Morse's famous message flashes again

May 24, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- With several clickety-clacks, the most famous telegraph message once again flashed between Baltimore and Washington yesterday, thanks to a boost from its electronic descendants: the telephone and the computer.

Samuel F. B. Morse's famous message -- "What hath God wrought!" -- first transmitted on May 24, 1844, by wire wrapped in rope yarn and tar, this time made the 40-mile journey with the help of a phone hookup and a specially modified computer modem.

The Smithsonian replica of an 1840s telegraph machine, a block of brass, wood and wires resembling a high-school science experiment, came to life in metallic chatter, interrupting the praise heaped on Morse and the invention dubbed the "the Great Highway of Thought."

"The message just came from Baltimore announcing that we are ready," said Frank Donovan, a ham radio operator who organized the re-enactment with the Capitol Hill Amateur Radio Society to commemorate the bicentennial of the inventor's birth.

Dressed in frock coats and silk brocade vests, dignitaries including Morse's great-great-grandson gathered around the machine that stood yammering impatiently before the moment of re-enactment.

George M. White, Architect of the Capitol, portraying the inventor, tapped the transmission to the B&O Railroad Museum, site of the old Mount Clare station that received the historic message 147 years ago. Moments later the machine clicked the same message in dots and --es from the museum and embossed it on white tape.

"It worked!" said Mr. White, throwing up his hands to applause and displaying the tape, a scene quickly recorded by the telegraph's distant cousins several times removed: boom microphones, tape recorders, mini-cams and cameras, all under the illumination of electric lights. All the communications paraphernalia wrought since 1844.

A noted painter, Morse became frustrated with the slowness of communications through a personal tragedy. While he was painting a portrait of General Lafayette in Washington, Morse's wife died unexpectedly in New Haven. It took a week for Morse to receive the news.

In 1832, he came up with the idea of an electromagnetic telegraph. But it took another decade before he perfected the machine and got a $30,000 congressional appropriation to string an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore.

Morse is believed to have sent his message from the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol, witnessed by a group that included Henry Clay, the Whig presidential candidate, Dolley Madison, widow of the fourth president, and Alice Key, daughter of Francis Scott Key, composer of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the U.S. commissioner of patents, came up with the message, a quotation from the Bible's "Book of Numbers." The message was received and transmitted back to Washington by Morse's colleague Alfred Vail.

It was the world's first practical publicized use of electricity and quickly revolutionized a communications system that had relied on horses, ships and trains. Arunah S. Abell, founder of The Sun, was an early investor in Morse's telegraph, and the newspaper quickly used it to transform the way it sent and received news.

Three years later, stock reports were transmitted from London to Manchester, England, and the Reuters news wire service soon followed. By the 1860s, some 200,000 miles of telegraph line was strung in the United States and a telegraph cable spanned the Atlantic Ocean.

"It very much shrunk our world," said Judge Robert F. B. Morse, a county jurist from Texas and Morse's great-great-grandson. He doubts that even his ancestor realized what he had wrought. And he doubts that many people in this age of faxes and satellites appreciate the benefits of instant communications.

"We take it all for granted," Judge Morse said, gesturing to the small contraption of brass and wood. "It was only 147 years ago that that we were doing it over this simple machine."

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