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Today in History - May 24

What Hath God Wrought?

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse dispatched the first telegraphic message over an experimental line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. The message, taken from the Bible, Numbers 23:23 and recorded on a paper tape, had been suggested to Morse by Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of a friend.

First Telegraphic Message, May 24, 1844. Samuel F. B. Morse Papers, 1793-1919
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, self-portrait. Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920

Morse is best known as the inventor of the telegraph, but he is also esteemed for his contributions to American portraiture. His painting is characterized by delicate technique and vigorous honesty and insight into the character of his subjects.

While returning from Europe to assume a position as an arts professor at New York University, Morse began to conceive of a communications system employing the electro-magnet and a series of relays through a network of telegraph stations. In order to transmit messages via this system, he invented Morse Code, an alphabet of electronic dashes and dots used to transmit telegraph messages.

In an American Life Histories, 1936-1940 interview Ross M. Plummer talks of his father’s fascination with possibilities introduced by Morse’s invention:

At about the time my father was a young practicing physician in Missouri, Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph was becoming an increasingly useful and important new development. A net work of lines was being extended in all directions…. The miracle of electricity as applied to the clacking telegraph key and sounder, so absorbed my father that he… knew that he could never be fully satisfied until he had, for awhile at least, devoted his entire time to the telegraph…. it wasn’t long until my father was known throughout Missouri as an expert and soon his services were in demand. When the Western Union Telegraph Company thrust their history-making first transcontinental wire through the Rockies, my father was on the payroll as an installation engineer and operator.

Occupational and Medical Lore,” A. C. Sherbert, interviewer, January 19, 1939. American Life Histories, 1936-1940

Samuel F. B. Morse’s Colored Sketch of Railway Telegraph (detail), circa 1838. Words and Deeds in American History

Western Union’s completion of the first transcontinental telegraph line in October 1861 doomed the Pony Express. At the same time, as the Civil War demonstrated, it made electronic telecommunication indispensable.

As the Civil War progressed mobile telegraph stations and hastily strung wires began to connect scattered military units. During the Seven Days’ Battles, June 25-July 1, 1862, General George McClellan sent frequent dispatches to the War Department telegraph office, where President Lincoln often appeared to seek news from the front. The telegraph contributed to the failure of a Confederate attack against the Federal General Ambrose Burnside when an assault force under General James Longstreet got tangled in Union telegraph wires strung from tree stump to tree stump at Fort Sanders in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Field Telegraph Station, Vicinity of Charles City Court House, Wilcox’s Landing, Virginia, 1864. Selected Civil War Photographs

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