Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872), a distinguished American painter and inventor, conceived a system of rapid communication based on the newly-discovered electromagnet. He made use of all the technical help he could find, and assembled a group of men who together made the idea a practical business, later called the Morse Patentees. They made use of the courts and the patent system to guarantee a virtual monopoly that became Western Union after the Civil War. The first message was transmitted from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., 44 miles, over a federally financed demonstration line on Saturday,. 25 May 1844. Since the post office did not acquire and extend the line, as was expected, the telegraph became a private business, and by the next year had already reached New York.
The telegraph was not a new idea, and other people were developing electromagnetic telegraphs at the same time as Morse, notably Cooke and Wheatstone in England, whose needle telegraph went into commercial service in 1838, six years before Morse's first message. Nevertheless, Morse's telegraph founded the American telegraph service, with its distinctive practices, and the Morse Telegraph came to mean this realization of the electromagnetic telegraph. Morse insisted that messages should be sent and received by mechanical means, sending by a port rule that opened and closed the circuit appropriately when it was moved, and receiving by the Morse register that embossed the message on a paper tape. The cumbersome port rule was soon replaced by the familiar Morse key and manual sending. The creation of a permanent record of a message was the key part of the Morse system.
Alfred Vail, an engineer and associate of Morse, had developed the code that was quite appropriately known as the Morse Code, since it was used on that system. Vail, and others, soon realized that the message could be read directly from the sound of the Morse register, without looking at the paper tape, and that this could be done much more rapidly than the plodding register could emboss tape. Around 1850, Vail invented the sounder, a receiving device that only made clicks as the circuit was opened or closed, and could operate much more rapidly than the register, which was limited to a few words per minute. To see a drawing of a sounder, click on this link: Sounder Drawing. The new method required trained operators, because receiving code by ear requires much more training than merely sending with a key, which can be quickly learned. The use of simple equipment and skilled operators was characteristic of the American telegraph. Overseas, and later in America as well, the emphasis was on complicated equipment and simple operators.
The sound of the first message, as received on the Vail sounder at a normal speed of 20 words per minute, can be heard by clicking on What Hath God Wrought. This will play better the second time, unless you have a fast modem. The message uses the American Morse Code, as invented by Vail, and used on all American land lines, especially railway telegraphs, until the end of the manual telegraph, which did not finally completely disappear from railway dispatching until the 1950's, since its accuracy was very desirable for this service. The International Morse Code, the more familiar code used on radio, was developed from the code created for the Austro-German telegraph service in 1851, based on Vail's code. It was more suitable for radio since it did not have spaced letters. Radio Morse is read by tones, not by sounder clicks. Tables of the codes can be found in History of the Telegraph, together with a much fuller historical account.
Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 23 July 1999
Last revised 20 September 2000