The Selling Of Samuel Morse

May 2017

In February 1837, Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury called for information from the “most intelligent sources” to help prepare a report to Congress on the propriety of establishing a “system of telegraphs” for the United States. Of the 18 responses he received, 17 assumed that the telegraph would be optical and its motive power human. The only respondent to envision a different operating force was Samuel F. B. Morse, a painter turned professor long intrigued by the moral implications of technical advance; he proposed instead a new kind of telegraph of his own devising that would transmit information by electrical impulses carried by wire.

Woodbury’s request inspired Morse to build a demonstration project, which he completed in May 1844 in the form of a 40-mile line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Congress funded the effort with an award of $30,000. It was not the first of its kind: by May 1844 the British telegraph promoters Charles Wheatstone and William F. Cooke had installed special-purpose electric telegraphs on several railroads in Great Britain. But the Washington-Baltimore line was the first electric telegraph in the United States; following its transfer to the Post Office Department in 1845, it became the first electrical communications medium in the world open to the public on a fee-for-service basis. Although the future disposition of Morse’s invention remained uncertain, it was hailed from the outset as an epochal technical advance, destined to have vast consequences for American business, politics, and public life.

The history of Morse’s demonstration project offers a case study in the unanticipated consequences of technological innovation. Morse had neither the inclination nor the temperament to scale up his original undertaking into a spatially extensive network. Rather, he conceived of himself as an inventor who owned the rights to a valuable creation granted him by the Patent Office in 1840.

He believed he could sell these rights to Congress, and that his technology would become the first link in an extensive communication network run by the Post Office Department. It may seem counterintuitive today that an inventor who held the rights to an invention widely acclaimed as a powerful agent of change would try to sell them to the nation so that invention might be commercialized by a federal agency. Yet a congressional buyout had the support not only of Morse, but also of his primary financial backers; the patent commissioner; several of the country’s most influential newspapers; and a smattering of lawmakers, including the 1844 Whig presidential contender, Henry Clay. Only after Morse had failed to sell his rights to Congress would the telegraph become a quintessentially private enterprise. This was an eventuality that Morse had worked to forestall for almost a decade and that would continue to trouble thoughtful critics of the telegraph business from the 1840s until the First World War.