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.
The success of the overland wire induced the Company to embark on a still greater scheme, the project of Mr. Perry MacDonough Collins, for a trunk line between America and Europe by way of British Columbia, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Siberia. A line already existed between European Russia and Irkutsk, in Siberia, and it was to be extended to the mouth of the Amoor, where the American lines were to join it. Two cables, one across Behring Sea and another across the Bay of Anadyr, were to link the two continents.
The expedition started in the summer of 1865 with a fleet of about thirty vessels, carrying telegraph and other stores. In spite of severe hardships, a considerable part of the line had been erected when the successful completion of the trans-Atlantic cable, in 1866, caused the enterprise to be abandoned after an expenditure of 3,000,000 dollars. A trace cut for the line through the forests of British Columbia is still known as the 'telegraph trail.' In spite of this misfortune the Western Union Telegraph Company has continued to flourish. In 1883 its capital amounted to 80,000,000 dollars, and it now possesses a virtual monopoly of telegraphic communication in the United States.
Morse did not limit his connections to land telegraphy. In 1854, when Mr. Cyrus Field brought out the Atlantic Telegraph Company, to lay a cable between Europe and America, he became its electrician, and went to England for the purpose of consulting with the English engineers on the execution of the project. But his instrument was never used on the ocean lines, and, indeed, it was not adapted for them.
During this time Alfred Vail continued to improve the Morse apparatus, until it was past recognition. The porte-rule and type of the transmitter were discarded for a simple 'key' or rocking lever, worked up and down by the hand, so as to make and break the circuit. The clumsy framework of the receiver was reduced to a neat and portable size. The inking pen was replaced by a metal wheel or disc, smeared with ink, and rolling on the paper at every dot or dash. Vail, as we have seen, also invented the plan of embossing the message. But he did still more. When the recording instrument was introduced, it was found that the clerks persisted in 'reading' the signals by the clicking of the marking lever, and not from the paper. Threats of instant dismissal did not stop the practice when nobody was looking on. Morse, who regarded the record as the distinctive feature of his invention, was very hostile to the practice; but Nature was too many for him. The mode of interpreting by sound was the easier and more economical of the two; and Vail, with his mechanical instinct, adopted it. He produced an instrument in which there is no paper or marking device, and the message is simply sounded by the lever of the armature striking on its metal stops. At present the Morse recorder is rarely used in comparison with the 'sounder.'