Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

A Congressional Made Man

In the winter of 1842, inventor Samuel F. B. Morse nervously wrote to his brother Sidney Morse from Washington, DC. He ruminated, “I have too much experience of delusive hopes to indulge in any premature exultation. Now there is no opposition, but it may spring up unexpectantly and defeat all.” Morse hoped that the House of Representatives would appropriate $30,000 “to test the practicability of establishing a system of electro magnetic telegraphs.” Morse feared that without the funding he could not continue developing and testing his invention. Although Morse had been reassured by many that the appropriation would pass, he remained apprehensive.

Print of the House Chamber in 1836/tiles/non-collection/8/8_4_morse_1-2006_078_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This 1836 print depicts the Chamber of the House of Representatives as Samuel Morse would have seen it as a visitor.

Samuel Morse’s First Demonstration for Congress

Samuel Morse’s trepidation was not groundless. He first demonstrated his electromagnetic telegraph to Congress in 1838 in the hopes of receiving congressional support. At that time, his invention spurred excitement. Morse set up a demonstration of the machine in the committee room of the House Committee on Commerce. There, Representatives and Senators came to see his invention. He even gave a special demonstration to President Martin Van Buren and members of his cabinet. Despite a positive report on the bill for the appropriation from the Committee on Commerce, the House of Representatives did not act, and Morse received no money.

Samuel Morse’s Second Demonstration for Congress

In 1842, Morse returned to Congress for approval. After Morse again demonstrated his electromagnetic telegraph, the House of Representatives took up the issue of the $30,000 appropriation (equivalent to $885,000 in 2020). During debate, Tennessee Representative Cave Johnson ridiculed the invention, comparing it to sham scientific practices like Mesmerism and animal magnetism.

At this point, all Samuel Morse could do was wait for the House of Representatives to pass the appropriation, but the waiting proved difficult. Samuel Morse explained this period to his brother Sidney with similar refrains: “My patience is still tried in waiting,” “I am still waiti[ng], waiting,” and “I am still in suspense, and it is painful and trying to me.” Eventually the bill passed the House of Representatives in 1843 by a vote of 89 to 80, and the appropriation became law later that year. The margin proved closer than anticipated given the assurances Morse received that the bill would pass.

Memorial Services for Samuel Morse in the House Chamber/tiles/non-collection/8/8_4_morse_3-2019_047_002.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Many came to the Chamber of the House of Representatives for the memorial service for Samuel Morse on April 16, 1872. The President, Speaker of the House, justices of the Supreme Court, and numerous Senators and Members of the House of Representatives attended.

Success and Recognition

In May 1844, Morse displayed the return on Congress’s investment in his invention. He successfully demonstrated an electromagnetic telegraph line from Washington, DC, to Baltimore, Maryland. The exhibition impressed many. The Lancaster Examiner compared Morse’s accomplishment to the achievement of the railroad. “It has been said,” the Lancaster Examiner explained, “that the rail road system has given a perpetuity to our Union . . . and that with iron bonds is our country bound together. But the day of iron bars must now yield to that of copper wires.” Following the demonstration, Morse expanded the network of copper wires.

By 1872, the year of Morse’s death, this network existed across the country. To exhibit the high regard Congress had for Morse, Members resolved to hold a rare memorial service for him in the Chamber of the House of Representatives. On April 16, telegraph lines broadcast the service from the Capitol around the nation, memorializing the very man who invented them.

Sources: Morse, Samuel F.B. to Sidney Morse, Washington, DC, 1842-1843, accessed 1 April 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/mmorse0000l5/; Morse, Samuel F.B. to Sidney Morse, Washington, DC, 1838, accessed June 14, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/mmorse000012/; Ferris, Charles Goadsby, Electro-Magnetic Telegraphs (to accompany bill H.R. No. 641), 27th Cong., 3rd sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1842); Silverman, Kenneth, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003); The Lancaster Examiner, 5 June 1844; Congressional Globe, 27th Cong., 3rd sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1843): 322-325, 323; Congressional Globe, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1872): 2279-2317; Friedman, Morgan, The Inflation Calculator, accessed 13 April 2020, https://westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi; U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Commerce, Electro-Magnetic Telegraphs (to accompany bill H.R. No. 713), 25th Cong., 2d sess., 1838, Rep. No. 753, 1-10.

Categories: Superlatives, Committees, Art