History of the United States Patent Office
The Patent Office Pony
A History of the Early Patent Office
Chapter 19 -- What Hath God Wrought

[Pg 118]

The steed called Lightning (say the Fates)
Was tamed in the United States
'Twas Franklin's hand that caught the horse
'Twas harnessed by Professor Morse. [footnote 1]

Indeed, it was Professor Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) who first commanded the lightning to labor. And, yes, they laughed at Professor Morse when he tried to tell them, in the closest analogy that he could find, that he could send messages by lightning. "Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?" -- Job 38: 35 Answer: Yes, thanks to Professor Morse. But we are ahead of our story.

Henry Ellsworth had been a Yale classmate of Samuel F.B. Morse of telegraph fame, and they remained friends in later life. Professor Morse was a portrait painter of some note, a professor of the literature of art at the University of the City of New York, and a founder of the National Academy of Design. He came to technology later in life, having first conceived the idea of a telegraph on a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1832.

[Page 118 illustration: Portrait of Samuel F.B. Morse]

Professor Morse exhibited his telegraph in 1837, signed his patent application in 1838 and got patent 1,647 in 1840. Whenever he came to Washington City on business, he visited the Ellsworths, although, as was the custom of the day, he stayed in one of the many Washington boarding houses. The 1837 exhibition of the telegraph was met with an immediate and overwhelming lack of interest. As early as 1838, Morse attempted to secure the aid of Congress in constructing a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore to test the abilities of his invention. He did not achieve early success in this endeavor. Congressmen belittled the mad professor who, they believed, thought he could send messages via lightning, the only electricity they understood.

In 1842, when both Ellsworth and Morse were in Paris for an international exhibition, Ellsworth wrote back to friends in the United States commenting that if one telegraph instrument were placed in the Capitol and another connected to it in New York City, the people of New York City [Pg 119] would know the results of a vote in Congress before it was known at the White House at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. This was at a time when the fastest known way to send a message over a long distance was to give it to a messenger on a fast horse and send the messenger on his way.

In 1843, Morse had another bill pending in Congress to appropriate $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. Many Congressmen found the bill to be an object of ridicule, and they proposed many amendments to the bill to show their scorn. One amendment proposed that half the money be used not to test electrical magnetism, but animal magnetism, also then called mesmerism and now called hypnosis. But eventually the bill made its way through the House, which passed it and sent it on to the Senate. On March 3, 1843, Congress was in the last day of its session, and the bill seemed destined to be lost to legislative procrastination.

On the last evening of the session, both Morse and Ellsworth were in the visitors' gallery of the Senate or in the lobby, working for passage of the bill and waiting for something to happen. Finally, as the evening lamps were lit, there were 119 bills ahead of it. One of Morse's friends in the Senate came by and mentioned that he thought it was impossible that the bill would be reached for a vote. Professor Morse was so discouraged that he left the Capitol, bought a ticket on the newly installed steam-driven trains for his home in New York City for use the next day, then went back to his boarding house and paid his bill. This left him with less than one dollar to his name. Then he went to bed, prepared to leave Washington as an abject failure the next morning.

But Henry Ellsworth remained at the Senate, lobbying doggedly for the bill. Finally, five minutes before adjournment, the bill was passed by the Senate. Only one other bill passed afterwards before the Senate ended its session. The President was on hand to sign the bill into law before midnight.

[Page 119 illustration: Portrait of Annie Ellsworth]

Henry Ellsworth explained the success to his family the next morning. Annie Goodrich Ellsworth (1826-1900), the Commissioner's seventeen-year-old daughter, according to family tradition had a teenage crush on Samuel Morse, who was a fifty-two-year-old widower. Professor Morse was polite to Annie, which seems to have been all she required to maintain her interest. When Annie found out the good news from her father, she asked for and [Pg 120] received her father's permission to go over to Mr. Morse's boarding house and tell him the good news.

Annie was incidentally a part-time employee of the Patent Office. It was the custom of the day for local women to be hired to copy papers out in longhand. In the days before copying machines or even typewriters, this was the only way to get a copy of a patent from the Patent Office. Annie copied some 13,000 words at 10 cents per 100 words in 1843.

Professor Morse was in the dining room at his boarding house, having breakfast before returning to New York City, when he was told that there was a young lady waiting to see him in the parlor. In the parlor, he found Annie, who asked him if he had heard the good news. He answered that he had not heard any good news recently. She replied that she thought not, that her father had told her she could come and tell him that the Senate passed his bill before its adjournment, and that the President signed it into law before midnight.

Morse thanked her for the news and told her that for bringing him such good news, he would allow her to send the first message from Washington to Baltimore over his new telegraph line when he finished building it. About a year later, when the line was about finished, Morse asked Annie if she had her message ready.

Annie replied that she and her mother had been reading through the Bible, looking for the perfect message, and that they had found, in Numbers 23: 23, her message -- "What hath God wrought!" On May 24, 1844, Morse, in the old Supreme Court chamber of the Capitol, sent her message to Alfred Vail at the Mount Clare depot in Baltimore, inaugurating a new era of communications. [footnote 2]

Although the new telegraph connection was between Washington and Baltimore and was openly demonstrated in both cities, the first newspaper account to appear in the National Intelligencer, the leading newspaper in Washington, was on May 27, and that was a copy of an account from a Baltimore paper. Only 16 people showed up in the old Supreme Court chamber to see the Washington end of the demonstration. The newspaper account did not mention Annie's message. [footnote 3]

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