- Historic Sites
Technology Of The Future
Despite all the recent talk, governments will never be much good at fostering new technologies
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
Henry also put Morse onto the final piece of the puzzle. Even the best-insulated wire loses electricity, limiting the distance a message could be carried. But Henry suggested using relays, electromagnetic devices that pick up the signal and generate it anew at full strength.
Morse put together a working model in one of the rooms of New York University. It consisted of batteries, seventeen hundred feet of wire coiled around the room, and, at each end of the wire, an electromagnet and a telegraph key for opening and closing the circuit. When the operator pushed down the key at one end, it closed the circuit, allowing a current to flow down the wire and activate the magnet at the other end, causing that key to click down in turn.
It was here that the only part of the Morse telegraph that was wholly Morse’s came into play—his marvelously efficient code. Morse assigned a pattern of dots and dashes to each letter, digit, and punctuation mark. Perhaps the most impressive part of the code is that Morse analyzed English letter frequencies and gave the shortest patterns to the most common letters. He had spent much time devising a means of recording the signals mechanically, his method for making the electricity “visible,” but he soon learned that the code was so simple and to use that a trained operator could easily interpret it by ear and write it down directly.
Although Morse’s model was extremely crude, it was enough to attract partners—Leonard Gale, a professor at New York University, who filled in Morse’s weak technical background, and Alfred Vail, a gifted mechanic whose father owned a prosperous ironworks in New Jersey. The Vails made a more sophisticated model to show Washington.
Morse offered the government all rights to his invention for $100,000. Fortunately for him, they said no.
The government, handed the key to the future, was characteristically unimpressed, and no money was forthcoming for a real long-distance demonstration. To get money from Congress, the three men took on a fourth partner who was, conveniently enough, a congressman himself, F. O. J. Smith, known to his friends as Fog. Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, did not let a mere conflict of interest stand in the way of progress, and pressed hard for an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars to build a test line from Baltimore to Washington.
Finally, in 1843, despite many rude jokes on the floor of Congress, Morse’s project was shuffled through in the frantic final minutes of a session. The subsequent construction contract was thoroughly botched in an attempt to lay the wires underground.
After a new start the wires finally were stretched on poles and on May 24, 1844, Morse, in the Capitol building, signaled to Alfred Vail in Baltimore, “What hath God wrought!” and Vail repeated the message accurately.
The effect on the world of Morse’s success was, well, electric. Within ten years of the first message, the United States was knit together with twentythree thousand miles of wire, thousands more being added every year. By the time of Morse’s death in 1872, the telegraph reached from California to India. Because of it, railroads could operate safely at much higher speeds and much lower costs. Businessmen could operate in a national market, with vast economies of scale. The many regional stock exchanges could coalesce around the one in Wall Street, creating a market to rival London’s. Newspaper readers could learn of distant news almost as soon as it happened. The world, thanks to Samuel Morse, shrank by several orders of magnitude.
All of this, of course, had been completely unforeseen by Morse. In fact, shortly after his success, he and his partners offered to sell the rights to the federal government for a mere hundred thousand dollars. Fortunately for them, the government was even more myopic and turned them down flat.
It is a curious irony that, thirty years later, after Alexander Graham Bell successfully demonstrated his telephone, he, too, failed to grasp the immense potential. He, too, tried to sell his rights for the nice round sum of one hundred thousand dollars. But he didn’t offer the rights to the government. He offered them to Western Union, which had come to dominate the telegraph business. Western Union turned him down flat.