This Day in History: Samuel Morse Demonstrates Telegraph Machine

Portrait of Samuel F. B. Morse taken by Mathew Brady, in 1866. Click on the image to view a larger version.

On January 6, 1838, painter Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) gave his first public demonstration of his new telegraph system. Within a few years, telegraph lines were strung across the United States and the Atlantic, completely changing the nature of long distance communication. By the end of the nineteenth century telegraph lines could be found in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. It was the first method of high-speed communications, a concept that has been expanded greatly since 1838.

Before the invention of the telegraph, postal services and messengers were the only common methods of sending information over long distances and even across oceans. Such methods required days or weeks for messages to reach their recipients.

Before Samuel Morse’s development, other inventors had created methods of sending messages quickly. However, all the previous methods had been complicated. Semaphores, smoke signals, reflecting mirrors, and other systems required clear, line-of-sight weather conditions. Several inventors created methods of sending messages by using electricity but the early systems were complicated and expensive.

Samuel Morse and his assistants developed a very simple method that was much cheaper than previous inventions. The telegraph sent an electric signal across a wire to a receiver at the other end. All the system needed was a key, a battery, wire and a line of poles between stations for the wire and a receiver.

The operators did have to learn a new code, soon dubbed the “Morse Code.” The code assigned letters in the alphabet and numbers a set of dots (short marks) and dashes (long marks) based on the frequency of use; letters used often (such as “E”) got a simple code, while those used infrequently (such as “Q”) got a longer and more complex code.

The use of telegraphs spread quickly. The Western Union Company was formed and started selling the communications service. In the process, the company strung wires across the country making it the first nationwide telegraph company. Telegraph systems spread across the world, as well. Extensive systems appeared across Europe by the later part of the 19th century, and by 1866 the first permanent telegraph cable had been successfully laid across the Atlantic Ocean; there were 40 such telegraph lines across the Atlantic by 1940.

The electric telegraph transformed how wars were fought and won and how journalists and newspapers conducted business. The telegraph also had a profound economic effect, allowing money to be “wired” across great distances.

You can read more about Samuel Morse and the telegraph in Wikipedia at


This is maybe a bit off topic, but I have always wondered about this. How did the receiver know the message was for him? Wouldn’t a line go from say St Louis to Kansas City with drops in Columbia & Jefferson City? How would you monitor traffic? How come messages from multiple users didn’t get jumbled? And once it got to Kansas City how did the signal know if it was to go to the Western Union office or the Train station?


    —> How did the receiver know the message was for him?

    Great question!

    In the case of multiple locations being connected to a single telegraph line, each location was assigned an identifier that was unique to that location. These identifiers were similar to call letters in today’s two-way radios. Each communication started off by one operator at the sending location calling the receiving location.

    For instance, if a telegraph operator in Chicago wanted to send a message to Saint Louis, he would first send: “STL this is CHI.” The receiving operator in Saint Louis would respond by sending “Chicago this is Saint Louis. Go ahead.”

    Actually, telegraph operators used a lot of abbreviations in order to save time. The actual transmission would first be “STL DE CHI” and the receiving operator would respond with “CHI DE STL. GA.” That protocol still exits today on radio communications over Morse Code.

    I am an experienced ham radio operator and can still copy Morse Code at better than 25 words per minute. I have a LOT of experience in calling stations and other protocols in Morse Code. (smile.) Ham radio did not come along until many years after the telegraph but hams and ship-to-shore radio operators and many other radio operators adopted the protocols already in widespread use by telegraphers.

    Liked by 1 person

Carl Birger van der Hagen January 7, 2015 at 7:06 am

Postcards were extremely popular a hundred years ago. They are now treasures for genealogists. Sailors used to camouflage messages to their love ones in a text written in the morse alphabet. My paternal grandfather was a sailor and master of several sailing ships, and occasionally he sent messages to my grandmother i morse signs.


Nancy Hand SeDoris January 7, 2015 at 9:08 am

My dad was a chief radioman on a Coast Guard cutter during WW II. When I was a very little girl he taught me Morse code, and his telegraph key is something I treasure to this day. He later was a ham radio operator, and I remember how thrilling it was to hear “K9JVX” communicate with people from various parts of the world.


My father was a radioman on the USS Tuscaloosa in the Pacific during WWII. At dinner, my sister and I would often ask him to “spell” various words in Morse Code. For his 80th birthday celebration nearly ten years ago, I looked up the code online for our favorite word “Mississippi” and printed it out, pasted it to a note card to use in a trivia game about his life and added a handwritten question at the top. I was dismayed when he read the question out loud to the group, looked at the Morse Code and shook his head, saying he didn’t know what those dots and dashes spelled. However, he recovered in no time, laughed as he told me I had pasted the printed strip upside down, turned the card around, and proudly dotted and dashed the word, impressing the attendees.


Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph on his own he is just the one who took credit for it.
Alfred Vail contributed just as much to the invention as Morse did.


My parents met as telegraphers working for Pacific Telegraph in the mid 1920’s. Thank You
Samuel F.B. Morse


Can you please elaborate on how it had a profound economic effect?


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