The First Long-Distance Telegraph Message, Sent This Day in 1844: 'What Hath God Wrought?'

All your Internet can be traced back to this moment.
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This strip of paper records the first ever message sent by telegraph, a feat that occurred on this day in 1844. Standing in the chamber of the Supreme Court, Samuel B. Morse sent a 19-letter message to his assistant Albert Vail in Baltimore, who transmitted the message back. Members of Congress watched the demonstration with fascination much like their countrymen did in future demonstrations. 

The piece of paper you see above records three things: a note Morse appended to the top detailing its importance, the actual Morse code marks, and their translation into letters at the bottom.

In most accounts, like the one maintained by the Senate (which used to house the Supreme Court chamber), the words Morse sent get short thrift: "A young woman provided the first message he sent: 'What hath God wrought.'" 

But the telegraph's long-distance application marks the beginning of a new era of communication, in which information can travel faster than any human by any means of conveyance. If you run the videos of the deployments of all the telephone and Internet and social networks around the world in reverse, they'd all wither and contract until there were only two points on the electric-information network: that Supreme Court chamber and the Mount Clair railway depot in Baltimore.

In light of all that, the words of Morse's friend's daughter, Annie Ellsworth, take on more meaning than she probably anticipated: What hath God wrought, indeed.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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