Story Stream
recent articles

On this date in 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first public message via telegraph. It went over the newly installed wire on Capitol Hill to his collaborator, Alfred Vail, who was awaiting the signal at a Baltimore railroad station. The words Morse typed out in the code that bears his name came from the Bible:

"What hath God wrought?"

It was a fitting message, as much in our time as it was then.

Innovations in science and tech, in fields ranging from communications to miracle medical advances, are most often brought about through the cooperative efforts of government and private enterprise. This was certainly true of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccines developed last year. It was also true of the telegraph.

Samuel Morse first heard about electromagnetism while sailing to Europe. Returning stateside, he labored with Alfred Vail and New York University professor Leonard Gale on the mechanics of the device while also working out the dot-and-dash system still called the Morse code.

An unsuccessful foray into partisan politics had taught him enough to know that congressional support would be valuable in more ways than one, and Morse and his friends lobbied Congress to allocate $30,000 for construction of the telegraph lines between Washington and Baltimore.

The appropriation almost didn't happen. It came about largely because of the dogged efforts of Henry L. Ellsworth, a college friend of Morse's who was then commissioner of patents. Ellsworth's efforts bore fruit just minutes before adjournment, when Congress finally approved the funds. It was Ellsworth's wife who came up with idea for the initial words to be spoken over the wire, an inspiration she imparted to Morse via her daughter, Annie.

Fast-forward to Oct. 29, 1969.

On that date, the first message was sent over what we now call the Internet when UCLA student Charley Kline typed the letters "LO" on his computer, a message that was received by a similar machine at Stanford. I've always assumed Kline was starting to type the word "login," but the computer crashed after he'd typed only two letters.

That research project by the forerunner of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was also funded by Congress, and by much more than 30 grand. But it paid off. Or did it? Maybe that initial message should have given us pause.

"It was inadvertent, but it turned out to be prophetic and powerful that the message we delivered was ‘LO' -- as in, ‘lo and behold,'" said UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock, who headed the project.

Or, to paraphrase the biblical verse, "What hath man wrought?"

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments