In this he was mistaken, for the English telegraph of Cooke and Wheatstone was quite different in principle, using the deflection, by a current of electricity, of a delicately adjusted needle to point to the letters of the alphabet. While this was in use in England for a number of years, it was gradually superseded by the Morse telegraph which proved its decided superiority. It is also worthy of note that in this letter, and in all future letters and articles, he, with pardonable pride, uses a capital T in speaking of his Telegraph.
One of the most difficult of the problems which confront the historian who sincerely wishes to deal dispassionately with his subject is justly to apportion the credit which must be given to different workers in the same field of endeavor, and especially in that of invention; for every invention is but an improvement on something which has gone before. The sail-boat was an advance on the rude dugout propelled by paddles. The first clumsy steamboat seemed a marvel to those who had known no other propulsive power than that of the wind or the oar. The horse-drawn vehicle succeeded the litter and the palanquin, to be in turn followed by the locomotive; and so the telegraph, as a means of rapidly communicating intelligence between distant points, was the logical successor of the signal fire and the semaphore.
In all of these improvements by man upon what man had before accomplished, the pioneer was not only dependent upon what his predecessors had achieved, but, in almost every case, was compelled to call to his assistance other workers to whom could be confided some of the minutiae which were essential to the successful launching of the new enterprise.
I have shown conclusively that the idea of transmitting intelligence by electricity was original with Morse in that he was unaware, until some years after his first conception, that anyone else had ever thought of it. I have also shown that he, unaided by others, invented and made with his own hands a machine, rude though it may have been, which actually did transmit and record intelligence by means of the electric current, and in a manner entirely different from the method employed by others. But he had now come to a point where knowledge of what others had accomplished along the same line would greatly facilitate his labors, and when the assistance of one more skilled in mechanical construction was a great desideratum, and both of these essentials were at hand. It is quite possible that he might have succeeded in working out the problem absolutely unaided, just as a man might become a great painter without instruction, without a knowledge of the accumulated wisdom of those who preceded him, and without the assistance of the color-maker and the manufacturer of brushes and canvas. But the artist is none the less a genius because he listens to the counsels of his master, profits by the experience of others, and purchases his supplies instead of grinding his own colors and laboriously manufacturing his own canvas and brushes.
The three men to whom Morse was most indebted for material assistance in his labors at this critical period were Professor Joseph Henry, Professor Leonard D. Gale, and Alfred Vail, and it is my earnest desire to do full justice to all of them. Unfortunately after the telegraph had become an assured success, and even down to the present day, the claims of Morse have been bitterly assailed, both by well-meaning persons and by the unscrupulous who sought to break down his patent rights; and the names of these three men were freely used in the effort to prove that to one or all of them more credit was due than to Morse.
Now, after the lapse of nearly three quarters of a century, the verdict has been given in favor of Morse, his name alone is accepted as that of the Inventor of the Telegraph, and in this work it is my aim to prove that the judgment of posterity has not erred, but also to give full credit to those who aided him when he was most in need of assistance. My task in some instances will be a delicate one; I shall have to prick some bubbles, for the friends of some of these men have claimed too much for them, and, on that account, have been bitter in their accusations against Morse. I shall also have to acknowledge some errors of judgment on the part of Morse, for the malice of others fomented a dispute between him and one of these three men, which caused a permanent estrangement and was greatly to be regretted.
The first of the three to enter into the history of the telegraph was Leonard D. Gale, who, in 1836, was a professor in the University of the City of New York, and he has given his recollections of those early days. Avoiding a repetition of facts already recorded I shall quote some sentences from Professor Gale's statement. After describing the first instrument, which he saw in January of 1836, he continues:—
"During the years 1836 and beginning of 1837 the studies of Professor Morse on his telegraph I found much interrupted by his attention to his professional duties. I understood that want of pecuniary means prevented him from procuring to be made such mechanical improvements, and such substantial workmanship, as would make the operation of his invention more exact.
"In the months of March and April, 1837, the announcement of an extraordinary telegraph on the visual plan (as it afterwards proved to be), the invention of two French gentlemen of the names of Gonon and Servell, was going the rounds of the papers. The thought occurred to me, as well as to Professor Morse and some others of his friends, that the invention of his electro-magnetic telegraph had somehow become known, and was the origin of the new telegraph thus conspicuously announced. This announcement at once aroused Professor Morse to renewed exertions to bring the new invention creditably before the public, and to consent to a public announcement of the existence of his invention. From April to September, 1837, Professor Morse and myself were engaged together in the work of preparing magnets, winding wire, constructing batteries, etc., in the University for an experiment on a larger, but still very limited scale, in the little leisure that each had to spare, and being at the same time much cramped for funds....
"The latter part of August, 1887, the operation of the instruments was shown to numerous visitors at the University....
"On Saturday, the 2d of September, 1837, Professor Daubeny, of the English Oxford University, being on a visit to this country, was invited with a few friends to see the operation of the telegraph, in its then rude form, in the cabinet of the New York University, where it had then been put up with a circuit of seventeen hundred feet of copper wire stretched back and forth in that long room. Professor Daubeny, Professor Torrey, and Mr. Alfred Vail were present among others. This exhibition of the telegraph, although of very rude and imperfectly constructed machinery, demonstrated to all present the practicability of the invention, and it resulted in enlisting the means, the skill, and the zeal of Mr. Alfred Vail, who, early the next week, called at the rooms and had a more perfect explanation from Professor Morse of the character of the invention."
It was Professor Gale who first called Morse's attention to the discoveries of Professor Joseph Henry, especially to that of the intensity magnet, and he thus describes the interesting event:—
"Morse's machine was complete in all its parts and operated perfectly through a circuit of some forty feet, but there was not sufficient force to send messages to a distance. At this time I was a lecturer on chemistry, and from necessity was acquainted with all kinds of galvanic batteries, and knew that a battery of one or a few cups generates a large quantity of electricity capable of producing heat, etc., but not of projecting electricity to a great distance, and that, to accomplish this, a battery of many cups is necessary. It was, therefore, evident to me that the one large cup-battery of Morse should be made into ten or fifteen smaller ones to make it a battery of intensity so as to project the electric fluid.... Accordingly I substituted the battery of many cups for the battery of one cup. The remaining defect in the Morse machine, as first seen by me, was that the coil of wire around the poles of the electro-magnet consisted of but a few turns only, while, to give the greatest projectile power, the number of turns should be increased from tens to hundreds, as shown by Professor Henry in his paper published in the 'American Journal of Science,' 1831.... After substituting the battery of twenty cups for that of a single cup, we added some hundred or more turns to the coil of wire around the poles of the magnet and sent a message through two hundred feet of conductors, then through one thousand feet, and then through ten miles of wire arranged on reels in my own lecture-room in the New York University in the presence of friends."
This was a most important step in hastening the reduction of the invention to a practical, workable basis and I wish here to bear testimony to the great services of Professor Henry in making this possible. His valuable discoveries were freely given to the world with no attempt on his part to patent them, which is, perhaps, to be regretted, but much more is it to be deplored that, in, the litigation which ensued a few years later, Morse and Henry were drawn into a controversy, fostered and fomented by others for their own pecuniary benefit, which involved the honor and veracity of both of these distinguished men. Both were men of the greatest sensitiveness, proud and jealous of their own integrity, and the breach once made was never healed. Of the rights and wrongs of this controversy I may have occasion later on to treat more in detail, although I should much prefer to dismiss it with the acknowledgment that there was much to deplore in what was said and written by Morse, although he sincerely believed himself to be in the right, and much to regret in some of the statements and actions of Henry.
At this late day, when the mists which enveloped the questions have rolled away, it seems but simple justice to admit that the wonderful discoveries of Henry were essential to the successful working over long distances of Morse's discoveries and inventions; just as the discoveries and inventions of earlier and contemporary scientists were essential to Henry's improvements. But it is also just to place emphasis on the fact that Henry's experiments were purely scientific. He never attempted to put them in concrete form for the use of mankind in general; they led up to the telegraph; they were not a practical telegraph in themselves. It was Morse who added the final link in the long chain, and, by combining the discoveries of others with those which he had himself made, gave to the world this wonderful new agent.
A recent writer in the "Scientific American" gave utterance to the following sentiment, which, it seems to me, most aptly describes this difference: "We need physical discoveries and revere those who seek truth for its own sake. But mankind with keen instinct saves its warmest acclaim for those who also make discoveries of some avail in adding to the length of life, its joys, its possibilities, its conveniences."
We must also remember that, while the baby telegraph had, in 1837, been recognized as a promising infant by a very few scientists and personal friends of the inventor, it was still regarded with suspicion, if not with scorn, by the general public and even by many men of scholarly attainments, and a long and heart-breaking struggle for existence was ahead of it before it should reach maturity and develop into the lusty giant of the present day. Here again Morse proved that he was the one man of his generation most eminently fitted to fight for the child of his brain, to endure and to persevere until the victor's crown was grasped.
It is always idle to speculate on what might have happened if certain events had not taken place; if certain men had not met certain other men. A telegraph would undoubtedly have been invented if Morse had never been born; or he might have perfected his invention without the aid and advice of others, or with the assistance of different men from those who appeared at the psychological moment. But we are dealing with facts and not with suppositions, and the facts are that through Professor Gale he was made acquainted with the discoveries of Joseph Henry, which had been published to the world several years before, and could have been used by others if they had had the wit or genius to grasp their significance and hit upon the right means to make them of practical utility.
Morse was ever ready cheerfully to acknowledge the assistance which had been given to him by others, but, at the same time, he always took the firm stand that this did not give them a claim to an equal share with himself in the honor of the invention. In a long letter to Professor Charles T. Jackson, written on September 18, 1837, he vigorously but courteously repudiates the claim of the latter to have been a co-inventor on board the Sully, and he proves his point, for Jackson not only knew nothing of the plan adopted by Morse, and carried by him to a successful issue, but had never suggested anything of a practical nature. At the same time Morse freely acknowledges that the conversation between them on the ship suggested to him the train of thought which culminated in the invention, for he adds:—
"You say, 'I trust you will take care that the proper share of credit shall be given to me when you make public your doings.' This I always have done and with pleasure. I have always given you credit for great genius and acquirements, and have always said, in giving any account of my Telegraph, that it was during a scientific conversation with you on board the ship that I first conceived the thought of an electric Telegraph. Is there really any more that you will claim or that I could in truth and justice give?
"I have acknowledgments of a similar kind to make to Professor Silliman and to Professor Gale; to the former of whom I am under precisely similar obligations with yourself for several useful hints; and to the latter I am most of all indebted for substantial and effective aid in many of my experiments. If any one has a claim to be considered as a mutual inventor on the score of aid by hints, it is Professor Gale, but he prefers no claim of the kind."
And he never did prefer such a claim (although it was made for him by others), but remained always loyal to Morse. Jackson, on the other hand, insisted on pressing his demand, although it was an absurd one, and he was a thorn in the flesh to Morse for many years. It will not be necessary to go into the matter in detail, as Jackson was, through his wild claims to other inventions and discoveries, thoroughly discredited, and his views have now no weight in the scientific world.
The third person who came to the assistance of Morse at this critical period was Alfred Vail, son of Judge Stephen Vail, of Morristown, New Jersey. In 1837 he was a young man of thirty and had graduated from the University of the City of New York in 1836. He was present at the exhibition of Morse's invention on the 2d of September, 1837, and he at once grasped its great possibilities. After becoming satisfied that Morse's device of the relay would permit of operation over great distances, he expressed a desire to become associated with the inventor in the perfecting and exploitation of the invention. His father was the proprietor of the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, and young Vail had had some experience in the manufacture of mechanical appliances in the factory, although he had taken the theological course at the University with the intention of entering the Presbyterian ministry. He had abandoned the idea of becoming a clergyman, however, on account of ill-health, and was, for a time, uncertain as to his future career, when the interest aroused by the sight of Morse's machine settled the matter, and, after consulting with his father and brother, he entered into an agreement with Morse on the 23d day of September, 1837.
In the contract drawn up between them Vail bound himself to construct, at his own expense, a complete set of instruments; to defray the costs of securing patents in this country and abroad; and to devote his time to both these purposes. It was also agreed that each should at once communicate to the other any improvement or new invention bearing on the simplification or perfecting of the telegraph, and that such improvements or inventions should be held to be the property of each in the proportion in which they were to share in any pecuniary benefits which might accrue.
As the only way in which Morse could, at that time, pay Vail for his services and for money advanced, he gave him a one-fourth interest in the invention in this country, and one half in what might be obtained from Europe. This was, in the following March, changed to three sixteenths in the United States and one fourth in Europe.
Morse had now secured two essentials most necessary to the rapid perfection of his invention, the means to purchase materials and an assistant more skilled than he in mechanical construction, and who was imbued with faith in the ultimate success of the enterprise. Now began the serious work of putting the invention into such a form that it could demonstrate to the skeptical its capability of performing what was then considered a miracle. It is hard for us at the present time, when new marvels of science and invention are of everyday occurrence, to realize the hidebound incredulousness which prevailed during the first half of the nineteenth century. Men tapped their foreheads and shook their heads in speaking of Morse and his visionary schemes, and deeply regretted that here was the case of a brilliant man and excellent artist evidently gone wrong. But he was not to be turned from his great purpose by the jeers of the ignorant and the anxious solicitations of his friends, and he was greatly heartened by the encouragement of such men as Gale and Vail. They all three worked over the problems yet to be solved, Morse going backwards and forwards between New York and Morristown. That both Gale and Vail suggested improvements which were adopted by Morse, can be taken for granted, but, as I have said before, to modify or elaborate something originated by another is a comparatively easy matter, and the basic idea, first conceived by Morse on the Sully, was retained throughout.
All the details of these experiments have not been recorded, but I believe that at first an attempt was made to put into a more finished form the principle of the machine made by Morse, with its swinging pendulum tracing a waving line, but this was soon abandoned in favor of an instrument using the up-and-down motion of a lever, as drawn in the 1832 sketch-book. In other words, it was a return to first principles as thought out by Morse, and not, as some would have us believe, something entirely new suggested and invented independently by Vail.
It was rather unfortunate and curious, in view of Morse's love of simplicity, that he at first insisted on using the dots and dashes to indicate numbers only, the numbers to correspond to words in a specially prepared dictionary. His arguments in favor of this plan were specious, but the event has proved that his reasoning was faulty. His first idea was that the telegraph should belong to the Government; that intelligence sent should be secret by means of a kind of cipher; that it would take less time to send a number than each letter of each word, especially in the case of the longer words; and, finally, that although the labor in preparing a dictionary of all the most important words in the language and giving to each its number would be great, once done it would be done for all time.
I say that this was unfortunate because the fact that the telegraphic alphabet of dots and dashes was not used until after his association with Vail has lent strength to the claims on the part of Vail's family and friends that he was the inventor of it and not Morse. This claim has been so insistently, and even bitterly, made, especially after Morse's death, that it gained wide credence and has even been incorporated in some encyclopedias and histories. Fortunately it can be easily disproved, and I am desirous of finally settling this vexed question because I consider the conception of this simplest of all conventional alphabets one of the grandest of Morse's inventions, and one which has conferred great good upon mankind. It is used to convey intelligence not only by electricity, but in many other ways. Its cabalistic characters can be read by the eye, the ear, and the touch.
Just as the names of Ampere, Volta, and Watt have been used to designate certain properties or things discovered by them, so the name of Morse is immortalized in the alphabet invented by him. The telegraph operators all over the world send "Morse" when they tick off the dots and dashes of the alphabet, and happily I can prove that this is not an honor filched from another.
It is a matter of record that Vail himself never claimed in any of his letters or diaries (and these are voluminous) that he had anything to do with the devising of this conventional alphabet, even with the modification of the first form. On the other hand, in several letters to Morse he refers to it as being Morse's. For instance, in a letter of April 20, 1848, he uses the words "your system of marking, lines and dots, which you have patented." All the evidence brought forward by the advocates of Vail is purely hearsay; he is said to have said that he invented the alphabet.
Morse, however, always, in every one of his many written references to the matter, speaks of it as "my conventional alphabet." In an article which I contributed to the "Century Magazine" of March, 1912, I treated this question at length and proved by documentary evidence that Morse alone devised the dot-and-dash alphabet. It will not be necessary for me to repeat all this evidence here; I shall simply give enough to prove conclusively that the Morse Alphabet has not been misnamed.
The following is a fugitive note which was reproduced photographically in the "Century" article:—
"Mr. Vail, in his work on the Telegraph, at p. 32, intimates that the saw-teeth type for letters, as he has described them in the diagram (9), were devised by me as early as the year 1832. Two of the elements of these letters, indeed, were then devised, the dot and space, and used in constructing the type for numerals, but, so far as my recollection now serves me, it was not until I experimented with the first instrument in 1835 that I added the — dash, which supplied me with the three elements for combinations for letters. It was on noticing the fact that, when the circuit was closed a longer time than was necessary to make a dot, there was produced a line or dash, that, if I rightly remember, the broken parts of a continuous line as the means of imprinting at a distance were suggested to me; since the inequalities of long and short lines, separated by long and short spaces, gave me all the variations or combinations of long and short lines necessary to form the alphabet. The date of the code complete must, therefore, be put at 1835, and not 1832, although at the date of 1832 the principle of the code was evolved."
In addition to this being a definite claim in writing on the part of Morse that he had devised an alphabetic code in 1836, two years before Vail had ever heard of the telegraph, it is well to note his scrupulous insistence on historical accuracy.
In a letter to Professor Gale, referring to reading by sound as well as by sight, occur the following sentences. (Let me remark, by the way, that it is interesting to note that Morse thus early recognized the possibility of reading by sound, an honor which has been claimed for many others.)
"Exactly at what time I recognized the adaptation of the difference in the intervals in reading the letters as well as the numerals, I have now no means of fixing except in a general manner. It was, however, almost immediately on the construction of the letters by dots and lines, and this was some little time previous to your seeing the instrument.
"Soon after the first operation of the instrument in 1835, in which the type for writing numbers were used, I not only conceived the letter type, but made them from some leads used in the printing-office. I have still quite a quantity of these type. They were used in Washington as well as the type for numerals in the winter of 1837-38.
"In the earlier period of the invention it was a matter which experience alone could determine whether the numerical system, by means of a numbered dictionary, or the alphabetic mode, by spelling of the words, was the better. While I perceived some advantages in the alphabetic system, especially in the writing of proper names, I at that time leaned rather towards the numerical mode under the impression that it would, on the whole, be the more rapid. A very short experience, however, showed the superiority of the alphabetic mode, and the big leaves of the numbered dictionary, which cost me a world of labor, and which you, perhaps, remember, were discarded and the alphabetic installed in its stead." Perhaps the most conclusive evidence that Vail did not invent this alphabet is contained in his own book on the "American Electro-Magnetic Telegraph," published in 1845, in which he lays claim to certain improvements. After describing the dot-and-dash alphabet, he says:—
"This conventional alphabet was originated on board the packet Sully by Professor Morse, the very first elements of the invention, and arose from the necessity of the case; the motion produced by the magnet being limited to a single action. During the period of the thirteen years many plans have been devised by the inventor to bring the telegraphic alphabet to its simplest form."
The italics are mine, for the advocates of Vail have always quoted the first sentence only, and have said that the word "originated" implies that, while Vail admitted that the embryo of the alphabet—the dots and dashes to represent numbers only—was conceived on the Sully, he did not admit that the alphabetical code was Morse's. But when we read the second sentence with the words "devised by the inventor," the meaning is so plain that it is astonishing that any one at all familiar with the facts could have been misled.
The first form of the alphabet which was attached to Morse's caveat of October 3, 1837, is shown in the drawing of the type in the accompanying figure.
It has been stated by some historians that the system of signs for letters was not attached to the caveat, but a careful reading of the text, in which reference is made to the drawing, will prove conclusively that it was. Moreover, in this caveat under section 5, "The Dictionary or Vocabulary," the very first sentence reads: "The dictionary is a complete vocabulary of words alphabetically arranged and regularly numbered, beginning with the letters of the alphabet." The italics are mine. The mistake arose because the drawing was detached from the caveat and affixed to the various patents which were issued, even after the first form of the alphabet had been superseded by a better one, the principle, however, remaining the same, so that it was not necessary to patent the new form.
As soon as it was proved that it would be simpler to use the letters of the alphabet in sending intelligence, the first form of the alphabet was changed in the manner shown in the preceding figure. Exactly when this was done has not been recorded, but it was after Vail's association with Morse, and it is quite possible that they worked over the problem together, but there is no written proof of this, whereas the accompanying reproduction of calculations in Morse's handwriting will prove that he gave himself seriously to its consideration.
The large numbers represent the quantities of type found in the type-cases of a printing-office; for, after puzzling over the question of the relative frequency of the occurrence of the different letters in the written language, a visit to the printing-office easily settled the matter.
This dispute, concerning the paternity of the alphabet, lasting for many years after the death of both principals, and regrettably creating much bad feeling, is typical of many which arose in the case of the telegraph, as well as in that of every other great invention, and it may not be amiss at this point to introduce the following fugitive note of Morse's, which, though evidently written many years later, is applicable to this as well as to other cases:—
"It is quite common to misapprehend the nature and extent of an improvement without a thorough knowledge of an original invention. A casual observer is apt to confound the new and the old, and, in noting a new arrangement, is often led to consider the whole as new. It is, therefore, necessary to exercise a proper discrimination lest injustice be done to the various laborers in the same field of invention. I trust it will not be deemed egotistical on my part if, while conscious of the unfeigned desire to concede to all who are attempting improvements in the art of telegraphy that which belongs to them, I should now and then recognize the familiar features of my own offspring and claim their paternity."
OCTOBER 3, 1837—MAY 16, 1838
The Caveat.—Work at Morristown.—Judge Vail.—First success.—Resolution in Congress regarding telegraphs.—Morse's reply.—Illness.—Heaviness of first instruments.—Successful exhibition in Morristown.—Exhibition in New York University.—First use of Morse alphabet.—Change from first form of alphabet to present form.—Trials of an inventor.—Dr. Jackson.— Slight friction between Morse and Vail.—Exhibition at Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.—Exhibitions in Washington.—Skepticism of public.—F.O.J. Smith,—F.L. Pope's estimate of Smith.—Proposal for government telegraph.—Smith's report.—Departure for Europe.
I have incidentally mentioned the caveat in the preceding chapter, but a more detailed account of this important step in bringing the invention into the light of day should, perhaps, be given. The reports in the newspapers of the activities of others, especially of scientists in Europe, led Morse to decide that he must at once take steps legally to protect himself if he did not wish to be distanced in the race. He accordingly wrote to the Commissioner of Patents, Henry L. Ellsworth, who had been a classmate of his at Yale, for information as to the form to be used in applying for a caveat, and, after receiving a cordial reply enclosing the required form, he immediately set to work to prepare his caveat. This was in the early part of September, 1887, before he had met Vail. The rough draft, which is still among his papers, was completed on September 28, and the finished copy was sent to Washington on October 3, and the receipt acknowledged by Commissioner Ellsworth on October 6. The drawing containing the signs for both numbers and letters was attached to this caveat. Having now safeguarded himself, he was able to give his whole mind to the perfecting of the mechanical parts of his invention, and in this he was ably assisted by his new partner, Alfred Vail, and by Professor Gale.
The next few months were trying ones to both Morse and Vail. It must not be supposed that the work went along smoothly without a hitch. Many were the discouragements, and many experiments were tried and then discarded. To add to the difficulties, Judge Vail, who, of course, was supplying the cash, piqued by the sneers of his neighbors and noting the feverish anxiety of his son and of Morse, lost faith, and would have willingly abandoned the whole enterprise. The two enthusiasts worked steadily on, however, avoiding the Judge as much as possible, and finally, on the 6th of January, 1838, they proudly invited him to come to the workshop and witness the telegraph in operation.
His hopes renewed by their confident demeanor, he hastened down from his house. After a few words of explanation he handed a slip of paper to his son on which he had written the words—"A patient waiter is no loser." He knew that Morse could not possibly know what he had written, and he said: "If you can send this and Mr. Morse can read it at the other end, I shall be convinced."
Slowly the message was ticked off, and when Morse handed him the duplicate of his message, his enthusiasm knew no bounds, and he proposed to go at once to Washington and urge upon Congress the establishment of a government line. But the instrument was not yet in a shape to be seen of all men, and many years were yet to elapse before the legislators of the country awoke to their opportunity.
Morse and Vail were, of course, greatly encouraged by this first triumph, and worked on with increased enthusiasm.
Many years after their early struggles, when the telegraph was an established success and Morse had been honored both at home and abroad, he thus spoke of his friend:—
"Alfred Vail, then a student in the university, and a young man of great ingenuity, having heard of my invention, came to my rooms and I explained it to him, and from that moment he has taken the deepest interest in the Telegraph. Finding that I was unable to command the means to bring my invention properly before the public, and believing that he could command those means through his father and brother, he expressed the belief to me, and I at once made such an arrangement with him as to procure the pecuniary means and the skill of these gentlemen. It is to their joint liberality, but especially to the attention, and skill, and faith in the final success of the enterprise maintained by Alfred Vail, that is due the success of my endeavors to bring the Telegraph at that time creditably before the public."
The idea of telegraphs seems to have been in the air in the year 1837, for the House of Representatives had passed a resolution on the 3d of February, 1887, requesting the Secretary of the Treasury, Hon. Levi Woodbury, to report to the House upon the propriety of establishing a system of telegraphs for the United States. The term "telegraph" in those days included semaphores and other visual appliances, and, in fact, anything by which intelligence could be transmitted to a distance.
The Secretary issued a circular to "Collectors of Customs, Commanders of Revenue Cutters, and other Persons," requesting information. Morse received one of these circulars, and in reply sent a long account of his invention. But so hard to convince were the good people of that day, and so skeptical and even flippant were most of the members of Congress that six long years were to elapse, years filled with struggles, discouragements, and heart-breaking disappointments, before the victory was won.
Morse had still to contend with occasional fits of illness, for he writes to his brother Sidney from Morristown on November 8, 1837:—
"You will perhaps be surprised to learn that I came out here to be sick. I caught a severe cold the day I left New York from the sudden change of temperature, and was taken down the next morning with one of my bilious attacks, which, under other treatment and circumstances, might have resulted seriously. But, through a kind Providence, I have been thrown among most attentive, and kind, and skilful friends, who have treated me more like one of their own children than like a stranger. Mrs. Vail has been a perfect mother to me; our good Nancy Shepard can alone compare with her. Through her nursing and constant attention I am now able to leave my room and have been downstairs to-day, and hope to be out in a few days. This sickness will, of course, detain me a while longer than I intended, for I must finish the portraits before I return."
This refers to portraits of various members of the Vail family which he had undertaken to execute while he was in Morristown. Farther on in the letter he says:—
"The machinery for the Telegraph goes forward daily; slowly but well and thorough. You will be surprised at the strength and quantity of machinery, greater, doubtless, than will eventually be necessary, yet it gives the main points, certainty and accuracy."
It may be well to note here that Morse evidently foresaw that the machinery constructed by Alfred Vail was too heavy and cumbersome; that more delicate workmanship would later be called for, and this proved to be the case. The iron works at Morristown were only adapted to the manufacture of heavy machinery for ships, etc., and Alfred Vail had had experience in that class of work only, so that he naturally made the telegraphic instruments much heavier and more unwieldy than was necessary. While these answered the purpose for the time being, they were soon superseded by instruments of greater delicacy and infinitely smaller bulk made by more skilful hands.
The future looked bright to the sanguine inventor in the early days of the year 1838, as we learn from the following letter to his brother Sidney, written on the 13th of January:—
"Mr. Alfred Vail is just going in to New York and will return on Monday morning. The machinery is at length completed and we have shown it to the Morristown people with great eclat. It is the talk of all the people round, and the principal inhabitants of Newark made a special excursion on Friday to see it. The success is complete. We have tried the experiment of sending a pretty full letter, which I set up from the numbers given me, transmitting through two miles of wire and deciphered with but a single unimportant error.
"I am staying out to perfect a modification of my portrule and hope to see you on Tuesday, or, at the farthest, on Wednesday, when I shall tell you all about it. The matter looks well now, and I desire to feel grateful to Him who gives success, and be always prepared for any disappointment which He in infinite wisdom may have in store."
We see from this letter, and from an account which appeared in the Morristown "Journal," that in these exhibitions the messages were sent by numbers with the aid of the cumbersome dictionary which Morse had been at such pains to compile. Very soon after this, however, as will appear from what follows, the dictionary was discarded forever, and the Morse alphabet came into practical use.
The following invitation was sent from the New York University on January 22, 1838:—
"Professor Morse requests the honor of Thomas S. Cummings, Esq., and family's company in the Geological Cabinet of the University, Washington Square, to witness the operation of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph at a private exhibition of it to a few friends, previous to its leaving the city for Washington.
"The apparatus will be prepared at precisely twelve o'clock on Wednesday, 24th instant. The time being limited punctuality is specially requested."
Similar invitations were sent to other prominent persons and a very select company gathered at the appointed hour. That the exhibition was a success we learn from the following account in the "Journal of Commerce" of January 29, 1838:—
"THE TELEGRAPH.—We did not witness the operation of Professor Morse's Electro-Magnetic Telegraph on Wednesday last, but we learn that the numerous company of scientific persons who were present pronounced it entirely successful. Intelligence was instantaneously transmitted through a circuit of TEN MILES, and legibly written on a cylinder at the extremity of the circuit. The great advantages which must result to the public from this invention will warrant an outlay on the part of the Government sufficient to test its practicability as a general means of transmitting intelligence.
"Professor Morse has recently improved on his mode of marking by which he can dispense altogether with the telegraphic dictionary, using letters instead of numbers, and he can transmit ten words per minute, which is more than double the number which can be transmitted by means of the dictionary."
A charming and rather dramatic incident occurred at this exhibition which was never forgotten by those who witnessed it. General Cummings had just been appointed to a military command, and one of his friends, with this fact evidently in mind, wrote a message on a piece of paper and, without showing it to any one else, handed it to Morse. The assembled company was silent and only the monotonous clicking of the strange instrument was heard as the message was ticked off in the dots and dashes, and then from the other end of the ten miles of wire was read out this sentence pregnant with meaning:—
"Attention, the Universe, by kingdoms right wheel." The name of the man who indited that message seems not to have been preserved, but, whoever he was, he must have been gifted with prophetic vision, and he must have realized that he was assisting at an occasion which was destined to mark the beginning of a new era in civilization. The attention of the universe was, indeed, before long attracted to this child of Morse's brain, and kingdom after kingdom wheeled into line, vying with each other in admiration and acceptance.
The message was recorded fourfold by means of a newly invented fountain pen, and was given to General Cummings and preserved by him. It is here reproduced.
It will be noticed that the signs for the letters are those, not of the first form of the alphabet as embodied in the drawing attached to the caveat, but of the finally adopted code. This has led some historians, notably Mr. Franklin Leonard Pope, to infer that some mistake has been made in giving out this as a facsimile of this early message; that the letters should have been those of the earlier alphabet. I think, however, that this is but an added proof that Morse devised the first form of the code long before he met Vail, and that the changes to the final form, a description of which I have given, were made by Morse in 1837, or early in 1838, as soon as he became convinced of the superiority of the alphabetic mode, in plenty of time to have been used in this exhibition.
The month of January, 1838, was a busy one at Morristown, for Morse and Vail were bending all their energies toward the perfecting and completion of the instruments, so that a demonstration of the telegraph could be given in Washington at as early a date as possible. Morse refers feelingly to the trials and anxieties of an inventor in a letter to a friend, dated January 22, 1838:—
"I have just returned from nearly six weeks' absence at Morristown, New Jersey, where I have been engaged in the superintendence of the making of my Telegraph for Washington.
"Be thankful, C——, that you are not an inventor. Invention may seem an easy way to fame, or, what is the same thing to many, notoriety, different as are in reality the two objects. But it is far otherwise. I, indeed, desire the first, for true fame implies well-deserving, but I have no wish for the latter, which yet seems inseparable from it.
"The condition of an inventor is, indeed, not enviable. I know of but one condition that renders it in any degree tolerable, and that is the reflection that his fellow-men may be benefited by his discoveries. In the outset, if he has really made a discovery, which very word implies that it was before unknown to the world, he encounters the incredulity, the opposition, and even the sneers of many, who look upon him with a kind of pity, as a little beside himself if not quite mad. And, while maturing his invention, he has the comfort of reflection, in all the various discouragements he meets with from petty failures, that, should he by any means fail in the grand result, he subjects himself rather to the ridicule than the sympathy of his acquaintances, who will not be slow in attributing his failure to a want of that common sense in which, by implication, they so much abound, and which preserves them from the consequences of any such delusions.
"But you will, perhaps, think that there is an offset in the honors and emoluments that await the successful inventor, one who has really demonstrated that he has made an important discovery. This is not so. Trials of another kind are ready for him after the appropriate difficulties of his task are over. Many stand ready to snatch the prize, or at least to claim a share, so soon as the success of an invention seems certain, and honor and profit alone remain to be obtained.
"This long prelude, C——, brings me at the same time to the point of my argument and to my excuse for my long silence. My argument goes to prove that, unless there is a benevolent consideration in our discoveries, one which enables us to rejoice that others are benefited even though we should suffer loss, our happiness from any honor awarded to a successful invention is exposed to constant danger from the designs of the unprincipled. My excuse is that, ever since the receipt of your most welcome letter, I have been engaged in preparing to repel a threatened invasion of my rights to the invention of the Telegraph by a fellow-passenger from France, one from whom I least expected any such insidious design. The attempt startled me and put me on my guard, and set me to the preparation for any attack. I have been compelled for some weeks to use my pen only for this purpose, and have written much in the hope of preventing the public exposure of my antagonist; but I fear my labor will be vain on this point, from what I hear and the tone in which he writes. I have no fear for myself, being now amply prepared with evidence to repel any attempt which may be made to sustain any claim he may prefer to a share with me in the invention of the Telegraph."
I have already shown that this claim of Dr. Jackson's was proved to be but the hallucination of a disordered brain, and it will not be necessary to go into the details of the controversy.
These were anxious and nerve-racking days for both Morse and Vail, and it is small wonder that there should have been some slight friction. Vail in his private correspondence makes some mention of this. For instance, in a letter to his brother George, of January 22, 1838, he says:—
"We received the machine on Thursday morning, and in an hour we made the first trial, which did not succeed, nor did it with perfect success until Saturday—all which time Professor M. was rather unwell. To-morrow we shall make our first exhibition, and continue it until Wednesday, when we must again box up. Professor M. has received a letter from Mr. Patterson inviting us to exhibit at Philadelphia, and has answered it, but has said nothing to me about his intentions. He is altogether inclined to operate in his own name, so much so that he has had printed five hundred blank invitations in his own name at your expense."
On the other hand, this same George Vail, writing to Morse on January 26, 1838, asks him to "bear with A., which I have no doubt you will. He is easily vexed. Trusting to your universal coolness, however, there is nothing to fear. Keep him from running ahead too fast."
Again writing to his brother George from Washington, on February 20, 1838, Alfred says: "In regard to Professor M. calling me his 'assistant,' this is also settled, and he has said as much as to apologize for using the term."
Why Vail should have objected to being called Morse's assistant, I cannot quite understand, for he was so designated in the contract later made with the Government; but Morse was evidently willing to humor him in this.
I have thought it best to refer to these little incidents partly in the interest of absolute candor, partly to emphasize the nervous tension under which both were working at that time. That there was no lasting resentment in the mind of Vail is amply proved by the following extract from a long letter written by him on March 19, 1838:—
"The great expectations I had on my return home of going into partnership with George, founded, or semi-founded, on the promises made by my father, have burst. I am again on vague promises for three months, and they resting upon the success of the printing machine.
"I feel, Professor Morse, that, if I am ever worth anything, it will be wholly attributable to your kindness. I now should have no earthly prospect of happiness and domestic bliss had it not been for what you have done. For which I shall ever remember [you] with the liveliest emotions of gratitude, whether it is eventually successful or not."
Aside from the slight friction to which I have referred, and which was most excusable under the circumstances, the joint work on the telegraph proceeded harmoniously. The invitation from Mr. Patterson, to exhibit the instrument before the Committee of Science and Arts of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, was accepted. The exhibition took place on February 8, and was a pronounced success, and the committee, in expressing their gratification, voiced the hope that the Government would provide the funds for an experiment on an adequate scale.
From Philadelphia Morse proceeded to Washington accompanied by Vail, confidently believing that it would only be necessary to demonstrate the practicability of his invention to the country's legislators assembled in Congress, in order to obtain a generous appropriation to enable him properly to test it. But he had not taken into account that trait of human nature which I shall dignify by calling it "conservatism," in order not to give it a harder name.
The room of the Committee on Commerce was placed at his disposal, and there he hopefully strung his ten miles of wire and connected them with his instruments. Outwardly calm but inwardly nervous and excited, as he realized that he was facing a supreme moment in his career, he patiently explained to all who came, Congressmen, men of science, representatives of foreign governments, and hard-headed men of business, the workings of the instrument and proved its feasibility. The majority saw and wondered, but went away unconvinced. On February 21, President Martin Van Buren and his entire Cabinet, at their own special request, visited the room and saw the telegraph in operation. But no action was taken by Congress; the time was not yet ripe for the general acceptance of such a revolutionary departure from the slow-going methods of that early period. While individuals here and there grasped the full significance of what the mysterious ticking of that curious instrument foretold, they were vastly in the minority. The world, through its representatives in the capital city of the United States, remained incredulous.
Among those who at once recognized the possibilities of the invention was Francis O.J. Smith, member of Congress from Portland, Maine, and chairman of the Committee on Commerce. He was a lawyer of much shrewdness and a man of great energy, and he very soon offered to become pecuniarily interested in the invention. Morse was, unfortunately, not a keen judge of men. Scrupulously honest and honorable himself, he had an almost childlike faith in the integrity of others, and all through his life he fell an easy victim to the schemes of self-seekers. In this case a man of more acute intuition would have hesitated, and would have made some enquiries before allying himself with one whose ideas of honor proved eventually to be so at variance with his own. Smith did so much in later years to injure Morse, and to besmirch his fame and good name, that I think it only just to give the following estimate of his character, made by the late Franklin Leonard Pope in an article contributed to the "Electrical World" in 1895:—
"A sense of justice compels me to say that the uncorroborated statements of F.O.J. Smith, in any matter affecting the credit or honor due to Professor Morse, should be allowed but little weight.... For no better reason than that Morse in 1843-1844 courteously but firmly refused to be a party to a questionable scheme devised by Smith for the irregular diversion into his own pocket of a portion of the governmental appropriation of $30,000 for the construction of the experimental line, he ever after cherished toward the inventor the bitterest animosity; a feeling which he took no pains to conceal. Many of his letters to him at that time, and for many years afterward, were couched in studiously insulting language, which must have been in the highest degree irritating to a sensitive artistic temperament like that of Morse.
"It probably by no means tended to mollify the disposition of such a man as Smith to find that Morse, in reply to these covert sneers and open insinuations, never once lost his self-control, nor permitted himself to depart from the dignified tone of rejoinder which becomes a gentleman in his dealings with one who, in his inmost nature, was essentially a blackguard."
However, it is an old saying that we must "give the devil his due," and the cloven foot did not appear at first. On the other hand, a man of business acumen and legal knowledge was greatly needed at this stage of the enterprise, and Smith possessed them both. Morse was so grateful to find any one with faith enough to be willing to invest money in the invention; and to devote his time and energy to its furtherance, that he at once accepted Smith's offer, and he was made a partner and given a one-fourth interest, Morse retaining nine sixteenths, Vail two sixteenths, and Professor Gale, also admitted as a partner, being allotted one sixteenth. It was characteristic of Morse that he insisted, before signing the contract, that Smith should obtain leave of absence from Congress for the remainder of the term, and should not stand for reelection. It was agreed that Smith should accompany Morse to Europe as soon as possible and endeavor to secure patents in foreign countries, and, if successful, the profits were to be divided differently, Morse receiving eight sixteenths, Smith five, Vail two, and Gale one.
In spite of the incredulity of the many, Morse could not help feeling encouraged, and in a long letter to Smith, written on February 15, 1838, proposing an experiment of one hundred miles, he thus forecasts the future and proposes an intelligent plan of government control:—
"If no insurmountable obstacles present themselves in a distance of one hundred miles, none may be expected in one thousand or in ten thousand miles; and then will be presented for the consideration of the Government the propriety of completely organizing this new telegraphic system as a part of the Government, attaching it to some department already existing, or creating a new one which may be called for by the accumulating duties of the present departments.
"It is obvious, at the slightest glance, that this mode of instantaneous communication must inevitably become an instrument of immense power, to be wielded for good or for evil, as it shall be properly or improperly directed. In the hands of a company of speculators, who should monopolize it for themselves, it might be the means of enriching the corporation at the expense of the bankruptcy of thousands; and even in the hands of Government alone it might become the means of working vast mischief to the Republic.
"In considering these prospective evils, I would respectfully suggest a remedy which offers itself to my mind. Let the sole right of using the Telegraph belong, in the first place, to the Government, who should grant, for a specified sum or bonus, to any individual or company of individuals who may apply for it, and under such restrictions and regulations as the Government may think proper, the right to lay down a communication between any two points for the purpose of transmitting intelligence, and thus would be promoted a general competition. The Government would have a Telegraph of its own, and have its modes of communicating with its own officers and agents, independent of private permission or interference with and interruption to the ordinary transmissions on the private telegraphs. Thus there would be a system of checks and preventives of abuse operating to restrain the action of this otherwise dangerous power within those bounds which will permit only the good and neutralize the evil. Should the Government thus take the Telegraph solely under its own control, the revenue derived from the bonuses alone, it must be plain, will be of vast amount.
"From the enterprising character of our countrymen, shown in the manner in which they carry forward any new project which promises private or public advantage, it is not visionary to suppose that it would not be long ere the whole surface of this country would be channelled for those nerves which are to diffuse, with the speed of thought, a knowledge of all that is occurring throughout the land, making, in fact, one neighborhood of the whole country.
"If the Government is disposed to test this mode of telegraphic communication by enabling me to give it a fair trial for one hundred miles, I will engage to enter into no arrangement to dispose of my rights, as the inventor and patentee for the United States, to any individual or company of individuals, previous to offering it to the Government for such a just and reasonable compensation as shall be mutually agreed upon."
We have seen that Morse was said to be a hundred years ahead of his time as an artist. From the sentences above quoted it would appear that he was far in advance of his contemporaries in some questions of national policy, for the plan outlined by him for the proper governmental control of a great public utility, like the telegraph, it seems to me, should appeal to those who, at the present time, are agitating for that very thing. Had the legislators and the people of 1838 been as wise and clear-headed as the poor artist-inventor, a great leap forward in enlightened statecraft would have been undertaken at a cost inconceivably less than would now be the case. Competent authorities estimate that to purchase the present telegraph lines in this country at their market valuation would cost the Government in the neighborhood of $500,000,000; to parallel them would cost some $25,000,000. The enormous difference in these two sums represents what was foretold by Morse would happen if the telegraph should become a monopoly in the hands of speculators. The history of the telegraph monopoly is too well known to be more than alluded to here, but it is only fair to Morse to state that he had sold all his telegraph stock, and had retired from active participation in the management of the different companies, long before the system of stock-watering began which has been carried on to the present day.
And for what sum could the Government have kept this great invention under its own control? It is on record that Morse offered, in 1844, after the experimental line between Washington and Baltimore had demonstrated that the telegraph was a success, to sell all the rights in his invention to the Government for $100,000, and would have considered himself amply remunerated.
But the legislators and the people of 1838, and even those of 1844, were not wise and far-sighted; they failed utterly to realize what a magnificent opportunity had been offered to them for a mere song; and this in spite of the fact that the few who did glimpse the great future of the telegraph painted it in glowing terms.
It is true that the House of Representatives had passed the resolution referred to earlier in this chapter, but that is as far as they went for several years. On the 6th of April, 1838, Mr. F.O.J. Smith made a long report on the petition of Morse asking for an appropriation sufficient to enable him to test his invention adequately. In the course of this report Mr. Smith indulged in the following eulogistic words:—
"It is obvious, however, that the influence of this invention over the political, commercial, and social relations of the people of this widely extended country, looking to nothing beyond, will, in the event of success, of itself amount to a revolution unsurpassed in moral grandeur by any discovery that has been made in the arts and sciences, from the most distant period to which authentic history extends to the present day. With the means of almost instantaneous communication of intelligence between the most distant points of the country, and simultaneously between any given number of intermediate points which this invention contemplates, space will be, to all practical purposes of information, completely annihilated between the States of the Union, as also between the individual citizens thereof. The citizen will be invested with, and reduce to daily and familiar use, an approach to the HIGH ATTRIBUTE OP UBIQUITY in a degree that the human mind, until recently, has hardly dared to contemplate seriously as belonging to human agency, from an instinctive feeling of religious reverence and reserve on a power of such awful grandeur."
In the face of these enthusiastic, if somewhat stilted, periods the majority of his colleagues remained cold, and no appropriation was voted. Morse, however, was prepared to meet with discouragements, for he wrote to Vail on March 15:—
"Everything looks encouraging, but I need not say to you that in this world a continued course of prosperity is not a rational expectation. We shall, doubtless, find troubles and difficulties in store for us, and it is the part of true wisdom to be prepared for whatever may await us. If our hearts are right we shall not be taken by surprise. I see nothing now but an unclouded prospect, for which let us pay to Him who shows it to us the homage of grateful and obedient hearts, with most earnest prayers for grace to use prosperity aright."
This was written while there was still hope that Congress might take some action at that session, and Morse was optimistic. On March 31, he thus reports progress to Vail:—
"I write you a hasty line to say, in the first place, that I have overcome all difficulties in regard to a portrule, and have invented one which will be perfect. It is very simple, and will not take much time or expense to make it. Mr. S. has incorporated it into the specification for the patent. Please, therefore, not to proceed with the type or portrule as now constructed: I will see you on my return and explain it in season for you to get one ready for us.
"I find it a most arduous and tedious process to adjust the specification. I have been engaged steadily for three days with Mr. S., and have not yet got half through, but there is one consolation, when done it will be well done. The drawings, I find on enquiry, would cost you from forty to fifty dollars if procured from the draughtsman about the Patent Office. I have, therefore, determined to do them myself and save you that sum."
The portrule, referred to above, was a device for sending automatically messages which were recorded permanently on the tape at the other end of the line. It worked well enough, but it was soon superseded by the key manipulated by hand, as this was much simpler and the dots and dashes could be sent more rapidly. It is curious to note, however, that down to the present day inventors have been busy in an effort to devise some mechanism by which messages could be sent automatically, and consequently more rapidly than by hand, which was Morse's original idea, but, to the best of my knowledge, no satisfactory solution of the problem has yet been found.
Morse was now preparing to go to Europe with Smith to endeavor to secure patents abroad, and, while he had put in his application for a patent in this country, he requested that the issuing of it should be held back until his return, so that a publication on this side should not injure his chances abroad.
All the partners were working under high pressure along their several lines to get everything in readiness for a successful exhibition of the telegraph in Europe. Vail sent a long letter to Morse on April 18, detailing some of the difficulties which he was encountering, and Morse answered on the 24th:—
"I write in greatest haste, just to say that the boxes have safely arrived, and we shall proceed immediately to examine into the difficulties which have troubled you, but about which we apprehend no serious issue....
"If you can possibly get the circular portrule completed before we go it will be a great convenience, not to say an indispensable matter, for I have just learned so much of Wheatstone's Telegraph as to be pretty well persuaded that my superiority over him will be made evident more by the rapidity with which I can make the portrule work than in almost any other particular."
At last every detail had been attended to, and in a postscript to a letter of April 28 he says: "We sail on the 16th of May for Liverpool in the ship Europe, so I think you will have time to complete circular portrule. Try, won't you?"
JUNE, 1838—JANUARY 21, 1839
Arrival in England.—Application for letters patent.—Cooke and Wheatstone's telegraph.—Patent refused.—Departure for Paris.—Patent secured in France.—Earl of Elgin.—Earl of Lincoln.—Baron de Meyendorff.—Russian contract.—Return to London.—Exhibition at the Earl of Lincoln's.—Letter from secretary of Lord Campbell, Attorney-General. —Coronation of Queen Victoria.—Letters to daughter.—Birth of the Count of Paris.—Exhibition before the Institute of France.—Arago; Baron Humboldt.—Negotiations with the Government and Saint-Germain Railway.— Reminiscences of Dr. Kirk.—Letter of the Honorable H.L. Ellsworth.— Letter to F.O.J. Smith.—Dilatoriness of the French.
It seems almost incredible to us, who have come to look upon marvel after marvel of science and invention as a matter of course, that it should have taken so many years to convince the world that the telegraph was a possibility and not an iridescent dream. While men of science and a few far-sighted laymen saw that the time was ripe for this much-needed advance in the means of conveying intelligence, governments and capitalists had held shyly aloof, and, even now, weighed carefully the advantages of different systems before deciding which, if any, was the best. For there were at this time several different systems in the field, and Morse soon found that he would have to compete with the trained scientists of the Old World, backed, at last, by their respective governments, in his effort to prove that his invention was the simplest and the best of them all. That he should have persisted in spite of discouragement after discouragement, struggling to overcome obstacles which to the faint-hearted would have seemed insuperable, constitutes one of his greatest claims to undying fame. He left on record an account of his experiences in Europe on this voyage, memorable in more ways than one, and extracts from this, and from letters written to his daughter and brothers, will best tell the story:—
"On May 16, 1838, I left the United States and arrived in London in June, for the purpose of obtaining letters patent for my Electro-Magnetic Telegraph System. I learned before I left the United States that Professor Wheatstone and Mr. Cooke, of London, had obtained letters patent in England for a 'Magnetic-Needle Telegraph,' based, as the name implies, on the deflection of the magnetic needle. Their telegraph, at that time, required six conductors between the two points of intercommunication for a single instrument at each of the two termini. Their mode of indicating signs for communicating intelligence was by deflecting five magnetic needles in various directions, in such a way as to point to the required letters upon a diamond-shaped dial-plate. It was necessary that the signal should be observed at the instant, or it was lost and vanished forever.
"I applied for letters patent for my system of communicating intelligence at a distance by electricity, differing in all respects from Messrs. Wheatstone and Cooke's system, invented five years before theirs, and having nothing in common in the whole system but the use of electricity on metallic conductors, for which use no one could obtain an exclusive privilege, since this much had been used for nearly one hundred years. My system is peculiar in the employment of electro-magnetism, or the motive power of electricity, to imprint permanent signs at a distance.
"I made no use of the deflections of the magnetic needle as signs. I required but one conductor between the two termini, or any number of intermediate points of intercommunication. I used paper moved by clockwork upon which I caused a lever moved by magnetism to imprint the letters and words of any required dispatch, having also invented and adapted to telegraph writing a new and peculiar alphabetic character for that purpose, a conventional alphabet, easily acquired and easily made and used by the operator. It is obvious at once, from a simple statement of these facts, that the system of Messrs. Wheatstone and Cooke and my system were wholly unlike each other. As I have just observed, there was nothing in common in the two systems but the use of electricity upon metallic conductors, for which no one could obtain an exclusive privilege.
"The various steps required by the English law were taken by me to procure a patent for my mode, and the fees were paid at the Clerk's office, June 22, and at the Home Department, June 25, 1838; also, June 26, caveats were entered at the Attorney and Solicitor-General's, and I had reached that part of the process which required the sanction of the Attorney-General. At this point I met the opposition of Messrs. Wheatstone and Cooke, and also of Mr. Davy, and a hearing was ordered before the Attorney-General, Sir John Campbell, on July 12, 1838. I attended at the Attorney-General's residence on the morning of that day, carrying with me my telegraphic apparatus for the purpose of explaining to him the total dissimilarity between my system and those of my opponents. But, contrary to my expectation, the similarity or dissimilarity of my mode from that of my opponents was not considered by the Attorney-General. He neither examined my instrument, which I had brought for that purpose, nor did he ask any questions bearing upon its resemblance to my opponents' system. I was met by the single declaration that my 'invention had been published,' and in proof a copy of the London 'Mechanics' Magazine,' No. 757, for February 10, 1838, was produced, and I was told that 'in consequence of said publication I could not proceed.'
"At this summary decision I was certainly surprised, being conscious that there had been no such publication of my method as the law required to invalidate a patent; and, even if there had been, I ventured to hint to the Attorney-General that, if I was rightly informed in regard to the British law, it was the province of a court and jury, and not of the Attorney-General, to try, and to decide that point."
The publication to which the Attorney-General referred had merely stated results, with no description whatever of the means by which these results were to be obtained and it was manifestly unfair to Morse on the part of this official to have refused his sanction; but he remained obdurate. Morse then wrote him a long letter, after consultation with Mr. Smith, setting forth all these points and begging for another interview.
"In consequence of my request in this letter I was allowed a second hearing. I attended accordingly, but, to my chagrin, the Attorney-General remarked that he had not had time to examine the letter. He carelessly took it up and turned over the leaves without reading it, and then asked me if I had not taken measures for a patent in my own country. And, upon my reply in the affirmative, he remarked that: 'America was a large country and I ought to be satisfied with a patent there.' I replied that, with all due deference, I did not consider that as a point submitted for the Attorney-General's decision; that the question submitted was whether there was any legal obstacle in the way of my obtaining letters patent for my Telegraph in England. He observed that he considered my invention as having been published, and that he must therefore forbid me to proceed.
"Thus forbidden to proceed by an authority from which there was no appeal, as I afterward learned, but to Parliament, and this at great cost of time and money, I immediately left England for France, where I found no difficulty in securing a patent. My invention there not only attracted the regards of the distinguished savants of Paris, but, in a marked degree, the admiration of many of the English nobility and gentry at that time in the French capital. To several of these, while explaining the operation of my telegraphic system, I related the history of my treatment by the English Attorney-General. The celebrated Earl of Elgin took a deep interest in the matter and was intent on my obtaining a special Act of Parliament to secure to me my just rights as the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph. He repeatedly visited me, bringing with him many of his distinguished friends, and on one occasion the noble Earl of Lincoln, since one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. The Honorable Henry Drummond also interested himself for me, and through his kindness and Lord Elgin's I received letters of introduction to Lord Brougham and to the Marquis of Northampton, the President of the Royal Society, and several other distinguished persons in England. The Earl of Lincoln showed me special kindness. In taking leave of me in Paris he gave me his card, and, requesting me to bring my telegraphic instruments with me to London, pressed me to give him the earliest notice of my arrival in London.
"I must here say that for weeks in Paris I had been engaged in negotiation with the Russian Counselor of State, the Baron Alexander de Meyendorff, arranging measures for putting the telegraph in operation in Russia. The terms of a contract had been mutually agreed upon, and all was concluded but the signature of the Emperor to legalize it. In order to take advantage of the ensuing summer season for my operations in Russia, I determined to proceed immediately to the United States to make some necessary preparations for the enterprise, without waiting for the formal completion of the contract papers, being led to believe that the signature of the Emperor was sure, a matter of mere form.
"Under these circumstances I left Paris on the 13th of March, 1839, and arrived in London on the 15th of the same month. The next day I sent my card to the Earl of Lincoln and my letter and card to the Marquis of Northampton, and in two or three days received a visit from both. By Earl Lincoln I was at once invited to send my Telegraph to his house in Park Lane, and on the 19th of March I exhibited its operation to members of both Houses of Parliament, of the Royal Society, and the Lords of the Admiralty, invited to meet me by the Earl of Lincoln. From the circumstances mentioned my time in London was necessarily short, my passage having been secured in the Great Western to sail on the 23d of March. Although solicited to remain a while in London, both by the Earl of Lincoln and the Honorable Henry Drummond, with a view to obtaining a special Act of Parliament for a patent, I was compelled by the circumstances of the case to defer till some more favorable opportunity, on my expected return to England, any attempt of the kind. The Emperor of Russia, however, refused to ratify the contract made with me by the Counselor of State, and my design of returning to Europe was frustrated, and I have not to this hour [April 2, 1847] had the means to prosecute this enterprise to a result in England. All my exertions were needed to establish my telegraphic system in my own country.
"Time has shown conclusively the essential difference of my telegraphic system from those of my opponents; time has also shown that my system was not published in England, as alleged by the Attorney-General, for, to this day, no work in England has published anything that does not show that, as yet, it is perfectly misunderstood....
"The refusal to grant me a patent was, at that period, very disastrous. It was especially discouraging to have made a long voyage across the Atlantic in vain, incurring great expenditure and loss of time, which in their consequences also produced years of delay in the prosecution of my enterprise in the United States."
The long statement, from which I have taken the above extracts, was written, as I have noted, on April 2, 1847, but the following interesting addition was made to it on December 11, 1848:—
"At the time of preparing this statement I lacked one item of evidence, which it was desirable to have aside from my own assertion, viz., evidence that the refusal of the Attorney-General was on the ground 'that a publication of the invention had been made.' I deemed it advisable rather to suffer from the delay and endure the taunts, which my unscrupulous opponents have not been slow to lavish upon me in consequence, if I could but obtain this evidence in proper shape. I accordingly wrote to my brother, then in London, to procure, if possible, from Lord Campbell or his secretary an acknowledgment of the ground on which he refused my application for a patent in 1838, since no public report or record in such cases is made.
"My brother, in connection with Mr. Carpmael, one of the most distinguished patent agents in England, addressed a note to Mr. H. Cooper, the Attorney-General's secretary at the time, and the only official person besides Lord Campbell connected with the matter. The following is Mr. Cooper's reply:—
"'WILMINGTON SQUARE, May 23d, 1848.
"'GENTLEMEN,—In answer to yours of the 20th inst., I beg to state that I have a distinct recollection of Professor Morse's application for a patent, strengthened by the fact of his not having paid the fees for the hearing, etc., and these being now owing. I understood at the time that the patent was stopped on the ground that a publication of the invention had been made, but I cannot procure Lord Campbell's certificate of that fact.
"'I am, gentlemen "'Your obedient servant "'H. COOPER.'
"I thus have obtained the evidence I desired in the most authentic form, but accompanied with as gross an insult as could well be conceived. On the receipt of this letter I immediately wrote to F.O.J. Smith, Esq., at Portland, who accompanied me to England, and at whose sole expense, according to agreement, all proceedings in taking out patents in Europe were to be borne, to know if this charge of the Attorney-General's secretary could possibly be true; not knowing but through some inadvertence on his (Mr. Smith's) part, this bill might have been overlooked.
"Mr. Smith writes me in answer, sending me a copy verbatim of the following receipt, which he holds and which speaks for itself:—
"'Mr. Morse to the Attorney-General, Dr. L s. d. Hearing on a patent . . . . 3 10 0 Giving notice on the same . 1 1 0 ——— 4 11 0 Settled the 13th of August, 1838. "'(Signed) H. COOPER.'
"This receipt is signed, as will be perceived, by the same individual, H. Cooper, who, nearly ten years after his acknowledgment of the money, has the impudence to charge me with leaving my fees unpaid. I now leave the public to make their own comments both on the character of the whole transaction in England, and on the character and motives of those in this country who have espoused Lord Campbell's course, making it an occasion to charge me with having invented nothing.
"SAMUEL F.B. MORSE."
I have, in these extracts from an account of his European experiences, written by Morse at a later date, given but a brief summary of certain events; it will now be necessary to record more in detail some of the happenings on that memorable trip.
Attention has been called before to the fact that it was Morse's good fortune to have been an eye-witness of many events of historic interest. Still another was now to be added to the list, for, while he was in London striving unsuccessfully to secure a patent for his invention, he was privileged to witness the coronation of Queen Victoria; our Minister, the Honorable Andrew Stevenson, having procured for him a ticket of admission to Westminster Abbey.
Writing to his daughter Susan on June 19, 1838, before he had met with his rebuff from the Attorney-General, he comments briefly on the festivities incident to the occasion:—
"London is filling fast with crowds of all characters, from ambassadors and princes to pickpockets and beggars, all brought together by the coronation of the queen, which takes place in a few days (the 28th of June). Everything in London now is colored by the coming pageant. In the shop windows are the robes of the nobility, the crimson and ermine dresses, coronets, etc. Preparations for illuminations are making all over the city.
"I have scarcely entered upon the business of the Telegraph, but have examined (tell Dr. Gale) the specification of Wheatstone at the Patent Office, and except the alarum part, he has nothing which interferes with mine. His invention is ingenious and beautiful, but very complicated, and he must use twelve wires where I use but four. I have also seen a telegraph exhibiting at Exeter Hall invented by Davy, something like Wheatstone's but still complicated. I find mine is yet the simplest and hope to accomplish something, but always keep myself prepared for disappointment."
At a later date he recounted the following pretty incident, showing the kindly character of the young queen, which may not be generally known:—
"I was in London in 1838, and was present with my excellent friend, the late Charles R. Leslie, R.A., at the imposing ceremonies of the coronation of the queen in Westminster Abbey. He then related to me the following incident which, I think, may truly be said to have been the first act of Her Majesty's reign.
"When her predecessor, William IV, died, a messenger was immediately dispatched by his queen (then become by his death queen dowager) to Victoria, apprising her of the event. She immediately called for paper and indited a letter of condolence to the widow. Folding it, she directed it 'To the Queen of England.' Her maid of honor in attendance, noting the inscription, said: 'Your Majesty, you are Queen of England.' 'Yes,' she replied, 'but the widowed queen is not to be reminded of that fact first by me.'"
Writing to his daughter from Havre, on July 26, 1838, while on his way to Paris, after telling her of the unjust decision of the Attorney-General, he adds:—
"Professor Wheatstone and Mr. Davy were my opponents. They have each very ingenious inventions of their own, particularly the former, who is a man of genius and one with whom I was personally much pleased. He has invented his, I believe, without knowing that I was engaged in an invention to produce a similar result; for, although he dates back into 1832, yet, as no publication of our thoughts was made by either, we are evidently independent of each other. My time has not been lost, however, for I have ascertained with certainty that the Telegraph of a single circuit and a recording apparatus is mine....