Did You Know: Morse

The First Digital Network

When Samuel F.B. Morse created the code that bears his name and the device with which it would be used, he was one of the few who probably knew how important it would be and what it would mean to the continuing development of America. However, he couldn’t have known how long his invention would continue to be used, despite the quantum leaps in communication that have shaped society since then.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) is popularly remembered for dots and dashes and the image of someone wearing an eyeshade hunched over a telegraph key in a railroad depot. In reality, Morse wasn’t someone who started out to create a communications revolution. He was a painter of international repute. Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1791, he was the son of a geographer who was also a great preacher of the Calvinist faith. After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Morse went on to Yale where he studied religious philosophy and mathematics. While there, he also developed an interest in electricity, attending lectures on the subject. He supported himself financially by painting. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa at the age of 19 in 1810.

Morse relocated to England to study painting for three years. He returned to the United States in 1815 a skilled artist and member of the Royal Academy. In the decade following, Morse’s reputation flourished, accepting commissions to paint any number of portraits, among them former president John Adams, President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette. Morse was a frequent traveler to Europe, making two trips there in the 1830s. In 1839, he met Louis Daguerre, inventor of the first practical means of photography – the daguerreotype.

It was while Morse was painting the portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, D.C. in 1825 that a life-changing event sent him on the quest to find a means of rapid long-distance communication. Upon receiving a letter from his father notifying him of his wife’s failing health and subsequent death at their home in New Haven, Morse left immediately, only to arrive after his wife’s burial. The consequences of this experience would eventually shift his focus from painting to exploring the possibility of sending and receiving messages with greater alacrity than ever thought possible.

The original Morse telegraph, along with the Morse code, both of which were not solely of his invention, were concurrent with efforts to develop the telegraph in Europe. Actually, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented an electrical telegraph in 1837. It was, however, a multiple-wire system – as opposed to Morse’s single-wire system – and proved too costly, allowing the Morse system to prevail.

It was at the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, N.J. that the first public demonstration of the telegraph was made. Contrary to popular belief, the first message sent over the telegraph was not “What hath God wrought?” That statement occurred on May 24, 1844 from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington, D.C. The first Morse telegraph message, on January 11, 1838 was “A patient waiter is no loser.”

After an initial experimental line between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, a fully functional line – the first – was built between Lancaster and Harrisburg in January 1846. And, with the establishment of the functional line, the telegraph and Morse code became the standard in high-speed communication in the 19th Century, concomitant with the development of railroads in the United States.

The new occupation of telegraph operator was born of the need for individuals to send and receive messages. Operators became critical to the function of railroads, signaling other railroad depots regarding the travel of trains along the rail lines. Curiously, in an age where women were looked upon as “domestic goddesses” and little else, the railroad operator was an equal-opportunity position, with women telegraphers becoming highly skilled and able to be employed in any railroad depot or Western Union office. Pennsylvania had more women listed as telegraphers in the 1870 Census than any other state in the U.S. Among historic notables who were railroad telegraphers before they became famous are Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie.

Now, fast-forward 170 years.

Across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg in New Cumberland is one of the very few active telegraphers in the world today. Abram Burnett, a linguist and zealous advocate of the use of the telegraph, first came to the attention of this column when he commented last April, “A friend in Wellsboro forwarded me a link to an account of the ‘Vanderbilt Piers’ (‘The End of the Line – Literally,’ Harrisburg Magazine, November 2013). A number of us old telegraphers have an operating Morse Telegraph circuit over the internet, and I have set the article up for transmission on that wire. Telegraphers anywhere in the world, who have old Morse instruments, can ‘cut in on the circuit’ and listen to the click-clacks on their old brass telegraph sounders.”

Being a telegraph aficionado like Burnett isn’t as simple as it sounds. First, you have to be able to communicate in Morse code (the earliest telegraph receivers in the 1800s were “printing telegraphs” that printed out the dots and dashes on paper tape – early telegraphers quickly learned that it was faster to listen to the clicking of the sounder and receive “by ear”). Then, you need to acquire the telegraph key, something that is, surprisingly, very available on eBay (a search for “telegraph key” yielded 237 items). After acquiring a functional setup, you need to find a network where other like-minded individuals want to communicate with you.

Burnett caught the bug early in life.

“My dad took me to a railroad depot when I was a kid, and I was hooked. Later, when I moved to Philadelphia, I met some guys who were interested in the telegraph and had leased a system from the railroad to indulge their hobby.”

When asked about his network and the equipment availability, he said, “I am one of four persons in this country who rebuilds telegraph instruments (including rewinding the coils), and the other three only do it for themselves. I restore for museums, gratis.”

He continued, “We have 20 active members in my network and another 10 who could be more active. We have members from the United States, Canada and New Zealand. One member, a retired doctor from Erie, caught the bug from her grandad who was a railroad telegrapher at Driftwood, Pennsylvania. …One of our members, a retired software engineer from Seattle, wrote the program that allows us to transmit and receive over the cable internet.”

Currently, Burnett is working on an operating telegraph for the Harris Tower in Harrisburg.

“Someone donated the telegraph instruments, and I restored them over the summer. Unfortunately, things were not ready before their close-of-season in early October. But we will be in business there in April 2017, and I plan on giving demonstrations on Saturdays.”

The Harris Tower that Burnett refers to is the Harris Interlocking Tower, a railroad switch tower located at 637 Walnut Street, between the State Street Bridge and the Harrisburg Transportation Center. Built in 1930 and owned over the years by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central Railroad, Amtrak and, since 1992, the Harrisburg Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, the Harris Tower is now a museum. Among the many attractions within the two-story building is the complex and extremely large interlocking machine (115 levers) that controlled all east-west traffic on the Pennsylvania Railroad. In its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, more than 100 passenger trains and 20 freight trains passed the Harris Tower in each 24-hour period. Today, it is a museum that allows patrons to experience the golden age of railroading from a track controller’s perspective. It’s open on Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. from April through October, and admission is free.