Year of Invention: 1838
What Is It? An electrical system for sending and receiving messages along an
electrical wire. In Greek, tele means “far” and graph means “writing.”
Who Invented It? Samuel Morse (in Massachusetts)
In an age when news traveled only as fast as a person could carry it, a telegraph that flashed messages across country at the speed of light was magic. The telegraph connected and united nations and the world in ways never imagined before.
Just two centuries ago, news took months to spread across the world. The telegraph changed all that. Morse’s telegraph made possible real-time dialogue between distant countries. The telegraph saved lives and improved human communication a thousandfold.
In 1774, Swiss scientist Georges Lesae invented a bulky, 26-wire pull system that could communicate over several miles. In 1832, Russian engineer Baron Paul Shilling created a five-wire electric telegraph capable of transmitting up to eight miles. An operator had to set five dials to send a single letter. The receiving operator sent a signal back confirming that he had received that letter and was ready for the next. The system was dismally slow.
In Munich, Germany, Karl van Steinheil invented an electric telegraph in 1834. His system featured a needle that swung from side to side as the electric current was either turned on or off. An operator was required to watch constantly. One blink could lose a letter.
By 1830, the telegraph needed a promoter and an idea man more than it needed a scientist. Samuel Morse seemed an unlikely promoter. His profession was painting. Born in Massachusetts in 1791, he wanted to paint landscapes. But Americans wanted to buy portraits. Morse reluctantly took up portraiture.
In 1832, Morse returned from Europe aboard the Sully. During the early days of the 12-day crossing, a group of men gathered on deck for a discussion of electricity, magne-