Inventing The Telegraph

June 2017

Incidents in history are usually significant only in combination with a succession of other incidents. Isolated incidents can assume importance only when they summarize an epoch in one dramatic moment or when fuller knowledge of the event might alter interpretations.

The moment of Samuel F. B. Morse’s proclaimed “flash of genius, ” during which he believed that he invented the telegraph, retains critical uncertainties. Morse was returning to the United States on the S.S. Sully in 1832 when he engaged in spirited conversations on Ampere’s recent electromagnetic experiments. The Boston chemist Dr. Charles T. Jackson told him that the length of wire did not retard the speed of electricity. Morse declared, euphorically, “I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance.” He always believed this idea was the true invention, and it was wholly his own.

Others denied it, including those already experimenting in the field. Jackson believed that he and Morse had cooperated in reaching Morse’s declaration and that they had agreed to cooperate in developing the telegraph. Lawsuits collected conflicting remembrances, and our present understanding of all invention has become complex. Yet whatever the whole truth, Morse’s “moment” was a key point in setting the course toward “instantaneous” electrical communication—toward the telegraph, the telephone, radio, radar, television, and the computer.