Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Telegraphing Errors: Columnist Didn't Check the Facts

Irrelevant to his actual topic, in-house columnist Lang Capasso claims in this morning's Gondolier that Samuel Morse chose the question "What hath God wrought?" as the first telegraph message. Wrong.

The first error in Capasso's unchecked reiteration of folk history without checking the facts begins with who he says chose the ceremonial phrase. It wasn't Morse. It was the daughter of the nation's patent commissioner at the time and her mother, both good friends of Morse, who selected the rather silly rhetorical question for telegraph transmission on May 24, 1844 from a B&O Railroad Depot in Baltimore to the U.S. Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol (Encyclopedia Britannica).

But, more than three weeks before the ceremonial public message, the telegraph had been used to send word that the Whig Party convention had nominated its candidates: Henry Clay for president and Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice president. The results were famously telegraphed on May 1. Upon hearing the telegraphed news, the dot-dot-dit-dit reply came: "The passengers in the cars gave three cheers for Henry Clay," as Morse himself records in his letters. (The cars are railroad coaches, traveling the B&O Line from Baltimore to D.C.) And, a year and a half earlier, in December 1842, Morse had been busy stringing wires and sending messages back and forth to demonstrate the invention's potential for rapid communication. His audiences for the telegraphed messages were potential supporters and backers.

But surely a newspaper man's own capacity for logic would prompt him to reason that a new invention requiring innovative technologies for the time, like a telegraph, would undergo tests and demonstrations before a public unveiling. That thought would motivate most thinking writers to pause and check the facts rather than rely on elementary-school folk history.

How does Old Word Wolf make these claims, contradicting the newspaper? OWW checks a primary source: "Samuel F.B. Morse, His Letters and Journals in Two Volumes." Volume II (1914) has been available on the Internet at Project Gutenberg as an Ebook (No. 11018) since February 2004. In Chapter XXX, Morse's letters and correspondence to his brother and colleagues confirm these items and dates, as interested readers can see, below the fold.

"Things went well to-day [May 1]. Your last writing was good. You did not correct your error of running your letters together until some time. Better be deliberate; we have time to spare, since we do not spend upon our stock. Get ready to-morrow (Thursday) as to-day. There is great excitement about the Telegraph and my room is thronged, therefore it is important to have it in action during the hours named. I may have some of the Cabinet to-morrow.... Get from the passengers in the cars from Baltimore, or elsewhere, all the news you can and transmit. A good way of exciting wonder will be to tell the passengers to give you some short sentence to send me; let them note time and call at the Capitol to verify the time I received it. Before transmitting notify me with (48). Your message to-day [May 1] that 'the passengers in the cars gave three cheers for Henry Clay,' excited the highest wonder in the passenger who gave it to you to send when he found it verified at the Capitol."
....."You will see by the papers that the Telegraph is in successful operation for twenty-two miles, to the Junction of the Annapolis road with the Baltimore and Washington road. The nomination of Mr. Frelinghuysen as Vice-President was written, sent on, and the receipt acknowledged back in two minutes and one second, a distance of forty-four miles. The news was spread all over Washington one hour and four minutes before the cars containing the news by express arrived. In about a fortnight I hope to be in Baltimore, and a communication will be established between the two cities. Good-bye. I am almost asleep from exhaustion, so excuse abrupt closing."
....."The conventions at Baltimore happened most opportunely for the display of the powers of the Telegraph, especially as it was the means of correspondence, in one instance, between the Democratic Convention and the first candidate elect for the Vice-Presidency. The enthusiasm of the crowd before the window of the Telegraph Room in the Capitol was excited to the highest pitch at the announcement of the nomination of the Presidential candidate, and the whole of it afterwards seemed turned upon the Telegraph. They gave the Telegraph three cheers, and I was called to make my appearance at the window when three cheers were given to me by some hundreds present, composed mainly of members of Congress."

You can't believe what you read in the papers if the guy making the report can't be bothered to check the facts before his bosses print and distribute 30,000 copies all over town.


  1. What Hath God Wrought?
    The message, "What hath God wrought?" sent later by "Morse Code" from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol to his partner in Baltimore, officially opened the completed line of May 24, 1844. Morse allowed Annie Ellsworth, the young daughter of a friend, to choose the words of the message, and she selected a verse from Numbers XXIII, 23: "What hath God wrought?", which was recorded onto paper tape. Morse's early system produced a paper copy with raised dots and dashes, which were translated later by an operator.

  2. About.xom isn't a reliable source. It aggregates general knoweldge, and its scholarship is weak. Notice that OWW went to a primary source and analyzed the circumstances using critical thinking skills. That's a higher level of evaluation than "googling" and getting a wikipedia-like answer. OWW calls this kind of story folk history in another column, and I think that's apt.