It had been voted without debate at the very close of the session. Years afterwards Morse declared that this was the turning-point in the history of the telegraph. 'My personal funds,' he wrote,' were reduced to the fraction of a dollar; and had the passage of the Bill failed from any cause, there would have been little prospect of another attempt on my part to introduce to the world my new invention.'
Grateful to Miss Ellsworth for bringing the good news, he declared that when the Washington to Baltimore line was complete hers should be the first despatch.
The Government now paid him a salary of 2,500 dollars a month to superintend the laying of the underground line which he had decided upon. Professors Gale and Fisher became his assistants. Vail was put in charge, and Mr. Ezra Cornell, who founded the Cornell University on the site of the cotton mill where he had worked as a mechanic, and who had invented a machine for laying pipes, was chosen to supervise the running of the line. The conductor was a five-wire cable laid in pipes; but after several miles had been run from Baltimore to the house intended for the relay, the insulation broke down. Cornell, it is stated, injured his machine to furnish an excuse for the stoppage of the work. The leaders consulted in secret, for failure was staring them in the face. Some 23,000 dollars of the Government grant were spent, and Mr. Smith, who had lost his faith in the undertaking, claimed 4000 of the remaining 7000 dollars under his contract for laying the line. A bitter quarrel arose between him and Morse, which only ended in the grave. He opposed an additional grant from Government, and Morse, in his dejection, proposed to let the patent expire, and if the Government would use his apparatus and remunerate him, he would reward Alfred Vail, while Smith would be deprived of his portion. Happily, it was decided to abandon the subterranean line, and erect the conductor on poles above the ground. A start was made from the Capitol, Washington, on April 1, 1844, and the line was carried to the Mount Clare Depot, Baltimore, on May 23, 1843. Next morning Miss Ellsworth fulfilled her promise by inditing the first message. She chose the words, 'What hath God wrought?' and they were transmitted by Morse from the Capitol at 8.45 a.m., and received at Mount Clare by Alfred Vail.
This was the first message of a public character sent by the electric telegraph in the Western World, and it is preserved by the Connecticut Historical Society. The dots and dashes representing the words were not drawn with pen and ink, but embossed on the paper with a metal stylus. The machine itself was kept in the National Museum at Washington, and on removing it, in 1871, to exhibit it at the Morse Memorial Celebration at New York, a member of the Vail family discovered a folded paper attached to its base. A corner of the writing was torn away before its importance was recognised; but it proved to be a signed statement by Alfred Vail, to the effect that the method of embossing was invented by him in the sixth storey of the NEW YORK OBSERVER office during 1844, prior to the erection of the Washington to Baltimore line, without any hint from Morse. 'I have not asserted publicly my right as first and sole inventor,' he says, 'because I wished to preserve the peaceful unity of the invention, and because I could not, according to my contract with Professor Morse, have got a patent for it.'
The powers of the telegraph having been demonstrated, enthusiasm took the place of apathy, and Morse, who had been neglected before, was in some danger of being over-praised. A political incident spread the fame of the telegraph far and wide. The Democratic Convention, sitting in Baltimore, nominated Mr. James K. Polk as candidate for the Presidency, and Mr. Silas Wright for the Vice-Presidency. Alfred Vail telegraphed the news to Morse in Washington, and he at once told Mr. Wright. The result was that a few minutes later the Convention was dumbfounded to receive a message from Wright declining to be nominated. They would not believe it, and appointed a committee to inquire into the matter; but the telegram was found to be genuine.
On April 1, 1845, the Baltimore to Washington line was formally opened for public business. The tariff adopted by the Postmaster-General was one cent for every four characters, and the receipts of the first four days were a single cent. At the end of a week they had risen to about a dollar.
Morse offered the invention to the Government for 100,000 dollars, but the Postmaster-General declined it on the plea that its working 'had not satisfied him that under any rate of postage that could be adopted its revenues could be made equal to its expenditures.' Thus through the narrow views and purblindness of its official the nation lost an excellent opportunity of keeping the telegraph system in its own hands. Morse was disappointed at this refusal, but it proved a blessing in disguise. He and his agent, the Hon. Amos Kendall, determined to rely on private enterprise.
A line between New York and Philadelphia was projected, and the apparatus was exhibited in Broadway at a charge of twenty-five cents a head. But the door-money did not pay the expenses. There was an air of poverty about the show. One of the exhibitors slept on a couple of chairs, and the princely founder of Cornell University was grateful to Providence for a shilling picked up on the side-walk, which enabled him to enjoy a hearty breakfast. Sleek men of capital, looking with suspicion on the meagre furniture and miserable apparatus, withheld their patronage; but humbler citizens invested their hard-won earnings, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was incorporated, and the line was built. The following year, 1846, another line was run from Philadelphia to Baltimore by Mr. Henry O'Reilly, of Rochester, N.Y., an acute pioneer of the telegraph. In the course of ten years the Atlantic States were covered by a straggling web of lines under the control of thirty or forty rival companies working different apparatus, such as that of Morse, Bain, House, and Hughes, but owing to various causes only one or two were paying a dividend. It was a fit moment for amalgamation, and this was accomplished in 1856 by Mr. Hiram Sibley. 'This Western Union,' says one in speaking of the united corporation, 'seems to me very like collecting all the paupers in the State and arranging them into a union so as to make rich men of them.' But 'Sibley's crazy scheme' proved the salvation of the competing companies. In 1857, after the first stage coach had crossed the plains to California, Mr. Henry O'Reilly proposed to build a line of telegraph, and Mr. Sibley urged the Western Union to undertake it. He encountered a strong opposition. The explorations of Fremont were still fresh in the public mind, and the country was regarded as a howling wilderness. It was objected that no poles could be obtained on the prairies, that the Indians or the buffaloes would destroy the line, and that the traffic would not pay. 'Well, gentlemen,' said Sibley, 'if you won't join hands with me in the thing, I'll go it alone.' He procured a subsidy from the Government, who realised the value of the line from a national point of view, the money was raised under the auspices of the Western Union, and the route by Omaha, Fort Laramie, and Salt Lake City to San Francisco was fixed upon. The work began on July 4, 1861, and though it was expected to occupy two years, it was completed in four months and eleven days. The traffic soon became lucrative, and the Indians, except in time of war, protected the line out of friendship for Mr. Sibley. A black-tailed buck, the gift of White Cloud, spent its last years in the park of his home at Rochester.