BALTIMORE historian and frequent Other Voices contributor...

salmagundi

May 24, 1994

BALTIMORE historian and frequent Other Voices contributor Albert J. Silverman notes that the first macadam of the "information highway" was laid 150 years ago today. It was on May 24, 1844, that Samuel F.B. Morse sent the four-word message "What Hath God Wrought?" across 40 miles of wire stretching from Washington to Baltimore along the B&O Railroad right-of-way.

Mr. Silverman says Morse, who crowded four careers into one life -- artist, college professor, inventor and politician -- "had a keen idea of the economic and social implications of his handiwork and wisely sought the financial backing and oversight of the federal government rather than allow it to be exploited by rapacious business interests." With the help of Baltimore politician John P. Kennedy, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Morse got Congress to back the venture and appoint him superintendent of the United States telegraph at a salary of $2,000 a year.

The famous message clicked off by Morse at the Capitol and received on the third floor of a railroad warehouse on Pratt Street didn't originate with the inventor. It was selected by Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the commissioner of patents and was from the prophecy of the Old Testament soothsayer Balaam.

Mr. Silverman says notices of the demonstration made newspaper front pages but were "surprisingly brief." The Sun reported May 27 that "several messages were sent to and fro with almost incredible dispatch, which, although unimportant in themselves, were most interesting from the novelty of the proceeding, forcing upon the mind the reality of complete annihilation of space. . ."

A century and a half later, telephones, computers and satellites have annihilated all the space on the planet.

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