One day last year I was thinking about the first transoceanic telegraph. Too lazy to look up info, I called my dad and asked him what material was used to waterproof and coat the cable. Without even pausing, he said, “Gutta percha, a rubber-like substance that comes from a tree found in Malaysia.” At that point, I realized that I will never, ever think of a question, no matter how weird, inconsequential, or stupid, that Stan cannot answer. I give up. He is the king of useful and useless knowledge.
But I was still curious about the telegraphs that closed the distances between the oceans, mostly because I had been reading a lot about the Raj and thought what a huge difference it must have made when news from India could reach Britain in minutes instead of months. It’s so easy to communicate now—cell phones, email, instant messaging, text messages—that the telegraph seems pokey and dull. In its day, though, it was transforming, perhaps even more so than its follow-up, the telephone, if for no other reason than that it was first.
Once the edges of the continents were connected via telegraph lines, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to bridge the oceans. It only took a person or group who had the money and will to be able to withstand the failures that such an unwieldy enterprise involved.
As John Steele Gordon tells it in his book, A Thread Across the Ocean, Cyrus Field was the man for the job. A successful businessman, honest, well-liked, and with a reputation for honesty, Field could raise money from his wealthy, connected friends, lose the money when things went wrong, and get the same people to invest again for another try.
And oh, did things ever go wrong. The cable was immensely heavy; loading it onto ships was in itself a mighty task. Finding ships that could haul that size a cargo wasn’t easy (the greatest success for this turned out to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern, an overly ambitious failure as a steamship for passengers, but a success at laying cable; the story of the Great Eastern is told in greater detail in Stephen Fox's Transatlantic, which I wrote about in Turbinia). The cable had to be unreeled at just the right speed. If anything happened to the cable, it had to be reeled back in with equal care. And oh, storms could always pop up and really wreak havoc.
The first attempt in 1857 was an immediate success…and then an abject failure. The cable was laid, despite a tremendous storm striking mid-voyage. Much celebration ensued when the heroes of the telegraph landed in Newfoundland. The first message on the new line was from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan. It was joyously received, although it was uneasily noted by Field and company that it took 16 and a half hours to send the brief message. It was a sign of bad things to come—soon the signal from the cable weakened and finally disappeared. The line had failed, and Field and his group quickly went from heroes to goats; they were widely mocked in newspapers and songs (this was an era when people did things like write satirical verses about the failures of inventions. Movies couldn’t come along quickly enough). It would take almost twelve years and several more attempts before the optimistic, patient and unyielding Field found success for his Atlantic telegraph. And once that happened, other lines began to fall into place. By 1902, the world was virtually connected by a web of land and oceanic telegraph lines.
Gordon’s fine little book (and I mean little—I think this post is going to be longer) tells this story clearly and easily. I want to say that the history of communications is a topic of immense importance and one that should appeal to everyone, but in reality, it probably is a bit of a niche interest. But if you do want to know another story of technological triumph from the Industrial Age, one that hasn’t been done to death, this is certainly a good one.
Except for one thing.
Or person, that is. Samuel Finley Breese Morse, considered by some the father of the telegraph, believed by others to be an overbearing fraud. I am of the latter camp.
I won’t go into too much detail, but this is one of those stories where one man gets all the credit while his quieter half did all the work. Alfred Vail, one of the sons of Stephen Vail of Morristown, NJ, who had grown wealthy from his iron works, walked into a room at New York University one day and saw Morse trying to demonstrate a crude telegraph (an idea, by the way that others such as Charles Wheatstone, were already working on in other parts of the world). Vail vaguely knew Morse, and was intrigued by the invention. He offered not only to get his family to invest in the idea, but to allow Morse to work on it at their iron works.
The Vails did invest in the idea, and the telegraph was made at Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown but Morse was hardly part of it. Letters clearly show that Morse was in New York most of the time while Vail and an assistant from the iron works, William Baxter, worked on the machine at the iron works. The only time Morse made an extended appearance was when the Vails, trying to give the impoverished Morse money without outright handing it to him, commissioned a series of family portraits (Morse was an artist by trade).
So there’s the evidence of the first place, that Morse was rarely there while the telegraph was being built. The next piece of evidence is just one of logic. As noted, Morse was an artist. Vail, on the other hand, came from a family of machinists and had grown up around tools, machines, and manufacturing. Who do you think would be more likely to create a working machine? Even though Vail didn’t formally study electricity or engineering, he just intuitively had a better grasp of how to build a practical instrument. Morse had spent his whole life painting and was the son of a minister. Unless he was some kind of electricity savant, it just doesn’t make sense that Morse would even be able to figure out how to make the machine work in the same way that Vail and Baxter could.
(By the way, Gordon actually backs this up in his book. When Field began his transatlantic telegraph project, he brought in as consultants scientists and telegraph experts, which of course included Morse. One of the scientists was Edward Whitehouse, whose ineptitude throughout the whole project eventually got him fired before the cable was even completely laid. On almost every decision, Morse sided with Whitehouse, rather than another scientist, William Thomson—later better known as Lord Kelvin. After the fact it became clear that Whitehouse was almost consistently wrong and Thomson right. Morse, who probably had no real feel for electricity and the workings of the telegraph, had of course picked the wrong scientist. This is just another strike against the viability of Morse as the designer of the telegraph.)
Another sign of Morse’s impractical understanding of the telegraph is evident in his plan for the “code.” Morse actually spent years compiling a dictionary where he assigned numbers (with no real rhyme or reason) to different words. This is as if the inventor of the typewriter had decided to build a machine with a key for every single word in English rather than one key per letter. This is the kind of idea that only someone who didn’t really work with or operate machines could think would work. Morse had thought that a an ink pen would drag a line along a sheet of paper, with the electrical pulses causing the pen to bump up waves in the line. One wave would equal the number one, two waves for two, etc. With a dictionary numbering in the thousands, the code for a word could unreel slowly in a long string of waves. Meanwhile, Vail had devised a mechanism that was much faster and more efficient; it used a lever to move a pen up and down, making quick marks on the paper (he later would eliminate the pen and ink part and replaced it with a sharp point that made indentations in paper, thus ridding telegraph operators of the need to keep track of ink in the pen). According to the account of William Baxter, this is when Vail realized that it would be easier and clearer to work with a code of different length dots and dashes than long series of numbers (some stories say that he went down to the printer of the Morristown newspaper and studied the type layout on the press to figure out which letters, according to frequency of use, should get the easiest and fastest codes). Eventually Morse abandoned his numbered dictionary and went with the dot and dash code. From what I’ve read, Morse gives little explanation himself of why he dropped the dictionary project, on which he had worked for years, and how he developed the dot-dash code instead (Morse’s sons later passed around the story that Morse had gotten the idea from observing a printing press while giving an early demonstration of the telegraph in Philadelphia, but this is patently false; at the time of the Philadelphia trip, the dot-dash code had already been plainly in use). It should be noted that Morse and Vail performed several demonstrations and tests using the dot-dash code before suddenly, when showing the telegraph to President Van Buren and cabinet members, Morse went back to the numeric code. There is no explanation for this, but it seems suspiciously like Morse, at an important moment in the life of the invention, felt that “his” system was the reliable one, not something someone else had devised. If Morse had developed the dot-dash code, and had been using it successfully, why wouldn’t he use it at this big moment? I think this looks bad.
So why would Vail let Morse do all this? It seems like it was just a problem of personality. Vail was apparently a diffident, retiring, while Morse was a relentless self-promoter. Morse was much older than Vail and had briefly taught Morse at NYU. Vail must have felt that deferring to Morse was the respectful thing to do. The contract between the two was worded in a way that at first seemed like Morse would get credit for the idea but they would share credit for all subsequent improvements to it. This meant that all of Vail’s improvements got lost in the shuffle. Vail just didn’t feel he had the legal right to make any claims or take out any patents on parts of the telegraph.
And so there are statues of Samuel Morse, and people casually toss around the phrase “Morse code” and Morse is in the history textbooks. And in Morristown, NJ, there is a grammar school on Speedwell Avenue named the Alfred Vail School. If you went into that school, I doubt any of the kids, and probably most of the teachers and administrators would not be able to answer the question: “Who is Alfred Vail?”
(If you want further reading on this topic—if I haven’t already bored you to death, you can start with this article from the Historic Speedwell website. Of course you would be right to feel that the keepers of the Vail property might not be the most unbiased writers, although their sources are impressive. Going further back, this 1888 Century Illustrated Magazine account by Franklin Pope relies heavily on information from William Baxter, Vail’s assistant and the one living eyewitness at that point to the development of the telegraph. That article is great, but long, so here’s a summary of it by Neal McEwen at The Telegraph Office, a telegraph history website. For the other side of the argument, there are numerous biographies of Morse available, but it should be no surprise that few even mention Vail.)