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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The First Telegraph Instrument

By Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872)

[Born in Charlestown, Mass., 1791. Died in New York, N. Y., 1872. The Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. By S. I. Prime. 1875.]

I IMMEDIATELY commenced, with very limited means, to experiment upon my invention. My first instrument was made up of an old picture or canvas frame fastened to a table; the wheels of an old wooden clock, moved by a weight to carry the paper forward; three wooden drums, upon one of which the paper was wound and passed over the other two; a wooden pendulum suspended to the top piece of the picture or stretching frame, and vibrating across the paper as it passes over the centre wooden drum; a pencil at the lower end of the pendulum, in contact with the paper; an electro-magnet fastened to a shelf across the picture or stretching frame, opposite to an armature made fast to the pendulum; a type rule and type for breaking the circuit, resting on an endless band, composed of carpet-binding, which passed over two wooden rollers, moved by a wooden crank, and carried forward by points projecting from the bottom of the rule downward into the carpet-binding; a lever, with a small weight on the upper side, and a tooth projecting downward at one end, operated on by the type, and a metallic fork also projecting downward over two mercury-cups, and a short circuit of wire, embracing the helices of the electro-magnet connected with the positive and negative poles of the battery and terminating in the mercury-cups. When the instrument was at rest the circuit was broken at the mercury-cups; as soon as the first type in the type-rule (put in motion by turning the wooden crank) came in contact with the tooth on the lever, it raised that end of the lever and depressed the other, bringing the prongs of the fork down into the mercury, thus closing the circuit; the current passing through the helices of the electro-magnet caused the pendulum to move and the pencil to make an oblique mark upon the paper, which, in the mean time, had been put in motion over the wooden drum. The tooth in the lever falling into the first two cogs of the types, the circuit was broken when the pendulum returned to its former position, the pencil making another mark as it returned across the paper. Thus, as the lever was alternately raised and depressed by the points of the type, the pencil passed to and fro across the slip of paper passing under it, making a mark resembling a succession of V’s. The spaces between the types caused the pencil to mark horizontal lines, long or short, in proportion to the length of the spaces. With this apparatus, rude as it was, and completed before the first of the year 1836, I was enabled to and did mark down telegraphic intelligible signs, and to make and did make distinguishable sounds for telegraphing; and, having arrived at that point, I exhibited it to some of my friends early in that year, and among others to Professor Leonard D. Gale, who was a college professor in the university. I also experimented with the chemical power of the electric current in 1836, and succeeded in marking my telegraphic signs upon paper dipped in turmeric and a solution of the sulphate of soda (as well as other salts), by passing the current through it I was soon satisfied, however, that the electro-magnetic power was more available for telegraphic purposes and possessed many advantages over any other, and I turned my thoughts in that direction. Early in 1836 I procured forty feet of wire, and putting it in the circuit I found that my battery of one cup was not sufficient to work my instrument. This result suggested to me the probability that the magnetism to be obtained from the electric current would diminish in proportion as the circuit was lengthened, so as to be insufficient for any practical purposes at great distances; and to remove that probable obstacle to my success I conceived the idea of combining two or more circuits together in the manner described in my first patent, each with an independent battery, making use of the magnetism of the current on the first to close and break the second; the second, the third, and so on. This contrivance was fully set forth in my patents. My chief concern, therefore, on my subsequent patents was to ascertain to what distance from the battery sufficient magnetism could be obtained to vibrate a piece of metal, knowing that, if I could obtain the least motion at the distance of eight or ten miles, the ultimate object was within my grasp. A practical mode of communicating the impulse of one circuit to another, such as that described in my patent of 1840, was matured as early as the spring of 1837, and exhibited then to Professor Gale, my confidential friend.

Up to the autumn of 1837 my telegraphic apparatus existed in so rude a form that I felt a reluctance to have it seen. My means were very limited—so limited as to preclude the possibility of constructing an apparatus of such mechanical finish as to warrant my success in venturing upon its public exhibition. I had no wish to expose to ridicule the representative of so many hours of laborious thought. Prior to the summer of 1837, at which time Mr. Alfred Vail’s attention became attracted to my Telegraph, I depended upon my pencil for subsistence. Indeed, so straitened were my circumstances that, in order to save time to carry out my invention and to economize my scanty means, I had for many months lodged and eaten in my studio, procuring my food in small quantities from some grocery, and preparing it myself. To conceal from my friends the stinted manner in which I lived, I was in the habit of bringing my food to my room in the evenings, and this was my mode of life for many years.