Samuel Morse and the Telegraph


Samuel F. B. MorseBorn in Massachusetts, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) quickly developed his curiosity in science, art, and politics. After entering Yale College, Morse became fascinated with electricity and its potential use for communication purposes. The allure of an electric telegraph lingered with him after college. More of a visionary than a scientist however, he needed the help of Leonard D. Gale, a chemistry professor in New York. Gale knew of previous scientific proposals for telegraphs and advised Morse as he began to formulate ideas. Morse also employed the help of technician Alfred Vail. By 1837, Morse and his partners created a model electric telegraph which transmitted patterned "dot" and "dash" pulses over a wire. In order to properly test his model, Morse attempted to receive federal funding that same year but failed due to a recent nationwide depression. In 1843 his application for another appropriations bill succeeded. With $30,000 he was able to construct a line of wires along the B&O Railroad from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. to the B&O's Pratt St. station in Baltimore.  He originally envisioned underground piping to contain the wires, but due to financial and time constraints he opted to string the wire along poles instead. On May 24, 1844 Morse transmitted the first message via telegraph in the United States, "What hath God Wrought?" Shortly after this successful test, telegraph lines were erected to connect the major eastern and northern cities. As the railroads moved westward, so did the telegraph lines. Morse's telegraph greatly impacted America's push westward, helped railroads operate safer and more efficiently, and facilitated efficient business. Like the railroads, the telegraph provided Americans with the freedom to move and expand. Instant communication was only a "dot" and "dash" away.

SOURCES: Leonard C. Bruno. "The Invention of the Telegraph" from the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division; Samuel Iren Aeus Prime. The Life of Samuel F. B. Morse: Inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

Standard 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions 

Standard 2A: The student understands how the factory system and the transportation and market revolutions shaped regional patterns of economic development.

5-12: Explain how the major technological developments that revolutionized land and water transportation arose and analyze how they transformed the economy, created international markets, and affected the environment. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships] 
7-12: Evaluate national and state policies regarding a protective tariff, a national bank, and federally funded internal improvements. [Examine the influence of ideas] 
9-12: Explain how economic policies related to expansion, including northern dominance of locomotive transportation, served different regional interests and contributed to growing political and sectional differences. [Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas] 
9-12: Compare how patterns of economic growth and recession affected territorial expansion and community life in the North, South, and West. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Samuel F. B. Morse
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:  [Between 1855-1865]
    REPRODUCTIONS: Rights and Reproductions
    SOURCE: Brady-Handy Collection
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 

  2. DESCRIPTION: Telegraph Drawing
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 2 June 1854-8 October 1855
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  The Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress (Series: Letterbooks)
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  3. DESCRIPTION: First Telegraph Message 
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    NOTES: Transmitted by Morse from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. to the B&O Railroad's Pratt St. Station in Baltimore (near current site of Mt. Clare Station), a distance of 40 miles
    SOURCE: The Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress (Series: Miscellany)
    REPOSITORY: The Library of Congress

  4. DESCRIPTION: Correspondence Papers, Drawing the Telegraph Poles
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE: The Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, (Series: General Correspondence and Related Documents)
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  5. DESCRIPTION: Telegraph stations in the United States, the Canadas & Nova Scotia 
    CARTOGRAPHER: Charles B. Barr
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE: Transportation and Communication
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650

  6. DESCRIPTION: The First Telegraph Message from California
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: Harper's Weekly, 1861, p. 752.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  7. DESCRIPTION: The Army telegraph - setting up the wire during an action The Army telegraph - the operator at work / sketched by Mr. A.R. Waud. A signal station at night / sketched Mr. Theodore R. Davis
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: Harper's Weekly, Jan. 24, 1863, p. 53
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to obtain copies of this item
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  8. DESCRIPTION: The progress of the century - the lightning steam press, the electric telegraph, the locomotive, [and] the steamboat
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to obtain copies of this item
    NOTES: Man using telegraph in foreground; in background are people using steam press, steamboat, and locomotive
    SOURCE: New York : Published by Currier & Ives
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Additional Media Resources

Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793-1919

The Telegrapher Web Page: Research Resources for the History of Telegraphy And the Work of Women in the Telegraph Industry

Locust Grove: The Samuel Morse Historic Site

Have Fun with Morse Code!

Try Sending Morse Code with the Key

TeachersFirst's Inventor's Workshop 

Secondary Resources

Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.

du Boff, Richard B. “The Telegraph in Nineteenth-Century America: Technology and Monopoly” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Oct., 1984), pp. 571-586.

Kloss, William. Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: H. N. Abrams in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

Larkin, Oliver W. Samuel F. B. Morse and American Democratic Art. Boston: Little, Brown, 1954.

Mabee, Carleton. The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. Rev. ed. Fleischmanns, N.Y.: Purple Mountain Press, 2000.

Shiers, George, ed. The Electric Telegraph: An Historical Anthology. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

Staiti, Paul J. Samuel F. B. Morse. Cambridge Monographs on American Artists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Children's Books:

Hays, Wilma Pitchford. Samuel Morse and the Electronic Age. New York: Watts, 1966.

---. Samuel Morse and the Telegraph. Illustrated by Richard Mayhew. New York: F. Watts, 1960.

Latham, Jean Lee. Samuel F. B. Morse, Artist-Inventor. Illustrated by Jo Polseno. New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1991.

Quackenbush, Robert M. Quick, Annie, Give Me a Catchy Line!: A Story of Samuel F. B. Morse. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Tiner, John Hudson. Samuel F. B. Morse: Artist with a Message. Illustrated by Shirley Young. Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, 1987.

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Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Locust Grove: The Samuel Morse Historic Site
2683 South Road
Poughkeepsie, NY  12601

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

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This document packet was researched and developed by Sarah Davis.


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