History, History Column

The Telegraph: What Hath God Wrought

Samuel F.B. Morse
Samuel F.B. Morse

Samuel F.B. Morse, an artist turned inventor, invented the electromagnetic telegraph. When Congress denied his application to paint a historical mural in the Capitol rotunda, Morse completed the last of his paintings and devoted himself to the study of un-modulated electrical impulses. Morse’s interest in telegraphy began in 1832, ten years after he exhibited “his first great” painting The House of Representatives.

Only the Panic of 1837 slowed Morse’s success. On May 24, 1844 Morse sent a telegraph, via above ground wire, from the US Capitol’s Supreme Court chamber to the B&O Railroad depot in Baltimore.   Partner Alfred Vail was on site in Baltimore and replied.

“It gives us much pleasure to be able to state that the construction of the experimental Telegraph between Washington and [Baltimore] has been…completed,” the Baltimore American reported. “Several messages were conveyed backwards and forward in an incredibly short space of time…If…the work is to be judged by the results so far, the success of MORSE’s experiment…will, indeed, be almost a total annihilation of time and space.”

In 1845 Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph Company formed and, soon after, his wire telegraph extended from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore to Philadelphia and New York. Alexandria’s Telegraph Road follows the extended 1847 line, the country’s second oldest line from Washington, D.C. to Petersburg, Virginia and beyond [Marker E62].

“The Common Council of Alexandria grant[s] the proprietors of Morse’s Telegraph Co. the right to extend the line through such streets of the city as may be approved by the city and that such posts may be placed at such points which will not cause obstructions to the free and convenient passage of the streets and that such posts shall be neatly kept,” The Alexandria Gazette wrote in 1846. “A proper telegraph station shall be established, kept and served….”

Prior to the telegraph, relay communication was visual. Napoleon for example relied on optical signaling, semaphores or flags. Morse’s wire telegraph was new technology, revolutionary technology destined to cross the Atlantic.

“Extras, containing the news, were published almost simultaneously in New York, Boston, Albany, Rochester, Utica, Philadelphia and Baltimore….,” The Alexandria Gazette reported in October 1846. The Associated Press, a pooled venture, took root in 1848.

By 1850, 20 US companies had strung approximately 12,000 miles of telegraph line. Morse’s technology transformation was well underway as were legal proceedings against him. [Henry V. O’Reilly v. Samuel F.D. Morse]

In 1854 the US Supreme Court sided with Morse. He had “Improved the Mode of Communicating Information by Signals by Application of Electro-magnetism” [Patent #1647]. Royalty payments were due and the prosperity was his. Morse’s more monopolistic claims were not considered.

Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph Company combined with the American Telegraph Company in 1859, the same year a solar eruption “made it…impossible to communicate” by telegraph. Known as the Carrington Event, white-light solar flares caused a major coronal mass ejection (CME)—a large eruption of magnetic plasma—to travel quickly to Earth. It was, and still is, the biggest solar storm ever recorded.

“The late brilliant display of the Aurora…effected the telegraph wires,” The Alexandria Gazette reported. “For the best part of two hours the wires were watched and not only were the batteries temporarily neutralized, sometimes partially and sometimes wholly, but powerful currents were developed where there were no batteries….” America’s electrical grid was, and still is, subject to attack.

The telegraph was transcontinental by October 1861. Miles of wire were visible, but only 10% of it was located within the southern Confederacy. Shortly after the April 12th Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to unite in military service. Troop transportation north to south, New England to the nation’s capital was difficult: especially given Virginia’ April 17 Secession Ordinance, the status of the Harper’s Ferry federal armory, and the outcome of the April 19 Baltimore riots.   On April 18, 1861 Harper’s Ferry unwillingly went the way of the Confederacy; “Ashby’s calvary…cut the telegraph lines to Baltimore and Washington.” Baltimore itself was “a powder tub ready for a match.”

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie

The federal government moved fast to restore broken rail and telegraph lines. The Pennsylvania Railroad, at Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s request, sent Thomas A. Scott to Washington to assist. Scott, in turn, asked Andrew Carnegie, superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Pittsburgh division, to join him as an “assistant in charge of the military railroads and telegraphs of the Government.” Carnegie, a 25 year-old Scottish immigrant, earned $1500 annually. Income from scraped together investments was extra.

Carnegie’s assignment: the safe passage of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other volunteer troops to the federal city. “Transporting soldiers and armaments along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks the 170 miles to Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] was the easy part; moving them the next 70 miles to Baltimore [Maryland] and then the final 40 miles to Washington [D.C.] was more difficult,” David Nasaw wrote.

“Only one railroad—the Washington Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O)—linked Baltimore and Washington, and by a single track,” Nasaw continued. The single track was trashed during the Baltimore riots. The railroad bridges that connected Baltimore to the north were set on fire and the telegraph lines cut. Washington was militarily isolated.

The federal solution: bypass Baltimore altogether, transport the troops “south from Philadelphia to Perryville at the mouth of the Susquehanna River and then ferry—on Pennsylvania Railroad owned or leased steamers—through Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, Maryland, where there were railway connections to Washington.”

“I gloried in being useful to the land that had done so much for me,” Andrew Carnegie exclaimed. Carnegie himself arrived later in Washington and headquartered “with the army” in federally occupied Alexandria. “[Carnegie] was put in charge of rebuilding, reinforcing, and extending the telegraph and rail lines from Washington to Alexandria and from Alexandria southwest along the route the northern troops would travel,” Nasaw concluded.

Extended rail track included the Potomac River’s Long Bridge, now known as the 14th Street Bridge. Carnegie’s task was not only “to establish a ferry to Alexandria,” but also “to extend the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad track from the old depot in Washington, along Maryland Avenue to and across the Potomac, so that locomotives and cars might be crossed for use in Virginia.” The Long Bridge, a timber pile bridge which opened in 1809 was originally built for feet and hooves.

“I was stationed in Alexandria, Virginia [in July 1861] when the unfortunate Battle of Bull Run was fought,” Carnegie explained. “We [had to] rush every engine and car to the front to bring back our defeated forces…In Alexandria the effect of panic was evident upon every side…Of our telegraphers not one was missing the next morning.”

“Soon after this I returned to Washington and made my headquarters in the War Building,” Carnegie recalled. “As I had charge of the telegraph department, as well as the railways, this gave me an opportunity of seeing President Lincoln, Secretary Cameron and others. Mr. Lincoln would… occasionally sit at the desk awaiting replies to telegrams.” Lincoln sent nearly 1,000 telegrams during his presidency, the Union Army 6.5 million telegrams.

Carnegie returned to Pittsburgh prior to the War’s end. He succumbed to illness; then recovered brilliantly.

By the end of 1863 his assets included 15 investments “with a bottom-line total of $47,860.67; nearly $8.5 million today.” Carnegie, a Civil War Industrialist, formed the Freedom Iron Works in 1861, also invested in oil; created the Keystone [iron] Bridge Company in 1865, the Keystone Telegraph Company in 1867, the Edgar Thomson Works [a steel plant] in 1875, and published The Gospel of Wealth in 1889.

Morse and Carnegie: visionaries, technologists and self-made entrepreneurs. Samuel F.B. Morse died in 1872, Andrew Carnegie in 1919. The federal government foolishly declined Morse’s offer to buy his telegraph. Carnegie, The Washington Post agreed, was “one of the first telegraph operators to read the writing wire by sound.”


Written by: Sarah Becker, © 2015
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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