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Long before Samuel Morse transmitted the first electrical telegraph message in 1844, people were continually trying out new and inventive ways to communicate over distance. In 4th century B.C., for example messages were “transported” by a line of men shouting to each other and passing the message down the line. Later came the “hydraulic” telegraph, which centered on the dubious practice of filling glass vases with water and a floating stick, then placing them strategically in a “readable” order. Smoke signals and mirrors reflecting the sunlight could also be considered early forms of the telegraph.

The 1800’s were a time of mass invention, and even the earliest 19th century inventors had experimented with the concept of using electricity to transmit messages over wires. It wasn’t until Samuel Morse, however, that the process was ultimately perfected. In 1832, Morse became intrigued by the telegraph, a cumbersome piece of equipment which was initially proposed in 1753 and first built in 1774. Up until 1833, the devices were impractical, requiring 26 separate wires, one for each letter of the alphabet. In that year, two German engineers had invented a five-wire model, but Morse wanted to be the first to reduce the number of wires to one. The word “telegraph” originated in Greece; with "Tele" meaning distant and "graphein" meaning to write. Morse's first telegraph device emitted what resembled an EKG line on tickertape; the coded messages would be recorded on paper tape by an electromagnetic lever moving a pencil up and down according to changes in the electric current conveyed from a remote transmitter. The dip in the line had to be de-coded into letters and numbers using a dictionary that Morse himself had created. Morse then began to hunt for ways to enhance and improve the device. He had always been a great “idea man”, but his skills as an engineer were somewhat lacking. For this reason, he solicited and received advice from a number of American and European telegraphy experts, including his colleague Alfred Vail, who helped him to refine his device. By 1835 Morse had developed a telegraph model and in 1838, he had invented a code that utilized different numbers to represent the letters of the English alphabet and the ten digits. The system was based on a simple system of dashes and dots which were to used to communicate messages symbolically. This system of symbols, called Morse Code, came into its own as an international communication system which finally allowed for the efficient transmission of messages throughout the world.

Vail's family later on alleged that Arthur Vail was the true inventor of Morse code, but Vail himself denied it, clarifying that his contribution was to replace the portrule with a hand-operated key that reproduced the code by means of a pattern of clicks.

The electromagnetic telegraph worked by having the message sender click dashes and dots to create or break transmission between the machine’s battery and receiver. The direct-current electricity came from gravity batteries that were the weak point in the 1835 model. Thus Morse replaced the original one-cell battery with a 20-cell battery, and 100 turns of wire were wound around the electromagnet. By Oct. 3, 1837, the device could transmit through 10 miles of wire. Then on January 6, 1838, at Vail's Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey Morse demonstrated his device successfully. He gave another successful demonstration on January 24 at New York University, and on Feb. 21, 1838, Morse effectively demonstrated his telegraph to President Van Buren and the Cabinet in Washington.

By 1843, Morse had obtained government support for his invention and he subsequently built a mini-telegraph system along a railroad line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. It was just one year later that the first telegraph message was transmitted: "What hath God wrought!" The person on the receiving end of that transmission was Alfred Vail.

Once Morse’s patent became officially approved in 1854, following an extensive legal battle that the inventor finally won at the U.S. Supreme Court, communication both inside the United States and across the Atlantic was completely revolutionized. In 1866, the first telegraph was successfully transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean, designating the start of a new era in telecommunications. In 1869, the first telegraph line connected the East and West Coasts. By the decade’s end, the Associated Press had begun to transmit news throughout the world by use of the telegraph.

The telegraph even changed the style of news reporting, permanently. During the Civil War, when important news was transmitted over undependable or easily damaged telegraph lines, reporters concentrated the imperative information of a news story in the first few paragraphs in order to insure that the most important facts were received in case the transmission was interrupted. Today this style of reporting, called "inverted pyramid," is still the predominant method of reporting the news.

Before the telephone became an almost indispensable part of our lives, the telegram was the most popular method with which to dispatch a written message faster than the postal service. While wire telegraphs were long ago replaced by new technologies, Morse Code is still used by both professionals and amateurs in the realm of radio telegraphy. The telegraph was the world’s principal communications tool for many years, transmitting messages of love and war across cities and nations. The invention not only reshaped communications prior to the 20th century, but laid the groundwork for the technology of the future. Today, Morse’s first telegraph is housed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.