Samuel Morse

Signature of the Father

( The last telegraph message by Samuel F. B. Morse )

J. Casale - W2NI

Samuel Morse telegraphing his signature at the
 Academy of Music - New York. June 10, 1871

Samuel Morse at the Academy of Music

     Many have heard the story about Samuel Morse's first telegraph message sent from Washington to Baltimore in 1844, but few have heard the story of what was considered to be his last message. This last message by Morse had a profound effect on all who copied it, and was considered an impressive technical demonstration of how the capabilities of the telegraph evolved in just 27 years.

     When Morse was approaching his eightieth birthday it was felt among the telegraph fraternity at Western Union that a formal testimonial in the U.S. should be given to honor him. Several foriegn countries had already recognized him with various decorations and medals. He previously received a gratuity of approximately 60,000 dollars from a special congress consisting of ten European countries for the nearly 1300 Morse sets they had in service.

     A day of celebration in New York City was planned for a tribute that included the dedication of a statute of Morse in Central Park, a boat excursion around Manhattan for telegraphers, and a reception at The Academy of Music. During the reception, Morse would bid farewell to the telegraph fraternity by sending a specially composed telegraph message world-wide directly from the Academy, ending with him at the key, sending his own signature.

     The funds required for this tribute were raised primarily by the telegraph community. Requests for contributions were made in The Journal of the Telegraph, a Western Union trade newspaper by James D. Reid, an author and editor long associated with the telegraph industry. L.G. Tillotson, a prominent telegraph instrument manufacturer protested the limiting of the fund to just Western Union employees. Reid agreed and soon after contributions were accepted from the entire U.S.and Canadian telegraph fraternity. The overwhelming response created a list of contributors that was nearly sixty feet long. Donations were made in amounts ranging from 25 cents to 25 dollars, but the bulk were donations of less than 5 dollars made by individual telegraphers.

     Saturday, June 10th, 1871 was the day selected for the celebration. Telegraphers from across the country started to arrive in New York on Thursday, June 8. By Friday, they were arriving by the hundreds. The first event scheduled for Saturday was a complimentary excursion around New York harbor sponsored by L.G.Tillotson & Co.. Telegraphers and members of the fraternity gathered at Tillotson's 8 Dey St. store that Saturday morning to pick up their free tickets. Tillotson & Co., noted for their hospitality, had special displays set up in their store. Fine examples of their registers, keys, sounders, relays, etc. were well stocked on their shelves and available for inspection. At one point it was reported that some 200 people were crowded into the store. Tillotson's hospitality continued during the boat excursion where music and food baskets were provided to the nearly one thousand passengers on board the steamer, James Fisk, Jr. as it made its three hour cruise around Manhattan. Steam whistles blew from all passing steamers and ships from around the world in port that day presented their country's flags, all in honor of Samuel Morse.

Central Park Unveiling Ceremony

The Central Park Unveiling Ceremony

     The unveiling of the Morse Statue was schedule for 4:00 PM that afternoon. The weather cooperated as New York was enjoying clear skies and 74 degrees. The New York Tribune reported at least 10,000 people gathered for the ceremony including a large number of telegraphers who distinguished themselves in the crowd by wearing badges made of white ribbon. The unveiling ceremony included speeches made by various politicians and telegraph industry executives. Cyrus Field, who had orchestrated the Atlantic cable, read several congratulatory dispatches, including one from President Grant. Field gave an example of the international speed and distance capabilities of the telegraph at that time with his remark: " I have another dispatch from a neighboring village, London, dated June 10, two minutes past eight PM, where it was received here at five minutes to four". Later in the ceremony an oration was given by Morse's close friend, poet, William Cullen Bryant. Morse, who was then eighty and probably the first U.S. telegrapher to reach that age, was unable to attend the first two events of the day in order to conserve his strength for the night's festivities at the Academy of Music.

     The auditorium of the Academy was filled to standing room capacity that evening with those fortunate enough to have obtained the coveted tickets. Some 500 seats were provided on the stage alone to accommodate the prominent guests in attendance. At 8:00 PM Morse entered the auditorium and was greeted by cheers. The ladies in the crowd waved their white handkerchiefs. Morse stepped onto the stage and was seated next to William Orton, the President of Western Union, who was the master of ceremonies. Some of the notable people seated near him included Cyrus Field, Horace Greely, (New York Tribune founder/editor), Governor Claflin of Massachusetts, (Morse's birth state***) and General Jefferson Davis, (former president of The Confederate States of America). Also seated nearby, to Morse's pleasant surprise, was Annie Ellsworth. It was by her suggestion "What Hath God Wrought" was used as the first telegraph message in 1844.

     Set up on the stage near the speakers stand was a small table with the telegraph instruments to be used in the sending of Morse's message. Included and operational in this set up was the original telegraph register used by Alfred Vail in Baltimore that received Ellsworth's historic message sent by Morse from Washington on May 24, 1844. This register*, designed by Vail, was kindly loaned for the special occasion by Mrs. Alfred Vail, his widow.

( The Image on the right is the Vail Register as it appears today at Cornell University. )

Click here for a larger view of the register.

     During the first hour of introductory remarks and speeches, a white table cloth covered the table concealing the instruments. They were connected though, and during the first hour, telegraphers, seated in the orchestra seats nearby, could copy traffic sounding from the muffled register as Western Union was busy putting together the massive network that was to handle the upcoming message. Telegraphers winked and smiled as they listened to orders being sent out from New York as additional lines were cut in :
"close your key and clear out"..., "answer on number 5"..., "adjust that repeater".

     At 9:00 PM, Mr.Orton announced it was prearranged that all the lines going to the principle cities and towns of the United States and Canada were connected to the instruments on the small table before them, and that Professor Morse's message was to be sent simultaneously to all of them. As the instruments were being uncovered from the table, Mr.Orton went on to say that a short pause was necessary to allow for any final adjustments of Western Union's repeaters** across its system before proceeding with the message.

     Miss Sadie E. Cornwell, an accomplished and beautiful Western Union telegrapher, was then escorted to the table to send the body of Professor Morse's message. The auditorium went silent as she sent:

" Greeting and thanks to the Telegraph fraternity throughout the world.
Glory to God in the Highest, on Earth Peace, Goodwill to men."

     The crowd, knowing what was to follow, cheered as Mr. Orton escorted Professor Morse to take Miss Cornwell's place at the table.Professor Morse took his seat and as he reached for the key, a complete stillness took place as hundreds of telegraphers, in a sea of white ribbons, leaned forward, straining to hear. Morse, with a steady firm hand, slowly sent his signature :    S F B MORSE

S ...  F .-.  B -...       M --  O . .  R . ..  S ...  E .

     At the completion of the last dot, the crowd gave a standing ovation and cheered for several minutes. Morse returned to his seat and was quite visibly overcome with emotion by the crowd's reaction. Mr Orton waved his hand to silence the crowd and announced: " Thus the Father of the Telegraph bids farewell to his children."

     Telegraphers in stations everywhere also cheered after hearing Morse at the key. Many responses were quickly returned and copied on another set of instruments behind the stage at the Academy.

From Washington: "...Allow me to congratulate you on the success of Professor Morse's feat. It passed south on every wire, and I have two registered copies taken in presence of the whole newspaper representatives at the capitol."

From New Orleans: "To him whose lightnings have enlightened the world...the telegraphers of New Orleans offer their congratulations."

From San Francisco: "The telegraphers of the pacific coast send greeting and the heartiest
congratulations to the Father of the Telegraph."

     Later that evening, as Morse's message was relayed world-wide, similar messages were received from Singapore, Bombay, and Hong Kong. The festivities ended that evening with a very reflective speech by Morse. In his speech he stated :

"...I look upon your proceedings as intended, not so much
as homage to an individual, as to the invention whose lines
from America have gone out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world."

At its conclusion, several in the audience lined up for the opportunity and privilege to shake his hand.

     It was nearly midnight before the audience left the Academy that night. As they were leaving, a colorful aurora was visible in the skies over New York. Many telegraphers commented that it was a fitting coincidence to see nature's own magnetic demonstration on this historic telegraphic night.......... The tribute to Morse proved timely, ten months later he passed away at his winter home in New York City leaving behind a legacy that immortalized his name in U.S. history.

* Registers imprinted marks of short and long durations, separated by spaces, on a narrow strip of paper, that represented dots and dashes. The terms "mark" and "space", still used in communications today, have their literal origin from telegraph registers. Telegraphers quickly learned to copy code by the sound produced by the action of the register's pen lever hitting its stops. The telegraph sounder evolved from this ability, as once described by Samuel Morse: " The sounder is but the pen-lever deprived of the pen." The Vail Register was used as a sounder at the Academy of Music.
** Repeaters allowed the automatic re-transmission of messages over long lines thus eliminating the need for manual relaying from one circuit to another. The line from New York to New Orleans in the 1870s for example, was made possible by the use of two repeaters. They were also used for repeating messages from a main line into multiple branch lines simultaneously.
*** Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born, April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
"S F B Morse" was sent by Morse in "American Morse" not International Morse.
American Morse was the standard code used on American land lines.

The Morse Statue today in Central Park.

Back to the Telegraph-History home page

A version of this article was originally
published in the February, 2001 issue
of "The OTB," the quarterly journal of
The Antique Wireless Association.
( A nonprofit historical society )

Copyright (c) by John Casale - W2NI
Troy, New York

Sources :

The New York Times,
The New York Tribune,
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,
The Telegrapher,
Modern Practice of the Electric Telegraph, Frank Pope, 1871.
The Telegraph in America, James D. Reid, 1879.
Henry and the Telegraph, William B. Taylor, 1879.
Samuel F.B. Morse, His Letters and Journals, Edward Lind Morse, 1914.
Cornell University, College of Engineering, Ithaca, N.Y.