How Samuel Morse invented the telegraph

A diagram representing a telegraph machine.
Image from the US patent ‘Improvement in electro-magnetic telegraphs US RE118 E’ Jun 13, 1848, of S. F. B. Morse, available at

On a ship voyage not long before, he had overheard one passenger discuss some of the ways electricity was being used for such long-distance contacts. It was pretty well known. Joseph Henry was teaching at the College of New Jersey (soon to be renamed Princeton University) by then, and some of his work had been publicized. There also had been similar trials in Europe…

After struggling to make a telegraph of his own work efficiently, Morse almost gave up in frustration. He was certain there had to be an easier way, so he decided to get help from someone who actually knew how these mysterious electrical substances operated and could explain it to him.

Which is how, probably on a spring day in 1838, Joseph Henry found a surprisingly impassioned ex-painter at the door of his Princeton office.

… Henry had often declared that patents were the sort of thing that had held Europe back. He happily explained to Morse how the system worked – the batteries and the electromagnet and the spools of wire. In America, a young and growing country, it was right and proper, Henry believed, for all good citizens to share what they learned.

It took Morse several years – and judicious financial involvement with key members of congress – before he secured enough government funds to actually build a large, working prototype of his telegraph device. In its first week of commercial operation in 1844, connecting Washington with Baltimore, it took in just thirteen and a half cents in paid traffic, but in the next year an expanded line was taking in over a hundred dollars each week, and within a decade Morse was one of the wealthier men in North America.

Did it matter that he had largely stolen the idea for his invention? Telegraphs were already operating in England and Germany, and in America other inventors were close behind them. Someone else would no doubt have helped jump-start the American system if Morse hadn’t done it.

Although divine justice didn’t keep Morse from earthly riches, it did strike in another way. Joseph Henry had a satisfying life, at ease with his students and respected by his peers. Morse, however, having engaged in so much subterfuge, spent much of the next three decades stuck in litigation trying to defend the patents he’d railroaded through in his name.

– From ‘Electric Universe: how electricity switched on the modern world’ by David Bodanis, p21-24