On May 24, 1844, the first Morse code telegraph message was sent over a line from the Supreme Court room in the Capitol in Washington, D. C., to Samuel Morse’s assistant in Baltimore as part of a demonstration. The first message quoting from Numbers 23:23 — “What hath God wrought!” — was selected by Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of a friend of Morse.
The concept of the telegraph was by no means a new one in Samuel Morse’s day. Several attempts had already been made, but without much success. One model, for instance, had a dial that had a needle that swung to point to the letter being sent, but it required 26 telegraph wires to work!
A later addition needed only five wires, but Morse’s was better because it only needed two. Morse had the idea of using a coded method — a string of dots and dashes. Much like digital circuitry, there were only two modes — ON and OFF — and therefore, only two wires were needed — a sending wire and a return wire.
Morse’s first device was somewhat crude, using a moving roll of paper with a pencil that descended on it to create dots and dashes on the receiving end. The results could sometimes be hard to read, the condition of the pencil making for rather awkward communication.
Eventually Morse settled on the idea of using sound. By installing a buzzer for the receiving unit, the operator was able to hear the dots and dashes (short sounds and long sounds). By devising an alphabet for the dots and dashes, Samuel Morse now had an effective code that could be learned by operators who could quickly and effectively send out a message in code over two wires, receive a code, and translate it back into English.
While later improvements, such as a telegraph wire system and Edison’s contribution that made it possible to use only one wire, made the telegraph practical, at last a simple and effective method of long-range communication was established.
More information and resources in the Samuel Morse portion of our free book study.
- Keep an inventor notebook. Add Morse and his telegraph.
- Create a timeline of inventions.
- Learn Morse code. Send a message to someone and have them decode it.
- Morse was born in Massachusetts. Mark the location on a map to include in your notebook.
- Copy Numbers 23:23 into your notebook.
- Write a narration explaining how the telegraph works.
Samuel B. Morse Sent the First Telegraphic Message
For kids from the Library of Congress.
Morse Code and the Telegraph
Background information from the History Channel.
Great look at how the telegraph fits into the communications timeline.
The First Telegraphic Message
View the original at the Library of Congress.
Code and decode messages in this interactive.
Morse Code Translator
The American Electro Magnetic Telegraph by Alfred Vail
Subtitled With the Reports of Congress, and a Description of All Telegraphs Known, Employing Electricity or Galvanism, this public domain work not only covers the history of the telegraph, but also offers many illustrations including diagrams of Morse Code that work perfectly for a notebook!
Got the Message?
Very interesting lesson plan from Scholastic where students send and decode messages with their own electromagnetic telegraph!