Friday, May 25, 2007

May 24, 1844:

"What hath God wrought."

Samuel Morse (left) sent his famed telegraph message from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844, and it's often mentioned as if it were the very first message ever relayed by telegraph, but it isn't so. It was a public demonstration of the revolutionary communications technology (the "Victorian Internet"), and so of course was widely publicized.

But Morse and his men had been testing the system that spring, including relaying the results of the presidential nominating conventions, which were both held in Baltimore that year. The Whig Party nominated Henry Clay on May 1, 1844, and the news traveled to Washington by wire faster than a train could take the message. Morse's famous message was still about three weeks in the future when that happened. (The Democrats met on May 27.)

According to Cornell University Library's exhibition, "Ezra Cornell, A Nineteenth-Century Life," the man who made his fortune in the telegraph business and founder of Cornell University (right) was involved in the technology early on. Getting the system fuctioning to transmit Biblical quotes or presidential news or anything else was no small task: "While traveling in Maine, Ezra Cornell met F.O.J. Smith, editor of the Maine Farmer. When Congress appropriated $30,000 for the laying of a test telegraph cable between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Smith had taken a contract from the inventor, Samuel F.B. Morse, to lay the lead pipe which enclosed the telegraph wires.

"In the summer of 1843, on his second trip to Maine, Cornell visited Smith's office and found him struggling to design a machine to lay the cable underground. At Smith's request, Cornell created a plow that would both dig the trench and lay the cable. Morse came to Maine for a demonstration of the machine, approved it, and hired Cornell to lay the cable for the test line. In October 1843, Cornell went to Washington to begin work on laying the telegraph line. As the work proceeded, he became concerned that the insulation of the wires was defective. He notified Morse, who ordered the work stopped. Cornell then devised a machine for withdrawing the wires from the pipes and reinsulating them.

"Cornell spent that winter in Washington studying works on electricity and magnetism in the Patent Office library and the Library of Congress. His reading convinced him that underground wiring was impractical and that the wires should be strung on glass-insulated poles. He was retained as Morse's assistant at the pay of $1,000 per year. In the spring of 1844, Cornell built the overhead line from Washington to Baltimore, and on May 24, Morse tapped out the historic message: 'What hath God wrought.' Some of Cornell's earliest telegraph communications relayed the results of the 1844 Whig and Democratic Conventions, which nominated Henry Clay and James K. Polk, respectively."

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