On this day in 1838, Samuel Morse and associate Albert Vail make the first public demonstration of the single-wire electric telegraph at the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey. The first transmission, with the message, “A patient waiter is no loser,” was witnessed by a mostly local crowd.
Known as an accomplished, Yale-educated portrait-painter, Morse’s inspiration for telegraphy came in response to tragedy. In 1825 New York City had commissioned Morse to paint a portrait of Lafayette in Washington, DC. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read, “Your dear wife is convalescent.”
The next day Morse received news from his father detailing his wife’s sudden death. Morse immediately left DC for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been interred. Heartbroken that for days he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and her death, he resolved to explore a means of rapid long distance communication.
Morse spent the next several years developing a prototype and took on two partners, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, to help him. At the public unveiling, he demonstrated his invention using Morse code, in which dots and dashes represented letters and numbers. In 1843, Morse finally convinced a skeptical Congress to fund the construction of the first telegraph line in the United States, from Washington, DC, to Baltimore. In May 1844, Morse sent the first official telegram over the line, with the message, “What hath God wrought!”
Over the next few years, private companies, using Morse’s patent, set up telegraph lines around the Northeast, whilst Morse fought numerous battles to protect his bounty. In 1851, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was founded; it would later change its name to Western Union. In 1861, Western Union finished the first transcontinental line across the United States, and the telegraph featured prominently in the conduct of the Civil War. Five years later, the first successful permanent line across the Atlantic Ocean was constructed and by the end of the century telegraph systems were in place in Africa, Asia and Australia.
Politically, Morse was a rabid anti-Catholic, running on the Nativist Party ticket for NYC Mayor in 1836. He was also an ardent defender of slavery, and in his treatise An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery, wrote:
“My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler.”
Morse died in New York City on April 2, 1872, and was interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. By the time of his death, his estate was valued at some $500,000 ($10.2 million today).