Telegraphy and Morse Code – A Breakthrough in Rapid Communication

Inkhorn-frontviewAn-bottomviewThis carved ivory object, recovered from a Baltimore privy filled in the mid-19th century, is an inkhorn and once formed part of a traveling writing kit known as a penner. In the age before the instant communication of telephone and email, the best way to reach out to people who were far away was to write and post a letter. This mode of communication, while effective, had some drawbacks.  It required an ability to read and write (or a friend willing to pen your letter) and the delivery took time.  These missives could take days, weeks or even months to reach their intended audience.

Rapid communication took an enormous leap forward in the year 1844, when Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first long distance telegraph message from Washington DC to the Mount Clare Railway Station in Baltimore. The year prior, Congress had allocated a sum of $30,000 for Morse to construct an electric telegraph line stretching forty miles between these two cities, after he successfully demonstrated the system between the Senate and House wings of the US Capitol (Chamber 2016).  Upon its completion in May of 1844, Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, sent the first official  telegraphic transmission.  They used a quote from the book of Numbers (23:23) in the Bible:  “What hath God wrought?”  That same day, messages sent from the Democratic convention in Baltimore let members of Congress know that James K. Polk had received the Democratic presidential nomination.  Baltimore newspapers became the first in the nation to include news stories sent by telegraph.

first message

First telegraphic message sent in 1844, reading “What hath God wrought?” In the collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

portrait samuel morse

Self portrait of Samuel Finley Breese Morse, c. 1910-1912. Library of Congress

An artist by profession, Morse developed the idea of coded communication sent as electrical pulses along wires in the 1830s.  Working with machinist and inventor Alfred Vail and Leonard Gale, a professor of chemistry and mineralogy, Morse was ready to patent his system by 1837.  He developed the forerunner to today’s Morse code, using a system of long and short pulses (dots and dashes) to signify individual letters of the alphabet. These pulses, received by an electromagnet at the other end of the wire, were decoded by a trained operator.  Early telegraph machines used a stylus to make indentations representing the dots and dashes in a strip of paper, which operators would then translate.  They soon learned that they could listen to the clicking of the machine and write the letters down instead, alleviating the need for the paper strips (Burns 2004).

The U.S. war with Mexico (1846-48) demonstrated telegraphy’s value and spurred massive investment in this new system of communication (Wallace 2012).  A number of inventors received patents for similar telegraph systems, with more than 50 telegraph companies in operation in the US by 1851.  The use of different systems caused confusion in the early years of telegraphy, but by the end of the Civil War, the Western Union Telegraph Company had bought out many of the smaller regional companies and standardization became common (Finding Dulcinea 2009).

With the installation of transcontinental telegraph lines, rapid communication became possible across the United States.   The use of mobile telegraph stations during the Civil War allowed President Abraham Lincoln immediate access to news of the battlefield, again proving its usefulness in wartime communications.  By the time Samuel F. B. Morse died in 1872, many parts of the world were connected by telegraph, forever changing the speed at which communication was possible.

In today’s world of texting, twitter feeds and instant messaging, the idea of decoding individual letters and forming them into words and messages seems a time-consuming task.  But in mid-19th century America, the use of the telegraph machine and Morse code revolutionized communication and set the stage for our instantaneous access to information and people.


Burns, R. W. 2004    Communications: An International History of the Formative Years. Institution of Electrical Engineers, ISBN 0-86341-327-7

Chamber. 2016    Samuel Morse Tests the Telegraph.  The Old Supreme Court Chamber Webpage,  accessed April 6, 2016.

Finding Dulcinea. 2009   On This Day: Samuel Morse Sends First US Telegram.   Website–Samuel-Morse-Sends-First-U-S–Telegram.html  accessed April 6, 2016.

Wallace, Harold D. Jr. 2012    Samuel Finley Breese Morse: Artist and Inventor. Oh Say Can You See:  Stories from the National Museum of American History.  Website  accessed April 6, 2016.



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