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Unit 2: Those Inventive Americans!

Suggested Activities

Samuel F. B. Morse

Era 4: Expansion and Reform

  1. Samuel F. B. Morse was an artist by training and worked successfully as a portrait painter until the 1830s. This self-portrait was made when Morse was only twenty-one years old. Today, however, Morse is primarily remembered as the inventor of the electric telegraph and the related code system that bears his name. Explain how the telegraph worked, including a discussion of Morse code. Using the following alphabet, write a message to a friend in Morse code and have your friend reply in code.
    [Standard 4—historical research capabilities]

The electric telegraph, as designed by Morse, was basically an electrical circuit consisting of a battery, a key, and an electromagnet, all connected by wire. The battery created the electricity that traveled along the wire. The key, located at one end of the wire, completed the electrical circuit when depressed. The electromagnet, located at the other end of the wire, had a pencil attached to it, which moved and made a mark on a paper tape whenever an electric current passed through it. The marks were short or long, depending on the amount of time the key was held down, which led Morse to develop a code of dots and dashes that corresponded to each letter of the alphabet.

To check your accuracy with Morse code, visit the following Morse code translator Web site:

Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872)
Oil on millboard, 1812

  1. The first telegraph line in the United States was completed in 1844 and ran from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. Who first made use of the telegraph for communication? What kinds of messages were conveyed? Did this technology catch on as a method of communication? Are the telegraph and Morse code still in use today? If so, how are they used?
    [Standard 4—historical research capabilities]

Telegraph stations and the poles supporting telegraph wires were first constructed along railroads, since the right-of-way to that land had already been granted. The first messages sent via telegraph concerned the movement of trains, but soon the telegraph was used to share news and business information. Compared with sending written messages by horse or train, the telegraph was a virtually instantaneous form of communication. Telegraph lines were quickly stretched across the United States and Europe and were installed in Asia, Africa, and Australia by the end of the century; telegraph cables were also laid across the Atlantic Ocean. Telegraph companies became one of the largest business endeavors of the nineteenth century, and Samuel Morse reaped the monetary benefits of his invention. The telegraph was continually improved and used through the first half of the twentieth century.

Today we are primarily dependent upon satellites and microwave radio links for high-speed data transmissions. In 1999 the United States Coast Guard stopped monitoring the Morse maritime distress frequency, and the International Maritime Organization dropped a requirement that ships over three hundred tons have telegraph capabilities. Telegraphy is not completely dead, however. Morse code is an extremely reliable and clear form of communication and is still used by ham radio operators, many Third World countries, cargo ships, and others who cannot afford or do not wish to depend solely upon satellite equipment. Even the United States space shuttles have a tiny telegraph key on the digital control panel of their high-frequency radio in case of emergency.

  1. Make a time line of communications milestones, starting with the telegraph. Although each invention was considered revolutionary in its day, select one invention that you think most changed the world of communication and explain why you chose it. What do you think the next step in electronic communication will be?
    [Standard 1—chronological thinking]

The time line of communications milestones should contain some or all of the following:

Telegraph: Samuel F. B. Morse, 1837
Telephone: Alexander Graham Bell, 1876
Radio: Guglielmo Marconi, 1896
Teletypewriter (teleprinter): Donald Murray, 1903
Vacuum tube: Lee De Forest, 1907
Television: Vladimir Zworykin, 1924, and John L. Baird, 1926
Communications satellite: 1962
Facsimile machine: 1980
Cellular telephone: 1983
World Wide Web: Tim Berners-Lee, 1991