Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 15:
TELEGRAPH

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we look at early telegraphy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Historians of technology are pretty cautious about naming the first person to invent anything. Someone else always shows up having thought of it first. The telegraph is no exception. The noted American painter Samuel F.B. Morse did put together a telegraph system in 1837. But it was probably his invention of an early version of what we call the "Morse code" that got him credited with inventing the telegraph.

The seed for the telegraph was sown 90 years earlier, in 1747, when the Englishman William Watson showed that electrostatically generated signals could be sent a long way through a wire with the circuit being completed through the earth. In 1753 an anonymous writer published a magazine article showing how it was possible to use an array of 26 such wires -- one for each letter of the alphabet -- to send messages over long distances. Various forms of this multiple-wire system were built in Switzerland in 1774, in France in 1787, and in Spain in 1798.

The notion of sending all the letters on a single wire -- of using a code to distinguish them -- was introduced in 1774, about 60 years before Morse, by a French inventor named Lesage. Still, multiple-wire systems weren't completely abandoned for several decades.

The whole business got a big boost with the invention of the storage battery. With battery power, people could drive all kinds of output signals -- like magnets and marks on litmus paper. Between 1800 and Morse's work in 1837, many telegraph systems were developed -- and a lot of them weren't bad.

It's worth asking how Morse got the credit he did. His code was the best one up to that time, and his system had the essential features for a commercial success, although few of these features were unique. But we must recognize that Morse was a man involved in a remarkable range of self-expressive activities -- art, invention, politics, photography -- the list goes on. Beyond that, he was combative and got into controversies in all these fields. When it came to fighting for telegraph patent priority, Morse was very effective. In 1854 he won a Supreme Court decision that gave him most of the telegraph royalties. To his credit, he died as a wealthy philanthropist.

But don't forget, the idea of the telegraph was given us by an anonymous writer in 1753 -- a person whose reward was the fun of having dreamed up a wonderful new idea -- an anonymous inventor whose reward was having given that idea away to the world.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Garratt, G. R. M., Telegraphy. A History of Technology, Vol. IV, c. 1750-1850. (C. Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and T. I. William's, eds.) New York: Oxford University Press, 1958, pp. 644-671.

Several Engines episodes discuss other aspects of telegraphy. See especially Episode 1380. Also click below on "Search Episodes" and search for the words "telegraph" or "telegraphy."

This episode has been revised as Episode 1393.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.