Today, we look at early telegraphy. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
technology are pretty cautious about naming the first
person to invent anything. Someone else always shows up
having thought of it first. The telegraph is no
exception. The noted American painter Samuel F.B. Morse
did put together a telegraph system in 1837. But it was
probably his invention of an early version of what we
call the "Morse code" that got him credited with
inventing the telegraph.
The seed for the telegraph was sown 90 years earlier, in
1747, when the Englishman William Watson showed that
electrostatically generated signals could be sent a long
way through a wire with the circuit being completed
through the earth. In 1753 an anonymous writer published
a magazine article showing how it was possible to use an
array of 26 such wires -- one for each letter of the
alphabet -- to send messages over long distances. Various
forms of this multiple-wire system were built in
Switzerland in 1774, in France in 1787, and in Spain in
The notion of sending all the letters on a single wire --
of using a code to distinguish them -- was introduced in
1774, about 60 years before Morse, by a French inventor
named Lesage. Still, multiple-wire systems weren't
completely abandoned for several decades.
The whole business got a big boost with the invention of
the storage battery. With battery power, people could
drive all kinds of output signals -- like magnets and
marks on litmus paper. Between 1800 and Morse's work in
1837, many telegraph systems were developed -- and a lot
of them weren't bad.
It's worth asking how Morse got the credit he did. His
code was the best one up to that time, and his system had
the essential features for a commercial success, although
few of these features were unique. But we must recognize
that Morse was a man involved in a remarkable range of
self-expressive activities -- art, invention, politics,
photography -- the list goes on. Beyond that, he was
combative and got into controversies in all these fields.
When it came to fighting for telegraph patent priority,
Morse was very effective. In 1854 he won a Supreme Court
decision that gave him most of the telegraph royalties.
To his credit, he died as a wealthy philanthropist.
But don't forget, the idea of the telegraph was given us
by an anonymous writer in 1753 -- a person whose reward
was the fun of having dreamed up a wonderful new idea --
an anonymous inventor whose reward was having given that
idea away to the world.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Garratt, G. R. M., Telegraphy. A History of
Technology, Vol. IV, c. 1750-1850. (C. Singer, E. J.
Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and T. I. William's, eds.) New York:
Oxford University Press, 1958, pp. 644-671.
Several Engines episodes discuss other
aspects of telegraphy. See especially Episode 1380. Also click below on
"Search Episodes" and search for the words "telegraph" or
This episode has been revised as Episode 1393.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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