet the appetite for news, strengthen national defense, and boost the country’s go-ahead businessmen, transforming the press, the military, and the marketplace. News of the Declaration of Independence had taken more than two weeks to reach Williamsburg, Virginia, from Philadelphia. In the near future, by contrast, “the events of yesterday throughout the entire land will be given, as we now give the occurrences at home today.” Should European despots threaten an invasion, the government would activate the “mystic meshes,” instantly alarming the entire country and raising three million fighting men: “no power of a foreign country could long have a foot-hold among a people who possess such combined and prodigious means of concentrating its great strength.” With the country pulling out of its long economic depression, the telegraph would carry complex business deals, in secrecy if desired, making commerce no longer dependent on snail-paced mail or agitated by rumors. Guarantees sent at lightning speed would take the place of precious metals and banknotes: “gold and silver may stay at home … or be laid aside in flower pots and old stockings. The lightning will have taken up their task.”

Whatever their particular hopes, all those who praised Morse’s apparatus agreed in viewing it as a surpassing marvel. It was “the most wonderful climax of American inventive genius,” the “greatest of the great inventions of the modern times”—even “the most magnificent effort of the mind of man.”

To its enthusiasts, this opening of the modern era of communication marked a new start, a dividing line between generations. According to the Herald, those who resisted it would count for nothing:

Steam and electricity, with the natural impulses of a free people, have made, and are making, this country the greatest, the most original, the most wonderful the sun ever shone upon…. Those who do not mix with this movement—those who do not become part of this movement—those who do not go on with this movement—will be crushed into more impalpable powder than ever was attributed to the car of Juggernaut. Down on your knees and pray.

Some Americans, of course, refused to pay tribute. To Henry David Thoreau, for one, it seemed that sender and receiver might have “nothing important to communicate.” Refining human instruments but not human beings, electromagnetic telegraphy represented only “improved means to an unimproved end.”

The social consequences of the telegraph, like those of every other technology, would of course depend on the people who owned and used it. It needs no saying that despite the vision of a national sensorium uniting the continent, the United States would soon implode in civil war. Nor that for all the techno-utopian hoopla about reduced crime and family values, lightning-fast information processing in the era of cyberspace might also be a boon to credit-card fraud, child pornography, and international terrorism.

In the “Lightning Man,” as they often referred to him, Morse’s fellow citizens discovered a new national hero, a second Benjamin Franklin:

On the same tablet with our FRANKLIN’S name,

Thine, MORSE, in blazing characters shall flame!

In Washington, a House member rose in Congress to say: “His name is immortalised and will remain as long as time shall endure.” “Fame will build a new Pillar in her Temple,” a fan wrote to him, “higher & more magnificent than all of the others, & on the top of it inscribe the name of Morse.” Newspapers such as the Southern Standard acquainted Americans with their hero’s appearance and manner:

This eminent individual—the inventor of the last and greatest wonder of the age—is under forty-five [actually fifty-two]. He is a little above the common height [actually, just under five feet ten], and rather thin; his hair slightly grey, complexion dark and sallow, eyes brilliantly black, with a peculiarly soft and gentle expression.

The Home Journal subjected Morse’s head to phrenological analysis. Its readers learned that his well-developed organs of Constructiveness and Ideality revealed him to be hard and soft: “forcible, persevering, almost headstrong, self-relying, independent, aspiring, good-hearted, and eminently social, though sufficiently selfish to look well to his own interests.”

Invitations, honors, and flattering requests poured in on Morse. The British minister asked him to dine. The French Académie de l’Industrie awarded him its silver medal. He was elected to membership in the literary society of Marshall College, the Belgian Academy of Archaeology, the National Institution for the Promotion of Science. Admirers importuned him to act as agent for the Syro-Egyptian Society; to speculate in a new photographic process; to lecture to the Irving Literary Association of Baltimore; to furnish material on his modus operandi for an engineering journal. They sought his permission to demonstrate the telegraph in classrooms, his instruction in operating the invention, his political endorsement, his advice, a job (“I am a sober industrious man & can give my reference”).

Morse had always longed to be a national figure, like Joseph Henry in science or James Fenimore Cooper in literature—as his father had been in geography. He fully understood that his position in the world had changed: “my praises,” he told Sidney, “ring from one end of the country to the other.” The homage made him think of the hopeless darkness a year ago, the painfully slow labor of improving his instruments, the pie-in-the-sky offers extended then withdrawn, the suspense of waiting for an out-of-humor Congress to act, the indifference or perfidy of his partners—not to mention the many mornings before that when he arose not knowing where to find money for common expenses of the day, and his still earlier years of frustration as a painter. Reflecting on what he had survived and overcome, he told Sidney, he found himself constantly exclaiming, “What hath God wrought!”

Scarcely if at all remarked on at the time, the scriptural message would owe much of its later historical radiance to Morse’s invocations of it throughout his life. For him, it marked not the event but the gestation of the event. His work on the telegraph had all along been sustained by his belief that technology and theology were two sides of the same thing, that the inspiration and end of his invention was the greater glory of God, and secondly of God’s country. The conviction expressed in the text suggested by Annie Ellsworth’s mother had been in his mind day and night: “ ‘What hath God wrought!’ It is his work, and He alone could have carried me thus far through all my trials and enabled me to triumph over the obstacles, physical and moral, which opposed me.” His uplifting had come in answer to prayer, had come from God’s right arm which brings salvation. In recalling how his many trials had issued to his advantage, he felt his faith strengthened and believed he might never again mistrust the future.

Beginning with his arduous conversion, however, Morse’s long and deep religious experience had taught him that such assurance was often short-lived. The heart was deceitful, the future uncertain. Only three weeks after the triumphant inaugural demonstration of May 24 he took a bad fall, wounding his leg. He had injured his leg years before, as a boy studying at Phillips Academy. This time the painful wound confined him to bed in Washington. Though repeatedly dressed by a physician, it took six weeks to heal.

Not only failure, but prosperity, too, Morse could see, was a trial. The applause he heard so eagerly might rouse the natural pride of his heart, tempt him to take too much credit for what he had achieved, forget that without Christ he could do nothing. It was proper for him to rejoice, and he did. But he rejoiced, he said, with fear. In his new station in life he would need new strength to fortify him against the temptations of self-love: “If I am to have influence, increased influence, I desire to have it for Christ, to use it for his cause; if wealth, for Christ; if more knowledge, for Christ. I speak sincerely when I say I fear prosperity.”

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