Today in history: Samuel Morse quotes the Bible in first telegraph message

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Today in history: Samuel Morse quotes the Bible in first telegraph message

May 24, 2022 - Steve Yount

This is the instrument on which Samuel Morse flashed his famous "What hath God wrought!" between Washington and Baltimore a century ago, seen May 16, 1944. (AP Photo)

This is the instrument on which Samuel Morse flashed his famous "What hath God wrought!" between Washington and Baltimore a century ago, seen May 16, 1944. (AP Photo)

Most children learn about Samuel F. B. Morse and the telegraph in school, but they don’t learn about how his Christian faith influenced his work.

Morse, the son of a preacher, pioneered the use of the telegraph in the United States after it had been invented in Europe. It was the first in a series of electronic devices, culminating with the mobile phone today, that revolutionized communications.

On May 24, 1844, Morse sent a message on a telegraph line from the Capitol in Washington to a colleague at a railroad depot in Baltimore. Using a system of electronic dots and dashes—Morse Code—he could tap out thirty letters a minute. Morse, surrounded by congressmen, had given such demonstrations before, but never over such a distance.

The message: “What Hath God Wrought.”

The words, suggested by the daughter of the commissioner of patents, came from Numbers 23:23. As Morse noted later, it “baptized the American Telegraphy with the name of its author” —God.

The life of Samuel Morse

Morse was an unlikely inventor.

While he studied philosophy and mathematics at Yale, he saw demonstrations of electricity, which had not yet been applied for any practical purpose. But painting proved to be his passion. In 1811, a year after graduating from Yale, he traveled to London to study at the Royal Academy of Arts.

He became an accomplished artist, painting portraits of famous people such as President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette. And after being exposed to photography in France, he brought the revolutionary process to America, including teaching Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.

Biographer Carleton Mabee compared Morse to Leonardo da Vinci, so varied and impressive were his accomplishments.

Morse dabbled in politics, running for mayor of New York twice and for Congress once. He defended slavery, opposed immigration and Catholicism, and never won an election. His views seem particularly abhorrent today.

But Morse also contributed his time and money to ministry, including establishing one of the first Sunday Schools in this country in his home church.

The tragedy that may have inspired Morse’s invention

Returning from one of his trips to Europe in 1832, Morse talked to a fellow passenger aboard the ship who told him of European experiments with electromagnetism. He began to jot down ideas for a prototype of a telegraph and worked to refine the idea after he arrived in America.

At the time, messages routinely had to be physically taken from one place to another. In a tragic example of the problems this created, Morse, working in Washington, failed to receive news of his first wife’s death in time to attend her funeral in New Haven, Connecticut.

Historians speculate that this might have inspired Morse’s devotion to developing the telegraph. More than a decade after he began his work, Congress authorized $30,000 to build the telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore.

His demonstration in the Capitol created a sensation in the newspapers of the day, and telegraph lines connected every state in the eastern half of the United States except Florida by 1853.

The enduring legacy of Samuel Morse

The telegraph transformed American life in far-reaching and more subtle ways.

During the Civil War, it enabled generals to coordinate the movements of great armies on the battlefield from many miles away. And historian Garry Wills contended that the telegraph’s emphasis on brevity influenced Abraham Lincoln’s famously concise Gettysburg Address.

As Morse’s fame grew, his faith remained constant. Shortly before he died in 1872, he endowed a lectureship on the Bible and science. Yet his greatest legacy remains the telegraph with its ability to overcome the restrictions of time and space.

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