How Samuel Morse Stole the Telegraph

A scientist named Joseph Henry, his friend Leonard Gale and a machinist/inventor named Alfred Vail invented the telegraph that transformed the world.  Samuel Morse put their ideas together and gained fame and profit.  Morse didn’t do it for money, however.  His inspirations were a strange brew of ego, tragedy, and xenophobia.  How could ego, tragedy, and xenophobia lead to Samuel Morse gaining all the fame for the telegraph?  Well, I’ll tell you in this video.  Ready?  Let’s go.   

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in 1791 to an upper-crust family in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and had two unconnected passions: painting and xenophobia, both of which, in a roundabout way, led him to his interest in the electric telegraph.  Let’s start with painting.  When Morse was 19 he traveled to Europe to study painting.  Well, not really studying as much as pontificating on his genius at painting.  He wrote his mother that it wasn’t enough to be a portrait painter, no, he wanted to “revive the splendor of the fifteenth century; to rival the genius of a Rafael, a Michelangelo, or a Titian.” Morse then spent the next fifteen years in England and America as a successful painter… of portraits.

Samuel Morse
Samuel Morse

This is when tragedy struck.  In 1825, Morse got a commission to travel to paint a portrait of the American Revolutionary hero Lafayette visiting the US from France.  While working on this portrait, Morse received the news by mail that his young wife had fallen ill.  Although he immediately traveled to see her, it was too late and she had already passed away.  This tragedy was Morse’s first stimulus towards finding a faster way to communicate. 

Meanwhile, Morse worked on his other great passion, virulent hatred of Catholics and Catholic immigrants, writing pamphlets, giving speeches, and unsuccessfully running for mayor against this “cloven foot of foreign heresy”.  Morse decided what was needed was for Protestants to have a way to communicate quickly to help them thwart this menace.  In 1832, on a boat ride from Europe, Morse was talking to another passenger about electromagnets and was inspired to think of a system where the electricity moved something electromagnetically as a signal.

Morse didn’t know that he wasn’t the first to have this idea, in fact, it seemed like everyone who heard of the electromagnet thought of a telegraph.  The electromagnet had been invented seven years earlier when an Englishman named William Sturgeon determined that if you wrapped a wire around an iron bar when electricity flowed in the wires the bar would act as a magnet, but when the electricity was cut, the bar basically stopped being a magnet and would no longer create a magnetic attraction.  This seemed an obvious method of sending signals long distances.  However, Sturgeon’s electromagnet was wrapped too loosely to make a telegraph and would only transmit signals up to 200 feet. 

The Morse Telegraph
The Morse Telegraph

Just before Morse went on that boat ride an American scientist named Joseph Henry found that if you insulated the wire and wrapped it very tightly around the iron you could create an incredibly powerful electromagnet (he used it to lift over 2,000 pounds!).  Henry also made a smaller electromagnet that rang a bell when electrified.  He powered with a battery over a mile away.  Henry wrote that his invention would be, “directly applicable for forming the electro-magnetic telegraph.”  Now Morse didn’t know any of this because he didn’t think of doing any research.  He also had no scientific background. Still, Henry’s research did end up helping Morse eventually and significantly.

See three years later Morse got a job as a professor of art at New York University and started to work on his telegraph idea on the side with no success.  Morse then contacted a local science teacher named Leonard Gale.  Gale was a friend of Henry’s and proceeded to teach Morse how to make an effective electromagnet from his understanding of Henry’s work. 

Morse still had one major hurdle to his “discovery”.  The problem with the telegraph is that if you made the wires too long, the wires themselves had too much resistance and the current in the coil would be too small to register at the other end.  What he needed was a way to refresh the current with a new battery along the path.  He needed a way so that when the electricity flowed in the wires the electromagnet attraction would flip a switch to close a new circuit with a new battery.  In 1837, Morse once again turned to Lenard Gale who thought of Henry’s experiments.  Two years earlier Henry had made a spectacular demonstration where a long-distance signal powered a small electromagnet that closed a switch that powered a new battery with a strong electromagnet.  Gale realized that Henry already made an electromagnetic switch and made a version of it for Morse and “his” telegraph.

Morse felt that he had a working model and filed for a patent.  At this time he attracted the attention of a mechanic named Alfred Vail.  Vail signed a contract to work for Morse for a percent of the future profits but where all related patents would be, “taken out in the name and for the exclusive benefit of Morse.”  Vail then invented a telegraph key that worked like a stapler where when you pressed it closed a circuit to a battery and when you let go the circuit was broken.  Vail also set up the receiver with a spinning paper and coils that would punch a mark in the paper.  If you tapped the key for a second the paper would get a dot, if you held down the key it would leave a long bar or a dash.  Therefore, Vail made a code where each letter was a combination of dots and dashes.  This is commonly called Morse code. 

Meanwhile, Joseph Henry heard about Morse’s “discoveries” and wrote a friend about how Morse was a charlatan for claiming the entire idea of the telegraph for himself.  Henry didn’t want to profit off of the telegraph but he wanted the acknowledgment.  Then, in 1939, Lenard Gale went on vacation.  Not knowing Henry’s irritation with him, Morse sent Henry a letter asking for advice for his telegraph “as a learner” with no “contributions to your stock of experiments of any value”.  Henry was charmed. He agreed to meet and tried to help Morse make a working telegraph system.

Meanwhile, Morse tried to get government funding.  He talked to Francis Smith, a congressman from Maine, and the chairman of the House Commerce Committee.  Morse and Smith decided that if the government-funded Morse, Smith could get a portion of Morse’s company.  With the help of a friendly letter from Joseph Henry, Smith wrote a bill to give, basically, himself and Morse $30,000 (equivalent to 1 million dollars today) to build a telegraph line between Washington DC and Baltimore.

On May 24th, 1844 Morse in DC signaled to Vail in Baltimore, “What hath God wrought?”  Soon “Morse’s” telegraph was taking over the country.  However, Morse was soon embroiled in lawsuit after lawsuit as many people tried to profit off of “his” invention.  Joseph Henry was forced to participate in some of these trials and said under oath that he was, “not aware that Mr. Morse ever made a single original discovery applicable to the invention of the telegraph.”  Incensed, Morse wrote a book where he loudly proclaimed that Henry did nothing and he was the originator of all things to do with the telegraph.  After that Morse tried to erase all of Henry’s accomplishments AND most of Alfred Vail’s accomplishments as well!

samuel morse telegraph

Meanwhile, Alfred Vail did not complain as he felt that his contract with Morse meant that his ideas were basically Morse’s property, he couldn’t patent anything anyway, and Morse had come up with the original idea.  He was also friends with Morse and felt that their friendship was important, as was the “peaceful unity of the invention”. Vail worked on telegraphs for four more years but he felt that he was not appreciated and quit writing Morse, “I have made up my mind to leave the telegraph to take care of itself since it cannot take care of me.”  He died ten years later nearly destitute.

On the other hand, despite all of the lawsuits, Morse retired with a ridiculous amount of money.  He then spent his free time arguing (as a Northerner) for the joys of slavery. Describing the master/slave relationship as “the most beautiful example of domestic happiness and contentment that this fallen world knows.”  Ironically, the telegraph increased long-distance communication, which increased the influx of immigrants and helped the abolitionists let people know about the horrors of slavery. 

Meanwhile, Henry became the first director of the Smithsonian Institute and was known as America’s top scientist.  Politically, Henry was the opposite of Morse and was strongly anti-slavery and a personal friend of Lincoln.  Henry didn’t like to talk about Morse and the telegraph much but he did once say, “If I could live my life again, I might have taken out more patents.”

The telegraph was transformative, but what really brought electricity into our lives was finding a way to generate electricity from motion instead of from the chemicals in a battery.  This too began with a discovery by Joseph Henry way back in 1830 or so.  See, when Henry was first playing with coils of electromagnets, he noticed something strange.  When one coil was connected to a battery a completely separate coil would get a jolt of current!  He had discovered induction.  Henry took some time to publish (as he was busy teaching) and months later Henry’s English doppelgänger, Michael Faraday, independently discovered the same thing!  Faraday then took it to the next level and used his discovery to create the first generator and create the idea of magnetic fields.  And that story is next time on The Secret History of Electricity.

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