“Greetings and thanks to the Telegraph fraternity throughout the world. Glory to God in the highest, on Earth Peace, Goodwill to Men.” And with these words Samuel Morse, the man whose name is inextricably linked with the invention of the electric telegraph, signed off his final message to the American people.
A battery of carefully hidden telegraph instruments conveyed his message to every town and city across America. And the reception at the New York Academy of Music on 10 June 1871 came to an end, the climax of day-long celebrations called ‘Samuel Morse Day.’
The eighty year old Morse, sound in mind, would have enjoyed the tributes that poured in from across the world. But fading physically, he did not attend the parade and cruise around New York harbor in his honor; nor was he there to join 10,000 onlookers witness the unveiling of his statue in Central Park.
His colleague Leonard Gale, professor of science at New York University, would almost certainly have been on the guest list. Alfred Vail, who provided the mechanical skills and his father’s workshop in the early design stages, had died some years earlier. Had he attended it is nice to think Morse would have accorded him some credit for inventing the Morse ‘code.’
Many of Morse’s contemporaries in the ‘telegraph fraternity’, had they been invited, might have politely declined. Some, like Royal House and Alexander Bain, may still have been smarting from the legal mauling they received from Morse in the courts twenty years earlier. Charles Wheatstone, the British engineer and inventor of the ABC telegraphic system, like many others, would maintain that the telegraph was the sum of more than one man’s ingenuity. A slow process of discovery, Wheatstone would maintain, that can be traced back to Roger Bacon in the Thirteenth Century.
Its organisers, a group of Western Union Telegraph employees, had good cause to thank the Massachusetts-born, Yale-educated entrepreneur. The fortunes of their company were founded on Morse’s single circuit telegraph. It was the catalyst for a corporate expansion that extended right across America. Competition was absorbed in their wake. By the time the American Civil War drew to a close in 1865, the Morse telegraph extended across the American Continent. At the same time the Western Union brand had established a virtual monopoly on electronic communication, with a market share of 90%.
Commerce was certainly grateful to Samuel Morse. The railways and telegraph rapidly expanded in a mutually beneficial partnership. Installation of telegraph lines followed the rail tracks. The ability to communicate by these same wires allowed rail operators to schedule trains and minimize accidents.
Rail timetables and the telegraph meant buyers and sellers of livestock could plan regular shipments and communicate from the moment the animals left the farm gate. When refrigeration became feasible in the 1870s, livestock no longer needed to be transported in a ‘live’ state. Coordination by telegraph meant they could now be slaughtered in the new abattoirs of cities like Chicago and Kansas City and shipped east at half the cost, as required.
On the stock exchanges the effects were equally dramatic. Suddenly commodity prices could be aligned telegraphically. The price of wheat in Buffalo, for example, was now the same as in New York. This rapid centralization that the telegraph facilitated turned New York into America’s financial capital. By 1910 the New York stock exchange accounted for 90% of all bond and 75% of stocks traded across the country. Stock trader and private citizen could now wire money electronically – and cheaply – for as little as 30 cents a message. So economical was the service to run that Western Union still made about 30 cents per dollar clear profit.
The telegraph allowed investors nationally to track stock figures and news in general in newspapers with immediate, universal access to up to date information. No longer would journalists have to mail stories to each other and rely on boat, train and pony express. Not all the press were so enthused by Morse and his telegraph. The New York Times of 1858 called his device “trivial and paltry … superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.” Uncomfortable parallels, perhaps, in our internet-driven world.
More comfortable, for many of us, is the brevity that Morse’s code allows. A quality that Oscar Wilde enthusiastically embraced. Keen for a progress report on his current literary work he telegraphed his publisher with the succinct message “?” The publisher responded in the same spirit with “!”