“What hath God Wrought” — Large Cent Coin

Today, the Large Cent Coin remembers S. F. B. Morse’s the first commercial message on his telegraph system between Washington, DC and Baltimore on May 24, 1844 and the celebration 100 years later commemorating the historical event.

From the Railway Age of June 3, 1944:


On May 24, the centennial of the Morse telegraph was celebrated in Washington, D. C, and Baltimore, Md., by reenacting the scene of May 24, 1844, when the first message, “What Hath God Wrought,” was sent by telegraph between the Chamber of the Supreme Court in the Capitol at Washington, and an office in the Baltimore & Ohio station in Baltimore.

E. E. Norris, president of the Southern, was at the key on May 24, when the sending of the message to Baltimore was reenacted; and the message was received by R. B. White, president of the Baltimore & Ohio, and formerly president of the Western Union Telegraph Company.

Six former telegraphers, who are now senators or congressmen, also sent messages, as was briefly noted in last week’s Railway Age.

The ceremonies at Baltimore included the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the Mt. Clare station of the B. & O., and an exhibit of historical and modern rolling stock there.

A “Liberty” ship was also launched at the Baltimore shipyards, christened “Samuel F. B. Morse” by Leila Livingston Morse, his granddaughter.

On the evening of May 24, a dinner was held at the Hotel Statler, Washington, which was presided over by A. N. Williams, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company.

Mr. Williams read a message from President Roosevelt, which stated: “The invention of the telegraph gave to all mankind the means with which to conquer space and time in the transmission of information from one corner of the globe to another. During the century which followed, electrical communication has served to bring all of the peoples of the world increasingly close to each other.”

Jesse H. Jones, secretary of commerce; James L. Fly, chairman, Federal Communications Commission; Major General Harry C. Ingles, chief of the Army Signal Corps; and Rear Admiral Joseph R. Redman, chief of Navy communications, outlined the part that the telegraph and electrical communication in general have played in war and peacetime pursuits.

President White, of the Baltimore & Ohio, spoke as follows at the dinner: “Most of you know that Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, never had sufficient funds of his own to perfect his invention or prove its worth. The father of his intimate friend, Alfred Vail, advanced enough to enable him to make working models, but Morse had to struggle for about five years with Congress before the $30,000 grant was made to enable him to make a convincing demonstration. Even with this sizable sum assured, it was not enough to buy a right-of-way for the wire line. The B. & O. was then the only railroad running into Washington. Morse had frequently ridden over it and knew that it was an ideal right-of-way for his circuits.

“Fortunately its president, Louis McLane, was a man of wide experience in world affairs. Previous to becoming president of the B. & O., he had been United States Minister to England, Secretary of State and also Secretary of the Treasury. When Morse asked for the franchise, McLane urged his board of directors to grant it, and this was done, with proper provisions to safeguard the railroad and give it the privilege of free communication over the line so long as it did not interfere with commercial telegraph business. The B. & O. also co-operated in other ways, such as the granting of travel rights on its trains for Morse and his workers, at low rates.

“With Ezra Cornell, later founder of Cornell University, helping him with the engineering, Morse started laying his line from Baltimore. The first method was to put the telegraph wire in a lead pipe and lay it in a trench 20 in. deep and 2 in. wide. The trench was dug with a plow especially built at the Mt. Clare shop of the B. & O. in Baltimore, and the plow was hauled by 20 oxen. Nines miles out from Baltimore at the old horse car Relay House of the B. & O. where Morse and some of his companions were quartered, the insulation of the wires failed and Morse found that he would have to adopt the overhead wire system. So, instead of being buried in the roadbed of the B. & O, the wires were strung along its right of way over which they carried the prophetic first message, ‘What Hath God Wrought!’

“The somewhat coincidental co-operation of the ‘magnetic telegraph line,’ as the Washington-Baltimore line was then called, and of the B. & O., developed by force of circumstances and logic into perhaps the closest tie-up ever made by any two great industries. For from the precedent established in 1844 grew the historic co-ordination of telegraph and railroad. It as a happy circumstance. Each industry complements the other and strengthens it. For many years the railroads handled a large part of the telegraph’s commercial operation. Thousands of railroad employees have also worked at the same time for the telegraph.

“The B. & O. was identified importantly with the telegraph in another way. In the early Eighties the Baltimore & Ohio Telegraph Company, which was owned by this railroad, had about 50,000 miles of land line, and owned lines running from Boston in the east to Galveston in the southwest, with interlacing lines covering a large part of the United States east of the Rockies. This vast network later became an important part of the lines comprising the system now operated by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Other railroads also had extensive ownership of the commercial telegraph companies. Gradually the railroads gave up the commercial telegraph business, but to this day the historic paralleling of the railroad by the first telegraph line is followed over thousands of miles of railroad in this country, which, incidentally, possesses about two-thirds of all the telegraph lines in the world.

“During the Century of the Telegraph, the railroads have provided a fertile field for research and technical development in the art of electric communication. In fact, the whole system of railroad operation as we know it today was developed around the telegraph, where it continues to function importantly in the movement of traffic.

“Hand in hand, the telegraph and the railroads have come down through the last century, and judging from present day indications, the railroads will continue to be a prime proving ground for new developments in communications. For the basis of good railroad operation is information, and the basis of good information is speedy communication.”


The Large Cent Coin shows with an image of one of the machines over which the first telegraph message was sent.

Large Cent Coin