I’m reading a fascinating biography of Samuel Morse – Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman. I’ll post a review in a week or so, but one scene bears a quick post.
Morse successfully demonstrated his telegraph between Baltimore and Washington DC in May of 1844. Three days later the Democratic party convention commenced in Baltimore. In what turned out to be a masterstroke of “being in the right place at the right time,” Morse’s telegraph line happened to be in place to relay news of the convention back to the political classes in DC.
Recall, this was at a time when news was carried by horseback or, in the best case, by rail. It took hours for messages to travel between cities like Baltimore and DC – and they were just 45 miles apart.
Adding to the sensationalism of the telegraph’s public debut, the Democratic convention of 1844 was fraught with controversy and political implication – candidates’ fortunes turned on nation-changing issues such as whether to reclaim Oregon from the British, and whether to annex Texas into the Union, which had serious implications for a growing movement for the abolition of slavery.
Remember, this was 15 years before the Civil War began, and just 30-odd years after the war of 1812, during which the British torched the House of Representatives.
Morse, who by his fifties had endured nearly a dozen years of false starts, failures, near-bankruptcy, and more, turned out to be a master publicist. He positioned his partner Alfred Vail at the convention and himself near Congress. Vail began sending regular reports on the convention to Morse, who was surrounded by hundreds of reporters, Senators, and other dignitaries in DC. News came in short bursts familiar to anyone who’s spent time on Twitter or Facebook. In the “conversation,” most likely the first of its kind to report news in real time, all of Washington learned that the “dark horse” candidate James Polk, who supported bringing Texas into the Union, would prevail.
It makes for fascinating reading, with a funny kicker at the end:
V[ail] Mr. Brewster of Pa is speaking in favour of Buchanan
V Mr Brewster says his delegation go for VB but if VB’s friends desert them, the Delegation go for Buchanan…. The vote taken will be nearly unanimous for J K Polk & harmony & union are restored
M Is it a fact or a mere rumor
V Wait till the ballot comes…. Illinois goes for Polk … Mich goes for Polk. Penn asks leave to correct her error so as to give her whole vote for Polk….
M Intense anxiety prevails to … hear the result of last Balloting
V Polk is unanimously nom
M 3 cheers have been given here for Polk and 3 for the Telegraph.
V Have you had your dinner
M yes have you
V yes what had you
M mutton chop and strawberries
And so began a revolution in communications and industry. But even back then, folks shared both the extraordinary and the mundane across the wires….