Historic Moments: The First News Message By Telegraph.
By John W. Kirk.
from Scribner's Magazine (May 1892)
[p.652] The number of “first” messages by electric telegraph which have been recorded, is large enough to have caused discussion, at one time or another, throughout the past forty years. They range from the first signals given by an electro-magnet in the laboratory of Professor Joseph Henry, at Albany, to the message “What hath God wrought,” which marked the formal completion of the line between Washington and Baltimore on May 24, 1844. It is well established that the first message sent over a wire by dot-and-dash signal was “A patient waiter is no loser,” which was sent by Alfred Vail in the old factory at Speedwell, N.J., on January 6, 1838, in order to satisfy all doubts of his father, Judge Vail, as to the practicability of this new invention. Another of the earliest messages (sent when the line had been built five miles on the way from Washington to Baltimore) was intended to convince the doubting members of a congressional committee, which I had summoned at Professor Morse’s request, that the telegraph could accomplish all that its inventor said that it could. As I was present I can vouch for the authenticity of the incident. The committee were in a little room at the north end of the Capitol, at Washington, where Professor Morse was conducting his experiments. “Now, gentlemen,” he said to them, “what shall we send over the wire? Pick out your own message and I will show you how simple this whole thing is, and how it accomplishes everything that I claim.” One of the party proposed the message, “Mr. Brown, of Indiana, is here.” Professor Morse immediately sent it over the five miles of wire and back by the metallic circuit, the Morse register at his side reproducing exactly the signals which made up the words of the original message. I recall that after leaving the room the congressmen were not convinced by this, because, as those present could not read the indentations on the slip of paper corning from the receiver, we all had to take on faith what Professor Morse told us he had sent and received. One of the congressmen whispered to me, “That’s what I call pretty thin.” Another remarked, “It won’t do. That doesn’t prove anything.”
I became acquainted with what Professor Morse was doing in those days in a curious way. During the winter of 1843 and 1844 I had come from Ohio to Washington to look over the bids which my associates and I had sent in, for carrying the mails over important stage routes between Wheeling, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and other Western towns. This brought me into intimate relations with the post-office department, and particularly with the Second Assistant Postmaster-General, the Honorable John A. Bryan, who was a clever Ohio politician, and besides a very cautious man in all his public relations. One day he said to me, “See here! there is an abominable scheme to ruin me,” and he proceeded to tell me that his superior officers, in order to implicate him in a foolish transaction, had put into his hands the handling of the appropriation of $30,000 which Congress had voted for the electric [p.653] experiments of Professor Morse. He believed, as was the almost universal opinion, that the result of Morse’s experiments would be to prove that he was impracticable or crazy, and all those associated with the project would be looked upon with suspicion. The Assistant Postmaster-General, therefore, asked me to help him out of the difficulty by undertaking to look after the expenditure of the money as made by Professor Morse. I was to see that if he put up wires and undertook any other actual work, he was to have the money for only what was really accomplished. To that end Mr. Bryan gave me a note to Professor Morse, who seemed pleased at even that much recognition. During the previous winter I had often seen him about the Capitol waylaying members of Congress and trying to induce them to favor an appropriation for testing his system of telegraphy. I observed much dodging by the members of Congress to avoid him, as he was then considered a crank. Therefore, when Mr. Bryan requested my supervision, I was somewhat prepared for the duty, which under the circumstances I could not well refuse. It was in this capacity that I came to see a great deal of Professor Morse. He had taken possession of a little room in the Capitol, to which I have referred, and, day after day, as I watched the careworn, spare, and anxious man working in the midst of his curious apparatus, I learned to have sympathy with his sincerity and perseverance. The derision with which the congressional committee had received the preliminary message, to which I have alluded, convinced me of the wisdom of the Postmaster-General in not wishing to be mixed up with what he called “Morse’s foolishness;” and indeed, personally, I was not sure that there was anything in the experiment.
Toward the end of April, the wires being erected for five miles in the direction of Baltimore, I suggested to Professor Morse that now was an opportunity for taking advantage of a great public event, conclusively to prove to everybody that the telegraph was what he claimed it to be. In a few days the Whig National Convention was to meet in Baltimore, and the poles were nearly all set as far as Annapolis Junction—twenty-two miles from Washington, where all the trains stopped. I urged him to push on the stringing of the wire to that point, and have the nomination sent to him in Washington from there as soon as the train arrived from Baltimore bearing the news.
On May 1st, the Whig Convention met in Baltimore, and the eyes of the country were upon it. By that morning Professor Morse had established telegraphic communication between Washington and Annapolis Junction, where was stationed the assistant of Morse who, I understand, was Alfred Vail. All that afternoon Professor Morse and I were alone together in the little room in the Capitol. A gratifying message had come from Annapolis Junction that everything was ready at that end of the line, and that there could be no doubt of the success of our plan to convince all doubters that the electric telegraph was a wonderful invention, which would revolutionize the transmission of news.
It is almost half a century since that day, and yet I have a vivid recollection of the dramatic incident with which it culminated. The room in which we were was small and dingy, with a window looking out on Pennsylvania Avenue. Across the street was the station of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and all the afternoon we could see the people coming and going, in groups and crowds, eager to learn from passengers on incoming trains the progress of the Convention. They were scattered along the track for several hundred feet, as far as the switch where the engine left the train, in order to go back on a Y and push it into the depot. Across the window a shelf had been made of a single board, and on it was the strange-looking machine, with its paper tape and the crank by which the weight was wound up to revolve the rollers through which the tape moved when a message was being received. At the other end of the room was a series of step-like shelves on which were placed the curious pots and jars which made up the primitive battery. Along the floor had been placed narrow strips of scantling, between which were stretched the wires leading from the battery to the [p.654] telegraphic instruments on the shelf at the window. Over all were a few loose boards on which those walked who entered the room. To this day I can see plainly the narrow, disordered room, with its wires and jars and chemicals, and in the midst of it the weird figure of the great inventor who was about to realize his one hope, after so many years of disappointment and delay. He was very quietly dressed, his coat muffled about his throat, and his long hair tumbled about his forehead. He appeared to be nervous and apprehensive. The grave question which was to be settled, was whether the electric current would remain on the wires with sufficient strength to work the signals through so long a distance as forty-four miles (for in those days a metallic circuit was used). Even those who believed that the instrument had done its work over a short circuit of a few miles, doubted its -commercial value over long distances.
At this late date the wonder to me is, that so few persons took any interest whatever in the proposed experiment. I was in the room many times preceding this trial, and I recall that there were few visitors and no anxiety whatever to learn how Professor Morse was progressing with his work. A general opinion among those who had heard of the proposed attempt was that it would not succeed. It was too absurd to discuss.
Late in the afternoon, suddenly, the instrument on the table began to click. Eagerly Professor Morse bent forward over the strip of paper that slowly unrolled from the register. The paper halted, moved ahead, stopped, and moved again in an irregular way, till finally Morse rose from his close scrutiny of the paper, stood erect, and looking about him, said, proudly, “Mr. Kirk, the Convention has adjourned; the train for Washington from Baltimore has just left Annapolis Junction bearing that information, and my assistant has telegraphed me the ticket nominated.” He hesitated, holding in his hand the mysterious message, and then said, “The ticket is Clay and Frelinghuysen.”
By a curious coincidence I am able to describe here, in the exact words of an eye-witness, the scene that was taking place at the other end of the line at this moment. It happened, a few years ago, when I was telling this story in the lobby of a hotel in New York, surrounded by a group of friends, that a stranger who stood near us rose as I finished my story, stretched out his hand, and said, “I hope you will pardon my intrusion, but this story has been a treat to me. They call me Colonel Ralph Plumb in my home in Illinois, where they elect me to Congress. I want to add a word to your story.” And then he narrated what he afterward put in writing for me as follows:
“I was on the way to Washington, on special business, from Ohio, where I then resided, and came to Baltimore on the day that Henry Clay was nominated for President by the Whig National Convention. A train left Baltimore for Washington before the Convention had adjourned, but after Mr. Clay had been nominated, and I was a passenger on that train. When we had reached a point near what is now known as Annapolis Junction, the train stopped, and looking for the cause of the halt, I noticed a young man seated on a rudely constructed platform, resting on a square pen made of railway ties, beside a pole which appeared to stand twenty feet high and at its top a cross-piece with two wires, one on either end of the cross-timber. From the car I could see a succession of such poles, cross-pieces, and wires, stretching toward Washington, and along the railway track; but I was specially interested in the performance of the young man on the platform above described. He had a small machine before him and was engaged in manipulating it while reading from a manuscript which had been handed him by some one on the train, and on inquiry of him I learned that it was the fact of Mr. Clay’s nomination that this young man was sending to Washington. I have since, and very lately, learned that the operator was a Mr. Vail, of New Jersey, and from his son I have a valued photograph of the identical machine I saw his father working with then, and from Mr. Kirk I understand that but two men then living understood how to telegraph messages, one being Mr. S. F. B. Morse, and the other Mr. Vail. This message sent, we again started for Washington, [p.655] arriving an hour later. At the B. & O. depot there was an immense crowd of people awaiting the arrival of the train, for the purpose of getting the news of the result of the Baltimore Convention. Nevertheless the news was there before the train had arrived. It had been received by Professor Morse, written out, printed on slips, and scattered among the waiting crowds; but, it being the first successful attempt ever made to send a telegram for so long a distance, the crowd seemed to have no confidence in what the telegram had told them, until it was verified by passengers on the incoming train.”
My recollection of how we announced the news is not vivid. I only recall that when it was proclaimed to the crowd outside they said: “You are quizzing us. It is easy enough for you to guess that Clay is at the head of the ticket; but Frelinghuysen—who the devil is Frelinghuysen?” “I only know,” answered Professor Morse, “that it is telegraphed me so from Annapolis Junction, where my operator had the news a few minutes ago from the train that is bringing the delegates.”
A search of files of Washington and Baltimore newspapers of that date (May 1, 1844), and days following, shows no reference whatever to this despatch. The Daily Globe (which was published in the late evening), on May 1st (with what would now be thought ridiculous ingenuousness), said, in regard to this Convention, “The newspapers in Baltimore with which we exchange failed to arrive here to-night, but we have been permitted to look over the Baltimore Patriot of this afternoon, which enables us to state from recollection all that is important”—and then follows a brief announcement of the nomination of Clay and Frelinghuysen. This was on the afternoon of the very day when the first news despatch in the history of the world had been sent by telegraph, and received in the city where the Globe was published. It was not until the line had been completed to Baltimore, on May 24th, and the formal message which opened the line, “What hath God wrought,” had been sent, that the newspapers began to take any notice of the invention which was to revolutionize the whole business and profession of journalism. In the Baltimore Patriot of May 25, 1844 (Saturday afternoon), is what appears to be the first use of the telegraph by a newspaper, which is as follows:
“At half-past twelve o’clock, the following was sent to Washington:
‘Ask a reporter to send a despatch to the Baltimore Patriot at two o’clock p.m.’
In about a minute the answer came back:
‘It will be attended to.’
Two o’clock p.m.—The despatch has arrived, and is as follows:
One o’clock.—‘There has just been made a motion in the House to go into the Committee of the Whole on the Oregon question. Rejected, ayes 79, noes 86.
Half-past one.—‘The House is now engaged on private bills.’
Quarter to two.—‘Mr. Atherton is now speaking in the Senate. Mr. S—— will not be in Baltimore to-night.’
“So that we are thus enabled to give to our readers information from Washington up to two o’clock. This is indeed the annihilation of space.”
In the Washington Madisonian of Monday afternoon, May 27th, appears for the first time the heading “Telegraphic News,” under which is an account of a Maryland State convention in Baltimore.
In the Washington Globe of the same date is the announcement “that by a telegraph which is in operation between this city and Baltimore we learn that the convention reassembled at four o’clock p.m.;” and there is in the same issue a “Postscript from the Telegraph at nine o’clock p.m.”
By May 28th the National Intelligencer had waked up to the possibilities, of the new invention, and had a despatch headed “By The Magnetic Telegraph,” with the explanation that it was “politely furnished by Professor Morse.” Editorially it said (seemingly by way of return for this courtesy), “The working of this wonderful result of human ingenuity acting upon developments in science excited universal admiration in this city yesterday;” and on the following day, May 29th, the [p.656] newspaper records that the north front of the Capitol was crowded by an anxious multitude to whom the proceedings of the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore were announced.
At last the brave and persevering worker was receiving his reward of popularity, which was expressed in an impromptu organization by the crowd in front of the Capitol on that day, which unanimously voted the following:
“Resolved, That the thanks of this meeting be, and they are hereby tendered to Professor Morse, for the promptitude with which he has reported, via his electro-magnetic telegraph, the proceedings of the Baltimore political convention; and that we consider this invention as worthy the countenance and support of the Government.”
This is the story of the first news message as I recall it. From these few words sent on the afternoon of May 1, 1844, to the present day, the telegraph, as a bearer of news, has grown with astounding rapidity. It is not unusual now for the New York office of the Associated Press to send and receive in a single day more than one hundred thousand words of news messages over more than seven hundred thousand miles of wire reaching every community in the United States, and telling the rest of the world the history of a single day. For the year 1891 the special and regular telegrams for newspapers in the United States, transmitted by the Western Union, reached the remarkable total of 524,502,952 words, which does not include messages sent over the private wires of newspapers.