On December 10, 1842, the House of Representatives approved Professor Samuel Morse’s $30,000 appropriation to develop the first inter-state telegraph system. The funds established the Baltimore-Washington Telegraph line, which were to transmit information between the two cities at lighting speed. A short two years later, Morse was ready to publicly unveil the new technological wonder.
On May 24, 1844, in the packed chambers of the Supreme Court, Morse kicked off the telegraph age with a series of strokes. Morse instructed his operator to transmit the message “What hath God Wrought”, a biblical phrase from the Book of Numbers, to a fellow operator stationed 40 miles to the North at Mount Claire railway in Baltimore.
A critical contributor to Morse’s success was none other than Past Grand Master Benjamin B. French, who served as Assistant Clerk of the House during the fateful day in December when Congress appropriated Morse’s seed money. In fact, French played such an integral role in the early adoption of the telegraphs that his exploits where even included as part of his memorial published in the proceedings of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons.
Here is an excerpt from a Memorial Speech on the Life of B. B. French by Companion Joseph T. Brown:
He said that while the bill was pending in the House -- he being Assistant Clerk at the time -- his efforts in its behalf were earnestly solicited by Professor Morse and his friends. He examined carefully into the merits of the scheme, and became convinced of its feasibility and utility. But how to get it through the House was the question. Congress was then suffering with one of its periodical attacks of economy, and days of the session were drawing to a close, business was pressing, and the members almost universally regarded the enterprise as chimerical.
Brother French, however, moved by the anxiety of Professor Morse, determined to undertake this almost hopeless task. He approached the members but could find no favor from them. Finally he laid the matter before the Speaker, and told him the bill must pass. “Surely, Mr. French, you do not believe in such chimerical nonsense,” was the response. “Surely I do,” was the reply, “and you and I will live to see these lines stretching all over the world. I tell you, Mr. Speaker, we must pass this bill through.” “Well,” said the Speaker, “I don’t believe in it, but to do you a favor, we will try. You, as assistant clerk, have charge of the table. I will call on you today for miscellaneous and unimportant bills, and in a moment of confusion, when the members have become accustomed to voting ‘aye,’ you slip in this, only don’t call the title too loud, and I will try to put it through without observation.”
The ruse was successful. The bill was strategically introduced in a moment of extreme confusion and passed by an almost unanimous vote. Thus, by the efforts of one true man, of a vision of a little more extensive than ordinary, was an enterprise inaugurated, compelling the lightings of heaven to the service of man, destined with its silent voice to control the destinies of nations, to raise up and destroy empires, to carry messages of woe to the afflicted, and tidings of glad joy to the rejoicing.
Two years after this event, French became the Chief Clerk of the House, but in 1847 lost re-election by a single vote. His interest in the telegraph, however, continued and he left public office to serve as the President of the first telegraph company in the United States, Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph Company.
Brown concludes his story saying:
For the next few years, [French] devoted himself exclusively to its interests, and it is largely owing to his energy, enterprise, and business tact, that this wonderful invention was raised from infancy to full manhood, and has spread itself across the face of the whole earth, across the towering mountains and under the swelling billows, bearing the whispers of man to man for thousands and thousands of miles.
French’s “maneuver” in the House and his later service as President of the Morse Magnetic Telegraph Company helped to bring about a communications revolution by the mid-nineteenth century. And by 1854, telegraph lines out-paced their railroad counterparts with over 23,000 miles of wire in operation.