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Collection Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793 to 1919

Impact of the Telegraph

The significance of the telegraph was something Morse foresaw, and he knew how the technology would have to be handled to prevent misuse. He also earned great accolades from around the world for his invention.

Telegraph stations in the United States, the Canadas & Nova Scotia, 1853

This map reveals the status of the telegraph network as it existed in the U.S. in 1853, only nine years after the first message. By this time, only one state east of the Mississippi, Florida, was not connected by telegraph. The legend on the left offers the list of message rates from Pittsburgh. By 1861, telegraph lines crossed the American continent; by 1866, the transatlantic cable connected America and Europe. Credit: Chas. B. Barr, Pittsburgh, Pa. Wegner & Buechner lith., 1853. Col. map 59 x 85 cm. Scale ca. 1:4,200,000 Geography and Map Division

Memorandum from Morse to his assistant, Alfred Vail, 11 October 1844

With remarkable foresight, Morse, already keenly aware of the potential for misuse of the new communication medium, writes to his assistant in Washington. Only months after the telegraph has begun operation, Morse warns Vail to "be especially careful not to give a partisan character to any information you may transmit." Morse's instructions display his insights into the importance of objectivity and accuracy for both the messenger and the message.

Telegraph Broadside, undated

Once the potential suggested by Morse's 1844 success began to be realized, other rival systems soon would emerge, naturally claiming to provide better and faster communication. This poster advertises a forthcoming exhibition of one such telegraph. As with many other technological pioneers, Morse would have to endure many a challenge to his patent in court.

Decoration from the Sultan of Turkey, 1848

This decoration from the Sultan of Turkey was the first of numerous accolades bestowed on Morse for his invention of the electromagnetic telegraph. He also received recognition from the sovereigns of France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Prussia, Austria, and Italy. Scientific organizations such as the Academy of Industry in Paris and the National Institute for the Promotion of Science in Washington, D.C., honored him. Both the Archaeological Society of Belgium and the American Philosophical Society granted Morse honorary membership and Yale conferred a degree of Doctor of Laws on him.

Atlantic Cable Sketch by Samuel F. B. Morse, 5 August 1854

In this stylized and simplified rendering of a transatlantic connection, Morse sketched the basics of what would be a three-thousand-mile version of his basic telegraph. Although Morse had written as early as 1843 that a telegraph cable might "be established across the Atlantic," it was not until 1854 that the American financier Cyrus W. Field wrote to the inventor of his idea to link Ireland and Newfoundland by telegraph cable. This prodigiously ambitious project stirred the imagination of millions on both sides of the Atlantic and, despite bitter disappointments and repeated failures, met with final success in 1866.