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Morse, Samuel (Finley Breese) - LONG-RANGE COMMUNICATION

cable telegraph vail signal

(1791–1872) US artist and inventor.

After education at Yale, Morse concentrated on painting portraits, which he studied in Europe before his appointment as professor of literature and design in New York’s City University. Always interested in novelties, he devised an electric telegraph system in 1832 and improved it with technical help from and financial help from Alfred Vail. In 1843 he set up a 40-mile line from Washington to Baltimore, fortunately completed one day before the Democratic Convention in the latter city. He had in 1838 devised a code of dots and dashes, widely used thereafter, but only of historical interest by the 1990s. Highly religious, his first message on the new line, to Vail on 24 May 1844, was ‘ WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT ’. He later made a fortune through his patents, despite costly litigation. He earned little in Europe: had set up a telegraph system in England in 1838, which was quickly extended, and linked with France by cable by 1851.

Another of Morse’s interests was photography. He learned early from of his work, probably made the first photographs in America and, with his fellow-professor , set up a portrait studio on the university roof; on sunless days he instructed students in the new process. His Morse code remains his main claim to fame.


Classically, long-range communication was limited to the speed of horse or boat: but by the time the Romans invaded Britain they used a simple hill-top semaphore system, and national alarms were later signalled (as was the approach of the Spanish armada in 1588) by hill-top beacons. By 1794 in France, Chappé‘s semaphore arms could signal from Paris to Lille (about 200 km) in two minutes, while the French army used the Sun, or a focused beam from an oil lamp: a precursor of the Royal Navy’s Aldis lamp. Static electricity from a friction generator, conducted along an insulated wire, offered a signalling possibility: it was tested across the Thames at Westminster in 1747, using an earthed boy as detector (‘his reaction vindicated the anticipated result’).

Electrical methods became practical with invention in 1800 of a battery giving a steady current, and and his friend E H Weber (1795–1878) made daily contact through a simple circuit in Tübingen in the 1830s. The obvious need for speedier long-distance communication was for military and diplomatic purposes, but commercial possibilities existed. In 1837, the year of Victoria’s coronation, and W F Cooke (1806–79), an Indian Army doctor on leave, used a circuit operating a ‘clicker’ to cover two miles between Euston and Camden Town station, and this is usually seen as the start of modern telegraphy. To detect the arrival of a signal, the wire carrying the signal current was passed close to a magnetic needle, which twitched when a current arrived. Using several wires each with its detector, a rather clumsy and slow code allowed a message to be interpreted from the signals. However, it took two years before the railway companies installed a telegraph line (Paddington to Slough), and telegraphy needed a newsworthy event before public interest and vigorous line-installation began.

The event was a murder in 1842 in Slough: the suspect escaped on a slow train to Paddington. An alert policeman telegraphed a description, and arrest at London followed; it nearly failed as the description focused on the suspect being dressed as a Quaker, but the five-needle telegraph had no Q, and the word ‘kwaker’ was initially incomprehensible. The affair did more to advance the spread of telegraphy than scientific claims had achieved. In the USA, and A L Vail (1807–59) in 1843 set up a 55 km overhead cable link between Washington and Baltimore, Morse having devised an inker to print the long (dashes) and short (dots) signals on a paper tape. To his fury, operators continued to listen to and interpret the clicks. Morse, or more probably Vail, devised a dot-and-dash code for the alphabet and numerals.

The idea of undersea cabling soon arose, and England and France were linked from 1850. The first attempt to lay an undersea cable across the Atlantic took place in 1857, using the USS Niagara and HMS Agamemnon . This attempt was abandoned after multiple breaks of the cable. Two attempts were made in 1858 with improved paying-out machinery and a cable was laid connecting Britain and America; but the cable failed after only four weeks. After further study of the problems and refinancing, the Great Eastern made an attempt in 1865; but a break occurred half-way across the Atlantic. Then in 1866 the Great Eastern succeeded in laying a cable from Valentia in Ireland to Newfoundland. The ship then returned to the buoys marking the spot where the first cable had parted the year before, recovered the end and continued it to Newfoundland, so providing two transatlantic telegraph cables.

After many difficulties a reliable transatlantic cable was in use, largely as a result of the work of William (later Lord Kelvin). He saw, as others in the venture did not, that copper for the cable must be both pure and of adequate thickness. He also saw that, contrary to intuition, rapid signalling can be done only with very small currents. The need led him to devise a sensitive galvanometer as receiver, which he soon fitted with an ink-jet recorder (the first). Without Kelvin’s skill in electrical theory, combined with his energy and engineering skill, long-distance cable telegraphy would have stayed a failure: for its success he was knighted in 1866, and thereafter his inventions brought wealth.

Before the end of the 19th-c, the UK, encumbered by its vast colonial empire, had telegraph or (later) telephone contact with most of it: while after transatlantic radio signal of 1901 communication took a further step. By the end of the 20th-c geostationary satellites, the Internet and email made long-range communication easy (and relatively cheap) for individual personal use. Morse’s laborious first message of 1844 ‘ WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT ’ would now require quite an extensive answer in the information technology field.

Morton, Ferdinand Q.(1881–1949) - Politician, lawyer, baseball commissioner, Heads Black Tammany, Chronology [next] [back] Morse, Samuel - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Samuel Morse

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