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Morse and the Electric Telegraph

Telegraph officeSamuel Morse, the artistic son of a preacher, was born 27 April 1791. Though a painter by trade, he had been tinkering in the world of invention since at least 1817. Ever on the lookout for the chance to create an invention, Morse was receptive to a shipboard demonstration while crossing the Atlantic in 1832.

As luck would have it, Dr. Charles Jackson, a fellow passenger, had a keen interest in the workings of electricity. During a conversation on the subject, Jackson suggested electricity could travel instantly from one point to another. He then went to his cabin, and came back with the means to prove that claim to Morse.

Telegraph key for sending Morse code messages.The 41-year-old painter, then a professor or arts and design at New York University, became obsessed with the idea of sending instant messages over the wires. Morse operated largely unaware of other advances made in that field, and concentrated more on developing a transmission code than on the practical problems of making the electric telegraph work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Morse was able to stage his first demonstration a mere five years after having his epiphany on the Atlantic. His system was problematic, however, and so he sought out the expertise and financial backing of others who might improve upon it.

Telegraph officeLeonard Gale, a chemistry professor at New York University, was among the first to answer his call. Gale fitted Morse’s device with a new battery to ramp up the power, and a stronger electromagnet. These changes gave the telegraph enough power to send electricity through kilometres of wire.

Alfred Vail, a machinist who served as an assistant to Morse, quickly followed Gale’s lead and contributed to the redesign of Morse's invention. The son of a wealthy industrialist, Vail, in exchange for a portion of the patent, used his money and knowledge to build increasingly effective prototypes for Morse.

The newest design, which incorporated the telegraph key, was much simpler than earlier versions. Morse had also created a new code that did away with the need for numbered codebooks. His efforts were so successful that Morse code was commercially available until the 1970s, and is still practised today by a group of aficionados and emergency weather-watchers.

Telegraph office Morse did not stop there, however; he championed the telegraph as a viable means of global communication, and pushed for the construction of a transatlantic cable as well as for better local networks.

Morse became the wealthy recipient of many honours for his tireless work, before dying at the age of 81 on 2 April 1872.


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