The Ezra Files: Getting involved with the telegraph

Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, gave F.O.J. Smith, editor of the Maine Farmer, a contract to lay the lead pipe enclosing telegraph wires for a test telegraph cable. While traveling in Maine in the summer of 1843, Ezra Cornell found Smith struggling to design a machine to lay the cable underground. At Smith's request, Cornell created a plow that would both dig the trench and lay the cable. When Morse came to Maine for a demonstration of the machine, he liked it so much he hired Cornell to lay the cable for the test line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

In October 1843, Cornell went to Washington to begin laying the telegraph line. As the work proceeded, he became concerned that the insulation of the wires was defective. He notified Morse, who ordered the work stopped. Cornell, who was paid $1,000 a year as Morse's assistant, then devised a machine for withdrawing the wires from the pipes and reinsulating them.

Cornell spent that winter in Washington studying works on electricity and magnetism in the Patent Office Library and the Library of Congress. His reading convinced him that underground wiring was impractical and that the wires should be strung on glass-insulated poles.

In the spring of 1844, Cornell built the overhead line between Washington and Baltimore, and on May 24, Morse tapped out the historic message: "What hath God wrought." Some of Cornell's earliest telegraph communications relayed the results of the 1844 Whig and Democratic Conventions, which nominated Henry Clay and James K. Polk, respectively.

Adapted by Susan S. Lang from the Web site, "Invention and Enterprise: Ezra Cornell, a Nineteenth-Century Life."

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