The First Time the Message Outran the Messenger

May 24, 1994|By JAMES D. DILTS

The real information highway opened officially 150 years ago today when Samuel F. B. Morse, sent the famous telegraph message ''What hath God wrought?'' from the U.S. Capitol over the wires strung along the B&O Railroad's Washington Branch to his associate Alfred Vail at Baltimore's Mt. Clare Station. For the first time, the message could outrun the messenger.

Nowadays, faxes and phone calls routinely travel over the same CSX railroad right-of-way between the cities via fiber optics cables, but in Morse's time, the idea of instantaneous communication was so outlandish as to be unbelievable.

Three days after the first official message was received here, the Democratic national convention began in Baltimore and nominated U.S. Senator Silas Wright for vice president. Wright declined in a telegraphed message from Washington, but the delegates refused to believe it, adjourned and dispatched a committee to verify the fact.

There were ancient methods of instant visual communication, from Indian smoke signals to semaphore (the early railroads even employed their own version), but these were limited by the range of the human eye. Morse's system could link into the intelligence network any place on earth that could be reached by wire. It was as revolutionary a development in communications as the telephone and the home computer, perhaps even more so because it was the first.

Telegraph means literally to ''write a distance''; the earliest messages were received as dots and --es on paper. Julia Latrobe recorded her amazement on seeing the device demonstrated. (Her brother, John H. B. Latrobe, the B&O's lawyer, introduced Morse to Louis McLane, the B&O president, who thought he was crazy; even so, he later authorized Morse to conduct a trial of the telegraph along the Washington Branch right-of-way.)

Having been told by her brother that the telegraph's inventor was in the Rotunda of the Capitol ''at the end of a wire upon which he was going to send a message, like a flash of lightning,'' to someone at the Relay House, Julia Latrobe took her nephews down to see it. (John H. B. Latrobe's summer home was at what is now Lawyer's Hill in Howard County, across the Patapsco River from Relay.)

''We found the machine . . . on a table in the parlour of the Relay House, a wayside hotel . . . and superintending the movement was a very pleasing, courteous young gentleman, Mr. Vail,'' recalled Julia Latrobe.

''But I was astounded and delighted when he told me that upon sending word to Professor Morse that 'Miss Latrobe was beside him with three nephews,' he sent 'his respects to Miss Latrobe and asked what the weather was with us, for it was windy in Washington?' and some other replies to one or two questions I had put. All this was like witchcraft to me, especially as the correspondence was conducted upon a long strip of white paper, with little indentations at intervals, only intelligible of course to Mr. Vail. . . . My brother on our return home made us understand it. I have carefully preserved the strips of paper.''

Samuel Finely Breeze Morse was 53 years old when the first official telegraph message went out over the wires on May 24, 1844, and better known as a painter than as an entrepreneur. While he was used to privation, his struggle to convince skeptics of the value of his invention exceeded anything he had endured as an artist.

Morse had produced two monumental works in 1822, ''The Old House of Representatives,'' showing the house members, 86 of whom sat for individual portraits, preparing for an evening session in the dramatic candle-lit chamber; and in 1833, the ''Gallery of the Louvre,'' containing 38 identifiable masterpieces in miniature. Neither painting attracted much attention at the time. (''The Old House of Representatives'' is now in the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the ''Gallery of the Louvre'' was purchased a little over 10 years ago by Chicago's Terra Gallery for $3.25 million, a new record for an American work of art.)

On one of his trips to Europe to study art, Morse conceived the electromagnetic telegraph and when he returned, assembled the components in his one-room, fifth-floor, lower-Manhattan studio-apartment subsidized by his brothers.

On a later trip to secure European patents, Morse brought back the daguerreotype which he helped to introduce to the United States. He then spent several years as a poverty-stricken art teacher. A dog lives better than an artist, he told Virginia's David Hunter Strother (Porte Crayon), one of his students from whom he cadged an occasional meal.

At the end of 1842, Morse was broke and near despair when the House Commerce Committee, chaired by Baltimore politician and novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, reported favorably on a bill to provide $30,000 for a practical test of the telegraph. He then waited weeks for the measure to be called up in the same chamber he had painted 20 years before. ''If the darkest time is just before day, daylight must be close at hand,'' Morse said.

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