It was Samuel Morse’s demo of an electric telegraph in 1838 that popularized the machine. The history of the telegraph began years before Morse’s invention, but it was his invention that was able to send messages in a consistent manner.
The Beginnings of the Telegraph
In 1794, Claude Chappe came up with a non electric telegraph. Chappe’s invention employed a semaphore and flag based alphabets. It also required line of sight. The first electrochemical telegraph was invented in 1808 in Bavaria.
Samuel Soemmering employed 35 wires together with gold electrodes immersed in water. The messages could be sent a few thousand feet away.
In the United States, the first telegraph prototype to be developed was courtesy of Harrison Dyar. His invention used chemically treated paper to make dots. The chemically treated paper allowed him to relay the electric sparks.
William Sturgeon’s Electromagnet
The history of the telegraph changed when the British inventor William Sturgeon created the electromagnet in 1825. He first showed how the device could lift heavy objects. Sturgeon used a 7 ounce iron enfolded by wires and a battery cell. It would also form the basis for future telegraphs.
The Electric Telegraph Emerges
In 1830, American inventor Joseph Henry (1797-1878) displayed the electromagnet’s potential. He sent an electric current over a mile long wire. This turned on an electromagnet that set off a bell. Using the same principles, British physicists Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke unveiled the Cooke and Whetstone telegraph a few years later.
But while these early telegraphs were workable, it was Samuel Morse (1791-1872) who was able to utilize the electromagnet most successfully. He was able to combine it with Joseph Henry’s machine which no else could do. This would alter the history of the telegraph forever.
The Morse Telegraph
Morse was a professor in New York University when he showed how signals could be relayed by wire. He utilized current pulses to redirect the electromagnet. The marker would then make written codes on paper. This was how the Morse code came about. He changed the device so that the paper was covered with dashes and dots.
He gave a demo in 1838, the first in the US. But it was only in 1843 that he got Congressional approval to fund a telegraph line. It would run from Washington to Baltimore (40 miles). The history of the telegraph shows that after six years, messages were sent and received over the line.
The first news item sent was the nomination of Henry Clay by the Whig Party in 1844. That same year the line was finished. The message sent was “What hath God wroth?’. It was relayed from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington to Baltimore.
The words were picked by Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of Morse’s friend.Soon the line was expanded to include New York and Philadelphia.
Several states would follow suit and it would spread throughout the country. The history of the telegraph shows that by 1877, it would face competition from another invention – the telephone. As technology improved, the telegraph would be replaced by other communication devices.