If It Weren't For Samuel Morse's Grief, Long-Distance Communication Might Not Exist

The phrase "What hath God wrought?" may not mean much to you, but it's a line that changed the course of history. This was the first message ever transmitted over telegraph wires. Samuel Morse, the developer, created this technology out of his own grief. This story is dark, but it has a happy ending — for the rest of the world, that is.

Morse with his recorder.

Can This Horse Trot Any Faster?

Before he became known for the code that bears his name, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. Soon after setting up an art studio in Boston in 1815, Morse married Lucretia Walker. All was good and well until 1825, when tragedy after tragedy plowed its way into Morse's life. Lucretia died in 1825 after giving birth to the couple's third child. She fell seriously ill while Morse was away working on a painting commission, and got word of her condition too late (giddy-up, you darn horse messengers!). By the time he made it back home to be with her, she had already been buried. On top of that, the next year, his father died. Three years after that, his mother died. Can't a dude catch a break?!

Morse Me, Beep Me, If You Wanna Reach Me

After all this heartbreak, Morse (along with some inventor pals he befriended along the way) began contemplating telegraphy. If he would've received news of his wife's illness sooner, he could've made it back in time to be with her before she passed. The solution, he thought, could have been in the wires. The telegraph had already been in invented in 1774, but the impractical device used 26 bulky wires to transmit messages. Morse developed a way to send messages over a single wire and created a "language" — Morse code, a system of long and short signals — to go with it.

He received a patent for his telegraph invention in 1844, and was able to secure funding from Congress to build wires across the United States. On May 24th of that year, he telegraphed his famous message from Baltimore to Washington: "What hath God wrought!" According to PBS, President Abraham Lincoln received battle reports at the White House via telegraph during the Civil War. The technology rapidly caught on with ordinary people too. Before long, Morse's practical little invention change the course of the modern world.

If you'd like to learn more about the communication revolution of yesteryear, check out "The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible.

Samuel Morse's Flash of Genius Born of Grief

Invention of the Telegraph

Written by Ashley Hamer May 24, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.