The Debunker: Was “What Hath God Wrought?” the First Message Sent by Telegraph?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets… all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Was “What Hath God Wrought?” the First Message Sent by Telegraph?

Samuel Morse’s invention of the single-wire telegraph in 1838 was the watershed event in mass communications that eventually led to today’s information-saturated world. On May 24, 1844, Morse sat in the Supreme Court room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, surrounded by curious members of Congress. He carefully tapped out, in his namesake code of dots and dashes, the short sentence “What hath God wrought?”, a quote from Numbers 23:23 which a family friend had suggested. Forty miles north, in Baltimore, Morse’s assistant Alfred Vail (the unsung hero of the telegraph’s invention) waited at a train station. The large pendulum of the telegraph receiver began to swing, marking Morse’s sentence onto a piece of paper.

“What hath God wrought?” has entered the popular imagination as the very first historic telegraph message, along the lines of Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Historic? Yes. First? Obviously not. If you were Samuel Morse, would you have tried the machine for the first time with members of Congress watching? He and Vail had first tested the Baltimore-Washington line three weeks before. Their first telegraph had contained the news of Henry Clay’s nomination as the Whig candidate for president.

So the Henry Clay news flash was the first message sent along the first commercial telegraph line. But it wasn’t the first telegraph message. Six years before, Vail had demonstrated a prototype telegraph for Morse in his Morristown, New Jersey workshop. Vail’s father, a county judge, wrote down a message on a slip of paper, which Vail sent, as a string of numbers, through two miles of wire around the Speedwell Iron Works. So what was the first historic sentence really? “A patient waiter is no loser.” Wow. Wise, wise words.

Quick Quiz: Since the original Morse Code had no way of transmitting punctuation, what word was used in telegraphs to indicate the end of a sentence?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.