First Public Test of SFB Morse's Electromagnetic Telegraph

The first successful public test of the electromagnetic telegraph system in the United States took place on January 24, 1838 on Washington Square.1 Samuel Finley Breese Morse, then professor of Literature of the Arts and Design at New York University, ran a copper wire from a laboratory window in a park-side tower of the main NYU building, down around a tree and back through the window. He then attempted to send a signal across the line. The message transmitted read: “Attention! The Universe! By Kingdom’s Right Wheel.”2 The signal was successfully received and a whole new concept of communication in America was born. The telegraph delivered this message across a mile of cable in mere seconds; much faster than it could be delivered by foot, hoof or even train lines.

Although Morse was the first to showcase the technology in a public forum in the United States, his experiment was not the first in this field. The earliest practical telegraph system was invented by Baron Schilling von Canstatt in 1832. This experiment was followed by that of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber, whose system was used by Carl August Steinheil to develop an inter-city telegraph network in Munich and an intra-city system following the German railroad lines in 1835-1836. Also in 1936, but across the Atlantic, an American scientist named Dr. David Alter constructed the first known American electric telegraph machine in Elderton, Pennsylvania. However, Dr. Alter did not publicize his invention so his achievement is nearly forgotten. The first patented and publicly marketed electric telegraph system was co-developed by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in England. They received an English patent for this technology on June 12 1837, well before Morse’s first successful experiments at the end of that year.3 Morse was put out when he applied for a European patent for his system a year later and was unable to obtain one, ostensibly because Cooke and Wheatstone had beat him to it.4

It seems unlikely that Morse was unaware of these earlier experiments as they developed. However, biographer Kenneth Silverman, who read extensively into Morse’s correspondence and letters, found that until 1837 Morse thought his invention existed in a vacuum. Specifically, Silverman found a letter in which Morse wrote of his surprise at learning that two Frenchman, “ Gonon and Serval, were in the United States demonstrating a revolutionary system of long-distance communication” in April 1837.5


It turned out the Frenchmen's device was not an electrical telegraph at all but an “alleged improvement on the optical telegraph" system - essentially a semaphore method - which was misrepresented in the press, but still it threw Morse for a loop.6 Only two months after this, Cooke and Wheatstone achieved their patent. When news of it reached America, Morse was again, thrown for a loop, assuming they must have somehow gotten the idea from him although they never met. As a result, Morse spent a good deal of effort tracking down everyone he spoke to about his idea for a telegraph since he first recorded it in 1832 and how the “news of his invention leaked out.”7According to Silverman, Morse was an extremely secretive individual. Apparently, he “allowed a few people at the University to see the preliminary stages of his invention, and had sent a few correspondents a few oblique hints about it. But he seems to have kept only his brothers fully informed."89

Morse could hardly have worked on the telegraph system without involving his university colleagues. Morse was hired to his post at New York University shortly after its founding in 1831. The large Gothic Revival-style University Building, which opened on the northeast corner of Washington Square in 1835 (demolished in 1893), housed the entire university macrocosm - professor's quarters, dorms, labs, classrooms, chapel, library, etc. The university also rented living and working quarters out to non-affiliated men and organizations. The space attracted other artists and academics; mostly friends and affiliates of those working for the university. As a professor, Morse was given a lab in one of the towers and kept quarters downstairs.


This social and collaborative environment forwarded Morse's work and enabled him to draw on the expertise of colleagues without advertising his experiment too much. For instance, NYU chemistry professor, Leonard D. Gale, became Morse's chief collaborator as he answered increasing numbers of questions for the inventor. Also, Morse used a battery system invented by John William Draper, former president of NYU and chemistry instructor, to run the telegraph machine. After the first semi-public viewing (conducted inside a university classroom for a handful of invited guests) former Morse student and heir to Speedwell Iron Works, Alfred Vail, became Morse’s assistant and financial backer.10

This semi-public viewing, held on September 2, 1837 inside Gale’s lecture hall, was timed so that Morse could introduce his device to a visiting Oxford professor and world-renowned chemist, Charles Daubeny, and to colleagues and friends - such as Vail - who might be able to offer additional support. Morse crisscrossed the room with 1700 feet of wire and sent a message across it. Morse reported the success of his presentation in the Journal of Commerce, emphasizing its superiority over the other systems he now knew were being tested in Europe.11

Over the remaining months of 1837, Morse, Gale and Vail worked to make the telegraph work over longer distances until, in January, they felt that they were ready for a larger experiment. This exhibition was open to the general public, with special invitations sent out to various prestigious New Yorkers and nearby academics.12 The exposition was repeated several times for the public over the subsequent months, culminating in an exhibition for Congress, which underwrote the construction of a line between New York and Baltimore. Although Congress underwrote no further lines, Morse was able to obtain private funding to start the Magnetic Telegraph Company, whose location in New York City quickly established the metropolis as the communications center of the United States.13

Compared to its European counterparts, Morse’s telegraph was acknowledged as a superior technology. Its success above the earlier systems may be accounted for because it accomplished "its object in a totally different mode, more simple, less expensive, and more complete and permanent”14 Still, it is a trick of history and a tribute to Morse’s salesmanship that he is remembered for the invention when other, simultaneous inventors are not. It is also a trick of history, that although Morse made his living as an artist and instructor for most of his life, he is virtually forgotten for this work, while his invention and patent of a system of dash-and-dot phonetic spelling used to communicate messages across electromagnetic lines immortalized his name in the term, Morse code.15

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