Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

by Faye Huntington

Long before he reached the pinnacle of his fame, Samuel Finley Breese Morse passed many quiet summer hours on the pleasant wooded borders of the ravine overlooking the peaceful Sconondoah; and even to this day if you wander through the beautiful Sconondoah wood and hunt out its sequestered nooks, you will find here and there, cut deep in the rugged bark of old forest trees, the initials S.F.B.M., carved by his hand more than half a century ago.

Professor Morse was born at Charlestown, Mass., in 1791. He was the son of a Congregational clergyman, who was the author of a series of school geographies familiar to our fathers and mothers in their schooldays. He was educated at Yale College, and, intending to become a painter, went to London to study art under Benjamin West; but becoming interested in scientific studies he was for many years president of the National Academy of Design in New York. He resided abroad three or four years. On returning home in 1832 the conversation of some gentlemen on shipboard in regard to an experiment which had recently been tried in Paris with the electro-magnet, interested him and started a train of thought which gave him the conception of the idea of the telegraph. The question arose as to the length of time required for the fluid to pass through a wire one hundred feet long. Upon hearing the answer, that it was instantaneous, the thought suggested itself to Prof. Morse that it might be carried to any distance and be the means of transmitting intelligence. Acting upon the thought, he set to work, and before the ship entered New York harbor had conceived and made drawings of the telegraph. He plodded on through weary years endeavoring to bring his invention to perfection, meeting on every hand jeers and ridicule and undergoing many painful reverses in fortune; but for his indomitable will, he would have given up his project long before he succeeded in bringing it before the public, for all thought it a wild scheme which would amount to nothing.

In 1838 he applied to Congress for aid that he might form a line of communication between Washington and Baltimore. Congress was quite disposed to regard the scheme a humbug. But there was a wire stretched from the basement of the Capitol to the ante-room of the Senate Chamber, and after watching "the madman," as Prof. Morse was called, experiment, the committee to whom the matter was referred decided that it was not a humbug, and thirty thousand dollars was appropriated, enabling him to carry out his scheme. Over these wires on the 24th of May, 1844, he sent this message from the rooms of the U.S. Supreme Court to Baltimore: "What hath God wrought!" and connected with this message is quite a pretty little story. Having waited in the gallery of the Senate Chamber till late on the last night of the session to learn the fate of his bill, while a Senator talked against time, he at length became discouraged, and confident that the measure would not be reached that night went to his lodgings and made preparations to return to New York on the morrow. The next morning, at breakfast, a card was brought to him, and upon going to the parlor he found Miss Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of the Commissioner of Patents, who said she had come to congratulate him upon the passage of his bill. In his gladness he promised Miss Ellsworth that as she had been the one to bring him the tidings, she should be the first to send a message over the wires. And it was at her dictation that the words, "What hath God wrought?" were sent.

Success was now assured; honors and riches were his, and those who had been slow to believe in the utility of his invention were now proud of their countryman and delighted to do him homage. Upon going abroad again he was received more as a prince than as a plain American citizen, kings and their subjects giving him honor. It may be believed that even in his wildest flights of fancy Professor Morse did not dream of the rapid spread of the use of his invention, or look forward to the time within a few years, when the telegraph wires would weave together the ends of the world and form a network over the entire Continent.

A few years ago, the only telegraph wire in China was one about six miles in length, stretching from Shanghai to the sea, and used to inform the merchants of the arrival of vessels at the mouth of the river. A line from Pekin to Tientsin was opened a short time since. The capital of Southern China is in communication with the metropolis of the North, and as Canton was connected by telegraph with the frontier of Tonquin at the outbreak of the late political troubles, the telegraph wires now stretch from Pekin to the most southern boundary of the Chinese Empire, and China, ever slow to adopt foreign ideas, is crossed and re-crossed by wires; we may say the thought which came to Prof. Morse upon that memorable voyage has reached out and taken in the whole world.