Inventions and Inventors: The Story of the Electronic Telegraph

Inventions and InventorsCredit: Bigstockphoto


The basic concept of the telegraph is electricity, wire and electromagnets. When the circuit is broken or closed, it causes an electromagnet on the other end to respond.  William Sturgeon discovered the electromagnet in 1824.  Joseph Henry increased the power of the electromagnet by wrapping it with more wire. To maintain power over a long line, Henry used more batteries. In the classroom, he used these ideas and demonstrated the idea of a practical telegraph. Henry strung a mile of wire around the room and used an electric circuit that open and closed to control a rod that rang a bell. As with many inventions and inventors, there's more to the story than most know.

Morse's Recording Telegraph

Morse corresponded with Henry about his idea. With Henry’s electrical knowledge, Samuel F. B. Morse and his assistant Alfred Vail made a crude version of an electromechanical telegraph in 1835-1836. They called it a “Recording Telegraph.” When it was operated, a stylus marked a series of long or short dashes on a paper. The length of time a lever that completed the electric circuit was down determined the dash’s length. The first version was set up inside a building and used only for demonstration purposes. Morse, Vale and another assistant, Leonard Gale made it into working form in 1837. Morse’s telegraph used electricity from Joseph Henry’s 1836 patent for intensity batteries. Holding the key that broke the circuit for a short or long time provided the printer or listener to interpret the code. In 1838 Morse started a company with Vail and Gale as partners.

The Demonstration

In 1843 Morse set up a demonstration line between Washington and Baltimore. Congress provided funds to put up lines between the two cities. He made an unsuccessful attempt to put in underground cables before putting wires on top of poles sunk into the ground. On May 24, 1844 Morse sent a message with the telegraph from the U. S. Supreme Court to Vail in Baltimore. The message read, “What hath God wrought.”

Morse Code

The Morse Code, sometimes called the American Morse Code, is a system of dots and dashes that indicate letters. There were several similar codes at the beginning of the telegraph, but the one Morse devised became preferred and modified to be used worldwide.

Success of These Inventions and Inventors

Several competing telegraph systems evolved, and by 1851 there were over 50 different telegraphic companies in the United States. None of the owners of these various companies convinced the patent office and capitalists of their usefulness. The confusion promoted lawsuits and counter lawsuits between the inventions and inventors. Morse continued to expand his operation, and sold his patent license to others. The usefulness of Morse’s invention became very apparent during the Civil War. The Army strung lines to allow rapid dissemination of information. From then the telegraph was a part of American life.