Samuel Morse: The Man Who Made This Post Possible

05/26/2010 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Al Gore once famously claimed to have invented the Internet, but he was only about a century and a half late.

Actually, the technology that made the Internet -- and this post -- possible, along with Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter -- was proven feasible 166 years ago this week, on May 24, 1844, when Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out a four-word message on his "Electro-magnetic telegraph" to a colleague in Baltimore from the U.S. Capitol.

I know this because I happened to read an historical marker at the entrance to the Old Supreme Court chamber on the first floor of the Capitol last week, commemorating the historic event, which showed that a telegraph message could be sent any distance instead of heretofore only short distances.

What the marker didn't tell me was that the history-making event was surrounded by a hint of sexual scandal, influence peddling, patent infringement lawsuits, bitter personal rivalries and even presidential politics, just like today. I discovered this by reading Kenneth Silverman's fine 2003 biography, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel B. Morse.

The innuendo of sexual impropriety hardly measured up today's salacious standards, but it was there. The message -- "What hath God wrought?" -- that Morse sent in the dots and dashes code that we know today as Morse code -- was composed by Annie Ellsworth, the daughter the Commissioner of Patents, who was Morse's Yale classmate.

Morse, then a 53-year-old widower, often referred to her as "my dear young friend," and they were rumored to be romantically involved. Miss Ellsworth took the words of the first telegraph message from the Old Testament's Book of Numbers, which pleased the deeply religious Morse.

Morse, who was studying to be a portrait painter -- he later became an accomplished but not financially successful one -- was returning from a second trip to Europe in 1832 after the death of his first wife when he met an inventor who told him that an electric impulse could be carried over long distances on a wire. As a result, Morse concluded that "I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance."

Four years later, while teaching art at the University of the City of New York, Morse developed a working model of a device, using an electromagnet to send a signal and a code that could be translated into letters and numbers -- the famed Morse code. He was greatly influenced by the work of a renowned Princeton physicist, Joseph Henry, whose ideas helped Morse develop a powerful electromagnet.

In 1837, Morse formed a partnership with one of his former students, Alfred Vail, whose family conveniently owned a foundry and machine shop, and they applied for a patent.
But their application languished in Congress despite persistent lobbying efforts by Morse and many friends, and a dispirited Morse, by now broke and under attack by rivals who claimed he had stolen their idea and by his reliance on unscrupulous business partners, tried unsuccessfully to sell his invention to the Russian government.

Finally, in 1843, Congress approved a $30,000 appropriation to build a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. Annie Ellsworth brought him the welcome news -- he was living in her father's house at the time.

Even though Morse's papers at the Library of Congress comprise about 6,500 items, including the original paper tape of the first message, there are virtually no accounts of what happened in the Supreme Court chamber that day.

In fact, there was very little public notice of the historic event until three days later when the Democratic National Convention convened in Baltimore and Morse had Vail telegraph the news that the delegates were deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass, partly because of debate over the annexation of Texas, and nominated the first presidential dark horse candidate, James K. Polk, on the ninth ballot.

According to the Silverman biography, "Morse generated enormous publicity by having Vail telegraph news of the raucous proceedings to Washington. Mobbed by people eager to watch the transmission, Vail had to keep the door locked so as to admit only 15 or 20 spectators at a time. "Hundreds begged and pleaded to be allow mearly [sic] to look at the instrument," he told Morse. "They declared they would not say a word or stir and didn't care whether they understood or not, only they wanted to say they had seen it."

And in Washington, "Morse found himself surrounded by politicians eager for results of the balloting. A Washington correspondent for the New York Herald reported that 'little else is done here but watch Professor Morse's Bulletin from Baltimore, to learn the progress of doings at Convention.'"

Noting that it had taken more than two weeks for news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence to reach Williamsburg, Va., from Philadelphia, Silverman summed up the good and the bad implications of Morse's invention in words that seem equally applicable today:

"The social consequences of the telegraph, like those of every other technology, would of course depend on the people who owned and used it," he wrote. "In its more practical effects, the telegraph would whet the appetite for news, strengthen national defense, and boost the country's go-ahead businessmen, transforming the press, the military and the marketplace."

"At the same time, it needs no saying that despite the vision of a national sensorium uniting the continent, the United States would soon implode in civil war. Nor that for all the techno-utopian hoopla about reduced crime and family values, lightning-fast information processing in the era of cyberspace might also be a boon to credit-card fraud, child pornography and international terrorism."

Interestingly, Morse used his new invention to do something that was remarkably similar to one of the uses it was put to in modern times, which was an early version of Twitter. He and Vail ended their history-making day by exchanging the following message:

V Have you had your dinner
M yes have you
V yes, what had you
M mutton chop and strawberries

But Morse's new-found fame proved a mixed blessing at best. Three weeks after the May 24 breakthrough, he took a bad fall and injured a leg that took six weeks to heal, and tried to sell the rights to his invention to the U.S. government for $100,000, but Congress wasn't interested.

He turned his financial affairs over to a friend, who saw to it that he was able to live comfortably and to indulge in philanthropy. He became wealthy as a major shareholder in Western Union and helped found Vassar College in 1861.

But he became engulfed in lawsuits that challenged the legitimacy of his patent and questioned how much he had been helped by others, especially Joseph Henry. And he suffered from deteriorating health and by a disastrous family life as the three children from his first marriage were helpless adults and two sons from his second marriage in 1848 turned out to be scoundrels.

Morse died a broken man at 80, from cerebral meningitis shortly after being swindled out of $25,000 by a friend of one of his scoundrel sons, prompting the New York Times to speculate that "the vexations and annoyances, the troubles and sorrows of the last few weeks of his life ... contributed, in a great degree, to bring on his last fatal attack."