"What Hath God Wrought”
The House and the Telegraph

Press Reporters in the Telegraph Office 2007.214.000/tiles/non-collection/e/ex_technology_telegraph_office_frank_Leslie_hc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Reporters rushed to file their stories from the telegraph office in the House.
Inventor Samuel Morse developed the telegraph system. Morse's system sent out a signal in a series of dots and dashes, each combination representing one letter of the alphabet (“Morse code”). The inventor submitted a patent for his device, which he called “The American Recording Electro-Magnetic Telegraph” in 1837. In 1838, he sought a congressional appropriation to fund its expansion by performing the first public demonstration of his machine for Congress. Despite an impressive exhibition of the new technology, Morse did not receive the funding he requested until the 27th and 28th Congresses (1841-1845).

Samuel Morse using the telegraph in New York City/tiles/non-collection/e/ex_telegraph_samuel_morris_lc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Samuel Morse using the telegraph in New York City
Once Morse's system was installed in the Capitol, Congress found the telegraph an indispensable tool. At first the telegraph connected only Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD; gradually lines were extended to other large east coast cities. With the westward expansion of the country and the addition of new territories to the union, improved communication became a necessity. The telegraph revolutionized the way Congress corresponded with the nation. During the Civil War reports flashed from the battlefields assisted the federal government as it monitored and tracked troop developments. It was the first time that instant battle reports were provided to officials in Washington, D.C. Telegraph lines later linked the Capitol building to the White House and reporters to their respective newspapers.

Although the telegraph eventually fell out of favor as the primary mode of communication in the Capitol, a telegraph office still existed in the Capitol complex until 2007. Morse's invention was gradually replaced by the widespread use of the telephone.

DateEvent
Feb. 1838Samuel Morse gave the first public demonstration of his telegraph machine in Washington for interested congressional Members, hoping to obtain appropriations for a long distance test. House Chairman of the Commerce Committee, Representative Francis O.J. Smith of Maine, was so impressed that he became one of Morse's business partners and lobbied on Morse's behalf.
Dec. 10, 1842 Congress appropriated $30,000 to test the feasibility of creating a telegraph system.
Feb. 3, 1843 Congress appropriated $10,000 to Morse in order to lay a telegraph line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, MD, Wilmington, DE, Philadelphia, PA, Trenton, NJ, and New York, NY
May 1, 1844 The first official telegraph signal—announcing that Henry Clay was nominated by the Whig Party Convention (in Baltimore) as its candidate for President—was sent along the incomplete Washington-Baltimore line from Annapolis Junction to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
May 24, 1844 Surrounded by an audience of Congressmen, Samuel Morse sent the first official telegraph from the Supreme Court Chamber, then located in the Capitol, to his partner, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore. He tapped the message, "What hath God wrought!"
May 25, 1844 The first news dispatch telegram was sent from the Capitol to Baltimore's Patriot newspaper announcing that the House had just voted against going into the Committee of the Whole to discuss the Oregon Territory.
June 27, 1853 President Franklin Pierce approved plans for the new House Chamber, including the first House telegraph office, to be located near the House Post Office.
Dec. 14, 1857 A committee appointed to inspect the new House Chamber suggests that telegraph wires be added to the chamber's new press lobby.
Dec. 1861 The first official complaints are heard regarding telegraphic censorship. The House Judiciary Committee holds hearings to discuss government censorship of telegraphic news on Civil War battles.
Circa. 1880 Public telegraph stations, owned by the Western Union and Baltimore Ohio Companies (the two later merged) are placed in the corridors in front of the main entrance to the House side of the Capitol.
Nov. 29, 1883 Underground telegraph and telephone cables were laid to connect the Capitol with White House and other government departments.
Feb. 1888 Telegraph stations were moved from their location near the House Floor to an area outside of the press gallery.