Samuel F.B. Morse


May 24, 1844: Morse Sends First Telegraph Message on Completed Line from Baltimore to Washington

In 1844, with a Congressional appropriation of $30,000 (a substantial sum in the mid- 19th century), Morse and his partners ran the world’s first telegraph line, a 40-mile stretch between Baltimore and Washington. The first message on the completed line from Baltimore to Washington was transmitted on May 24, 1844 (160 years ago). The text, “What hath God wrought?,” was chosen by the young daughter of a friend of Morse.

Early in May, before the line was completed, Morse offered to telegraph the results of the Whig Party’s national convention from Baltimore to Washington. The message would be hand-carried from Baltimore to Annapolis Junction, then telegraphed from there. When the message reached Washington, it was assumed that the transmission had become garbled: it stated that James K. Polk, a dark-horse candidate, had won the nomination on the first ballot. (Polk became the eleventh president of the U.S., 1845-49.)

Morse was originally a painter. Although he was one of the better painters working in America at the time, he could barely pay his living expenses, and decided to turn his energies to the invention of a working telegraph. His dramatic shift in career and his ultimate success is a welcome reminder that “ambition” is not a term of opprobrium:

"Ambition" means the systematic pursuit of achievement and of constant improvement in respect to one's goal. Like the word "selfishness," and for the same reasons, the word "ambition" has been perverted to mean only the pursuit of dubious or evil goals, such as the pursuit of power; this left no concept to designate the pursuit of actual values. But "ambition" as such is a neutral concept: the evaluation of a given ambition as moral or immoral depends on the nature of the goal. A great scientist or a great artist is the most passionately ambitious of men. A demagogue seeking political power is ambitious. So is a social climber seeking "prestige." So is a modest laborer who works conscientiously to acquire a home of his own. The common denominator is the drive to improve the conditions of one's existence, however broadly or narrowly conceived. --Ayn Rand, "Tax Credits for Education" (The Ayn Rand Letter I, 12, 1)

Cross References and Further Reading