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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.

irockash


quality posts: 3 Private Messages irockash

Stop!

Edit: But what was the exclamation point?

whatsamattaU


quality posts: 1070 Private Messages whatsamattaU
irockash wrote:Stop!

Edit: But what was the exclamation point?



From what I can tell, there was no exclamation point in Morse code, but I'm not the expert. However, interesting that Edison comes again (he's EVERYWHERE in inventions conversation).

dsmmrm


quality posts: 7 Private Messages dsmmrm
whatsamattaU wrote:From what I can tell, there was no exclamation point in Morse code, but I'm not the expert. However, interesting that Edison comes again (he's EVERYWHERE in inventions conversation).



Where is a reference to Edison?

afotycon


quality posts: 2 Private Messages afotycon
dsmmrm wrote:Where is a reference to Edison?



As Ken wrote, "What hath God wrought" is a quote from Numbers 23:23. 23 was the number Michael Jordan wore as a collegiate and professional basketball player. Michael Jordan played college basketball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC Chapel Hill is James K. Polk's alma mater. James K. Polk was nominated as a presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention which started on May 27, 1844, just 3 days after the telegraph was demonstrated to members of Congress, and was held in Baltimore, the same city where the message from the telegraph demonstration at the U.S. Capitol was received. The electrical telegraph was the preeminent way of transmitting communications over vast distances for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, typically using Morse code which encodes the Latin alphabet as a series of dots and dashes. "Dot" and "Dash" were the nicknames of Thomas Alva Edison's first two children, Marion Estelle and Thomas Alva, Jr.

Am I the only one who saw that?

whatsamattaU


quality posts: 1070 Private Messages whatsamattaU
afotycon wrote:As Ken wrote, "What hath God wrought" is a quote from Numbers 23:23. 23 was the number Michael Jordan wore as a collegiate and professional basketball player. Michael Jordan played college basketball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC Chapel Hill is James K. Polk's alma mater. James K. Polk was nominated as a presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention which started on May 27, 1844, just 3 days after the telegraph was demonstrated to members of Congress, and was held in Baltimore, the same city where the message from the telegraph demonstration at the U.S. Capitol was received. The electrical telegraph was the preeminent way of transmitting communications over vast distances for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, typically using Morse code which encodes the Latin alphabet as a series of dots and dashes. "Dot" and "Dash" were the nicknames of Thomas Alva Edison's first two children, Marion Estelle and Thomas Alva, Jr.

Am I the only one who saw that?



Edison was part of last week's and the week before's Debunker, too. Sorry if I'm too vague, but Edison was a tramp telegrapher:
"At 15, Al roamed the country as a "tramp telegrapher." Using a kind of alphabet called Morse Code, he sent and received messages over the telegraph. Even though he was already losing his hearing, he could still hear the clicks of the telegraph. In the next seven years he moved over a dozen times, often working all night, taking messages for trains and even for the Union Army during the Civil War. In his spare time, he took things apart to see how they worked. Finally, he decided to invent things himself."
http://www.nps.gov/edis/forkids/a-brief-biography-of-thomas-edison.htm
The dot and dash reference is included as well in the wikipedia reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison
Sorry for the confusion, not directly stated by Ken.

dhkendall


quality posts: 0 Private Messages dhkendall

So we've debunked the first telegraph message, we've mentioned the first words transmitted over the phone, but surprised there was no mention of the first message sent by the new popular communication: email.

Like the telegraph, the first email message, per http://www.cs.umd.edu/class/spring2002/cmsc434-0101/MUIseum/applications/firstemail.html was a test message ("something like QWERTYUIOP"). The first *real* email message was instructions on how to use email. Probably just as wise as "a patient waiter is no loser"

jqubed


quality posts: 7 Private Messages jqubed

Although Western Union is no longer sending telegrams, you can still send a telegram using American Telegram. I used them to cancel a contract once that had a short window for cancellation. It wasn't cheap, but it was cheaper than the contract or doing a same-day delivery of the paperwork cross-country. The only downside I saw was that my credit card company wouldn't distinguish between sending a telegram and sending a wire transfer and treated the cost of the telegram as a cash advance and charged the corresponding interest.

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