• 1791 April 27
    (b.) -
    1872 April 02


An American contributor to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs, co-inventor of the Morse code, and an accomplished painter, he was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he went on to Yale College to receive instruction in the subjects of religious philosophy, mathematics and science of horses. While at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day. He supported himself financially by painting. In 1810, he graduated from Yale with Phi Beta Kappa honors. In 1825, the city of New York commissioned him for $1,000 to paint a portrait of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, in Washington. In the midst of painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read one line, "Your dear wife is convalescent". He immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived she had already been buried. Heartbroken in the knowledge that for days he was unaware of his wife's failing health and her lonely death, he moved on from painting to pursue a means of rapid long distance communication. On the sea voyage home in 1832, he encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston who was well schooled in electromagnetism. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson's electromagnet, he developed the concept of a single-wire telegraph, and The Gallery of the Louvre was set aside. His original telegraph, submitted with his patent application, is part of the collections of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. In time the Morse code would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world, and is still the standard for rhythmic transmission of data. Even though he began his work four years prior to William Cooke (who had greater financial resources) and Professor Charles Wheatstone learning of the Wilhelm Weber and Carl Gau? electromagnetic telegraph in 1833; they reached the stage of launching a commercial telegraph before he did. Cooke built a small electrical telegraph within three weeks. Wheatstone, building on the primary research of Joseph Henry, was also experimenting with telegraphy and (most importantly) understood that a single large battery would not carry a telegraphic signal over long distances, and that numerous small batteries were far more successful and efficient in this task. Cooke and Wheatstone formed a partnership and patented the electrical telegraph in May 1837, and within a short time had provided the Great Western Railway with a 13-mile (21 km) stretch of telegraph. However, Cooke and Wheatstone's multiple wire signaling method would be overtaken by his superior method within a few years. In 1848, in a letter to a friend, he describes how vigorously he fought for being called the sole inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph despite the previous inventions. He encountered the problem of getting a telegraphic signal to carry over more than a few hundred yards of wire, but the great breakthrough he had been seeking came from the insights of, who taught chemistry at New York University. He had been joined by Professor Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail and together they made the first public demonstration of the electric telegraph on January 11, 1838 at a factory house. The range of the telegraph was limited to two miles (3 km), and the inventors had pulled two miles (3 km) of wires inside the factory house through an elaborate scheme. The first public transmission, with the message "A patient waiter is no loser", was witnessed by a mostly local crowd. In 1838 a trip to Washington, D.C., failed to attract federal sponsorship for a telegraph line. He then traveled to Europe seeking both sponsorship and patents, but in London discovered Cooke and Wheatstone had already established priority. He would need the financial backing of Maine congressman Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith. He made one last trip to Washington, D.C., in December 1842, stringing "wires between two committee rooms in the Capitol, and sent messages back and forth" to demonstrate his telegraph system. Congress appropriated $30,000 in 1843 for construction of an experimental 38-mile (61km) telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore along the right-of-way of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. An impressive demonstration occurred on May 1, 1844, when news of the Whig Party's nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. President was telegraphed from the party's convention in Baltimore to the Capitol Building in Washington. On May 24, 1844, the line was officially opened as he sent the famous words "What hath God wrought" from the Supreme Court chamber in the basement of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to the B&O's Mount Clare Station in Baltimore. Annie Ellsworth chose these words from the Bible (Numbers 23:23); her father, U.S. Patent Commissioner Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, had championed his invention and secured early funding for it. His telegraph could transmit thirty characters per minute. In May 1845 the Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed in order to radiate telegraph lines from New York City towards Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, New York and the Mississippi. He went to great lengths to win a lawsuit for the right to be called "inventor of the telegraph", and promoted himself as being an inventor, but Alfred Vail played an important role in the invention of the Morse Code, which was based on earlier codes for the electromagnetic telegraph. He received a patent for the telegraph in 1847, at the old Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul, which was issued by Sultan Abd?lmecid who personally tested the new invention. He was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849. In the 1850s, he went to Copenhagen and visited the Thorvaldsens Museum, where the sculptor's grave is in the inner courtyard. He was received by King Frederick VII, who decorated him with the Order of the Dannebrog. He expressed his wish to donate his portrait from 1830 to the king. His telegraphic apparatus was officially adopted as the standard for European telegraphy in 1851. Only the United Kingdom (with its extensive overseas British Empire) kept the needle telegraph of Cooke and Wheatstone. There is an argument amongst historians that he may have received the idea of a plausible telegraph from Harrison Gray Dyar some eighteen years earlier than his patent. According to his The New York Times obituary published on April 3, 1872, he received respectively the decoration of the Atiq Nishan-i-Iftikhar (English: Order of Glory), set in diamonds, from the Sultan Ahmad I ibn Mustafa of Turkey (c.1847), a golden snuff box containing the Prussian gold medal for scientific merit from the King of Prussia (1851); the Great Gold Medal of Arts and Sciences from the King of W?rttemberg (1852); and the Great Golden Medal of Science and Arts from Emperor of Austria (1855); a cross of Chevalier in the L?gion d'honneur from the Emperor of France; the Cross of a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog from the King of Denmark (1856); the Cross of Knight Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, from the Queen of Spain, besides being elected member of innumerable scientific and art societies in this [United States] and other countries. Other awards include Order of the Tower and Sword from the kingdom of Portugal (1860); and Italy conferred on him the insignia of chevalier of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus in 1864. His telegraph was recognized as an IEEE Milestone in 1988. In the United States, he had his telegraph patent for many years, but it was both ignored and contested. In 1853 the case of the patent came before the U.S. Supreme Court where, after very lengthy investigation, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that he had been the first to combine the battery, electromagnetism, the electromagnet and the correct battery configuration into a workable practical telegraph. Nevertheless, in spite of this clear ruling, he still received no official recognition from the United States government. The Supreme Court did not accept all of his claims. The O'Reilly v. Morse case has become known among patent lawyers because the Supreme Court explicitly denied his claim for any future application of his code system. The decision has been cited as relevant to the patent eligibility of software. Assisted by the American ambassador in Paris, the governments of Europe were approached regarding how they had long neglected him while using his invention. There was then a widespread recognition that something must be done, and "in 1858 he was awarded the sum of 400,000 French francs (equivalent to about $80,000 at the time) by the governments of France, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Piedmont, Russia, Sweden, Tuscany and Turkey, each of which contributed a share according to the number of his instruments in use in each country." In 1858, he was also elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. There was still no such recognition in the U.S. until June 10, 1871, when a bronze statue of him was unveiled in Central Park, New York City. An engraved portrait of him appeared on the reverse side of the United States two-dollar bill silver certificate series of 1896. He was depicted along with Robert Fulton. An example can be seen on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in their "American Currency Exhibit". A blue plaque was erected to commemorate him at 141 Cleveland Street, London, where he lived from 1812 to 1815. Other people and corporations made millions using his inventions, yet most rarely paid him for the use of his patented telegraph. He was not bitter about this, though he would have appreciated more rewards for his labors. He died of pneumonia at his home in New York City 25 days short of his 81st birthday.
  • Date of Birth:

    1791 April 27
  • Date of Death:

    1872 April 02
  • Gender:

  • Noted For:

    Contributor to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs and co-inventor of the Morse code
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