Who Invented That? The Telegraph

What are those funny cast iron blue and red boxes you see on poles around Washington DC? They look like something from a bygone era. These were telegraphic call boxes to the police (blue) and fire (red) departments. The fire department used them from 1864 until the 1980s! Many remain – with their telegraphic mechanisms removed – as a reminder of our past.

We today remember Samuel F.B. Morse in the United States as the inventor of the telegraph. This invention forever changed American lives. Like the printing press, this inventor stood on the shoulders of giants who had come before him. Who were they?

An unknown author (“C.M.”) was first to suggest the use of electricity to communicate at a distance. In 1753, Scots’ Magazine published his idea, and this became an active area of research. In 1823, the English researcher Sir Francis Ronalds demonstrated that he could send a message over a 12-kilometer-long wire. Around 1827, the American Harrison Gray Dyer constructed a working telegraph on Long Island. The race to a commercially viable telegraph was on, and many European and Russian scientists vied to be the first.

The honors in the UK would go to a pair of Englishmen, William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. Cooke had attended an 1836 lecture in Germany on a telegraphic device that used a code – read off from the electrical deflection of needles – to indicate letters of the alphabet. Back in England, Cooke built an electrical telegraph prototype. Lacking technical expertise, he could not mature it beyond this stage. He pooled his resources with Charles Wheatstone, a young English physicist who was already doing telegraphic research. Together, Cooke and Wheatstone pioneered “a series of inventions which firmly established commercial telegraphy in the Britain of the 1840s.”

So what did Samuel Morse, the Professor of Literature of the Arts of Design at New York University (NYU), do? On an ocean voyage home from Europe, Morse had a long conversation with a famous geologist on electricity and magnetism. This chance event in 1832 sparked Morse’s interest in telegraphy. Morse worked over the next five years with Professor Leonard Gale (a chemist) at NYU to develop his “recording electric telegraph.” To mature this prototype into a viable commercial product, Morse needed someone who could bring additional financial backing and mechanical expertise. Morse (and Gale) found this in Alfred Vail, who joined their partnership.

Morse originally intended to designate each English word in his telegraphic code with a unique number. Vail persuaded him instead to use a unique sequence of binary digits for each English letter, as well as numbers and punctuation marks. This coding scheme came to be known as American Morse code. Some subsequent modifications turned it into international Morse code. If you want to read more about this, see my previous blog on Morse code.

Congress granted Morse $30,000 in 1842 to create the first experimental telegraph line. This communications path ran from the US Capitol in Washington DC to a railway station in Baltimore, Maryland. From Washington, Morse transmitted the Biblical quotation “What Hath God Wrought?” and his partner Alfred Vail echoed this message back from 44 miles away. Shortly after this, the telegraph became a runaway commercial success.

Who ends up getting credit for inventing the telegraph? Morse is considered the inventor of the telegraph in the United States. He obtained his first US telegraphic patent in 1849. In the UK, the inventors of the telegraph remain Cooke and Wheatstone. They beat out Morse for patent rights in the United Kingdom, receiving their first telegraphic patent in 1837.





Beauchamp, Kenneth George. A History of Telegraphy: Its Technology and Application. London: The Institution of Electrical Engineers, 2001.