Monday, April 27, 2009, marks the 218th anniversary of the birth of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. Samuel Morse’s birthday should be a reminder to us that simple can be powerful. The invention of the telegraph had profound effects on the history of the United States and the entire world. Yet the telegraph is a simple device basically comprising three parts: an electric current, a “key” for completing or breaking an electrical circuit, and an electromagnet. See, e.g., History, Theory, & Construction Of The “Electric Telegraph.”
The history of the telegraph should also be a reminder to new entrepreneurs that simple is not always simple. While Samuel Morse obtained a U.S. patent for his telegraph, it was challenged and generally ignored. Morse wrote of defending his patent:
“I have been so constantly under the necessity of watching the movements of the most unprincipled set of pirates I have ever known, that all my time has been occupied in defense, in putting evidence into something like legal shape that I am the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph!! Would you have believed it ten years ago that a question could be raised on that subject?”
See Wikipedia Biography of Samuel Morse. In fact, Morse defended his telegraph patent before the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in 1854 that the eighth claim was invalid as being overly broad. However, the first seven claims of Morse’s telegraph patent were upheld. See, e.g., Presentation by Richard Nydegger.
Furthermore, while the public generally recognizes Samuel Morse as the inventor of the telegraph, that title is not without controversy. See, e.g., The Telegraph Invention: A Claim That It Was Due To Alfred Vail Rather Than To Morse. See also The History of the Electric Telegraph and Telegraphy.
Nonetheless, whether Samuel Morse was the actual inventor of the telegraph or not, he played a primary role in the commercialization of the electric telegraph in the U.S. and in 1851 his telegraph apparatus was adopted as the official standard for European telegraphy.
What to remember? Simple inventions can be powerful, but commercializing and defending any valuable invention can be a challenge.