May 24, 1844: Samuel Morse telegraphs “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?” from the U.S. Capitol to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore

Morse’s message inaugurated the world’s first commercial telegraph line, which ran roughly forty miles between Washington, D.C. and a northern terminus at the Mount Clare railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland. That distance was miniscule, a mere half-step up along the Chesapeake, compared to the thousands and thousands of miles of electrical wires that would very soon cross the continent and, not long after that, span oceans.

On the other hand, it was an enormous distance compared to that travelled in Morse’s first public demonstration in 1838: two miles across a village in New Jersey. It was an unimaginable feat, in both distance and speed, compared to human communication in hitherto all of human history. The transcontinental telegraph systems famously sunk the Pony Express. The touch of a hand bore the power, by a spark, of communication. By 1870, over three million messages had been sent by cable in the United States.

The death of the mail-bearing horseman was not the only ripple — or upheaval — the telegraph wrought. Henry Adams wrote in his Education that “eighteenth-century troglodytic Boston” came into modern, industrial America with “the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard Steamers in the bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the presidency” in 1844.

One historian argues that the telegraph fundamentally shaped late 19th century and early 20th century diplomacy: with message times cut down from months to days and hours, instructions, reports, decisions and public reactions flowed nonstop; diplomats maneuvered with more information and more speed and, perhaps, less tact, than ever.

Morse was not the sole inventor of the telegraph, or even of the code that bears his name. Samuel P. Morse was by training not a scientist but an artist; he was also a propagator of anti-Catholic Nativism and of pro-slavery screeds, even as a Northerner at the height of the Civil War, at slavery’s very end. He bathed both his technological and political visions in the Divine: slavery was salvation, abolition a sin, and his telegraph – a Biblical revelation. What hath God wrought?

This mixture of piety and progress, writes James W. Carey, was characteristic of these industrial-modern times; within “the rhetoric of the electrical sublime” resided “a central tenet of middle-class ideology: that ‘communication, exchange, motion brings humanity, enlightenment, progress and that isolation and disconnection are evidence of barbarism and merely obstacles to be overcome’ (Schivelbusch, 1978: 40) … Each improvement in communication, by ending isolation, by linking people everywhere, was heralded as realizing the Universal Brotherhood of Universal Man.”

In light of this Morse’s vision for the kind of modernity ushered in by telegraph seems naively and appropriately lofty, and utterly dissonant. In 1855 an undersea cable was being laid between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the first connection for a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable; in 1855 Morse, between anti-immigrant and pro-slavery proselytism, wrote to a friend:

The affects of the Telegraph on the interests of the world, political, social, and commercial, have, as yet, scarcely begun to be apprehended, even by the most speculative minds. I trust that one of its effects will be to bind man to his fellowman in such bonds of amity as to put an end to war. I think I can predict this effect as in a not distant future.