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May 23, 2013

Bruce’s History Lessons: Morse’s telegraph and its impact as a ‘game changer’

This week (May 24) in 1844, Professor Samuel F.B. Morse sat in the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., surrounded by members of Congress, who had come to witness history. Morse complied, tapping out on his recently invented telegraph a simple code (later called “Morse Code”) of electric dots and dashes that spelled out the message “What Hath God Wrought,” which his assistant, Alfred Vail, received in Baltimore, Md., and then relayed back to Morse in Washington. That message, from Numbers 23:23 in the Old Testament, was a fitting one given the telegraph’s future effect on the world.

Yet Morse’s telegraph was a secular miracle, not a religious one. For the first time in history, communication was separated from physical transportation. No longer was the speed of communication, or its range, limited to the distance and velocity that messengers could travel, be it on foot, horse, boat or train (no airplanes yet). For example, Vail’s relay station was in Baltimore because that’s where the national conventions to choose candidates for the upcoming presidential election were being held, and Congress was eager to know the results. Thanks to the telegraph it took minutes, not hours, to learn that the Whig Party had chosen Henry Clay to run against the Democratic candidate James Polk.

Still, it was the financial and business community that quickly understood how important Morse’s telegraph would be to their operations. Indeed, the main impetus behind the subsequent rapid spread of telegraph lines across America, especially to commercial and financial centers such as New York and Chicago, was the telegraph’s ability to quickly disseminate stock and commodity prices, while also quickly connecting financial borrowers with lenders at terms amenable to both. To that end, it was only after the telegraph lines reached Chicago in 1848 that the now-famous Chicago Commodities Exchange was established.

The press also quickly caught on, especially since the Mexican-American War had begun in 1846 and news of the fighting became a public obsession, in part because President Polk (who had defeated Henry Clay for president) was accused of illegally declaring war in order to steal Mexican land.

By 1850, 10,000 miles of telegraph wire had been laid, up from 150 miles at the war’s start.

Yet perhaps the telegraph’s most important legacy was its impact as a “game changer.” Prior to the telegraph all technological innovations had essentially resulted from gradual improvements in simple mechanics. By contrast, the telegraph was the first communications invention based on an actual scientific discovery. “Scarcely anything now will appear to be impossible,” a leading journal put it, and the subsequent invention of the telephone, television, computer, and more (and more to come) would seem to bear that out.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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