Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. He learned that his wife was sick while working in a different city. By the time he arrived home, she had died. Morse determined to invent a faster message delivery system.

Like Fulton, Morse was an artist before going into business. He had no background in science or engineering. Similarly, Colt was a showman, not an engineer.

There were several impractical precursors to Morse’s telegraph including one that dated to 1816 which used static electricity. Cooke & Wheatstone simultaneously invented a system in the UK. However, it was never popular outside the UK.

Samuel Morse’ Telegraph

Morse invented the first practical, stable, usable telegraph in 1837. However, the system could only handle electrical impulses, on and off. When the operator on onside pressed a lever down the lever on the other side also depressed, due to magnetism. This made a series of clicks.

Morse realized these clicks could be turned into an alphabet of dots and dashes, with each letter representing a dot and dash. The system became Morse Code and still exists 180 years later.

Until the development of an electrical grid, fifty years later, telegraphs ran from large Voltaic Pile batteries.

Both Morse’s and the Cooke & Wheatstone telegraphs were based on the electromagnetic work of Joseph Henry, a professor focused on electromagnets. Henry mentored Morse but had no interest commercializing his work.

Henry testified at a patent infringement trial that Morse eventually won. He summed up what today we call the difference between invention and innovation:

“Morse did not make a single original discovery in electricity, magnetism or electromagnetism, applicable to the innovation of the telegraph. I have always considered his merit to consist in combining and applying the discoveries of others in the innovation of a particular instrument and process for telegraphic purposes.”

Joseph Henry

Morse’ telegraph went on to revolutionize the United States and the world, pulling distant geographies ever closer.


Newspapers especially embraced the new instant communication technology. Thanks to lower-cost paper and steam presses, newspapers churned out multiple editions all day, updating the news as new information came through the telegraph. In 1846, five New York newspapers, led by the New York Times, founded the Associated Press. Its purpose was to source and write articles, transmitted over the telegraph, that any member newspaper could print.

US Civil War

During the Civil War, the telegraph proved vital. Buggies carrying large voltaic piles relayed reports back to the White House via a new division of the army, the Telegraph Corps (later renamed the Signal Corps). Lincoln anxiously awaited reports and, at one point during the war, spent hours in the telegraph room. Additionally, spies from both the North and South intercepted communications necessitating the need for significantly more sophisticated ciphers.

Image result for civil war telegraph

Western Union

There were many telegraph companies but, eventually, Western Union came to dominate the business. They realized that telegraph wires could easily be strung long-distances next to train tracks since the tracks always rested on relatively flat ground. Western Union purposefully skipped entering the telephone business but remarkably managed to keep the telegraph business alive until 2006. Today, the company still exists primarily for transferring funds.

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