Samuel Morse

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The first live media coverage of an American Presidential inauguration occurred in 1845 when James Polk’s swearing-in process was reported on in real-time by Samuel Morse, who brought his telegraphic equipment to Washington D.C. From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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An 1895 chart of phrenology.

Over at Edge, economist Richard Thaler asked the science site’s contributors for responses to this question: “The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?”

I think philosopher Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán had the most intriguing and humane answer:

“Phrenology and lobotomy. Even when these were not scientific paradigms, they clearly illustrate how science affects people’s life and morality. For those not engaged in the scientific work, it is easy to forget that technology, and a great part of the western contemporary culture, results from science. However, people tend to interpret scientific principles and findings as strange matters that have nothing to do with everyday life, from gravity and evolution, to physics and pharmacology.

Phrenology is defined as the ‘scientific’ relation between the skull’s shape and behavioral traits. It was applied to understand, for example, the reason for the genius of Professor Samuel B. F. Morse. However, it was also applied in prisons and asylums to explicate and predict criminal behaviors. In fact, it was also assumed that the skull’s shape explained incapacities to act according to the law. If you were spending your life in an asylum or a prison in 19th century because of a phrenological ‘proof’ or ‘argument,’ you could perfectly understand how important science in your life is, even if you are not a scientist. Even more, if you were going to be a lobotomy’s patient in the past century.

In 1949, Antonio Egas Moniz achieved the Nobel Prize of Physiology and Medicine for discovering the great therapeutic value of lobotomy, a surgical procedure that, in its transorbital versions, consisted of introducing an ice pick through the eye’s orbit to disconnect the prefrontal cortex. Thousands of lobotomies were performed between the decade of 1940’s and the first years of 1960’s, including Rosemary Kennedy, sister of President John F. Kennedy, on the list of recipients; all of them with the scientific seal of a Nobel Prize. Today, half a century later, it seems unthinkable to apply such a ‘scientific’ therapy. I keep asking myself: ‘what if’ a mistake like this one is adopted today as policy on public health?

Science affects people’s lives directly. A scientific mistake can send you to jail or break your brain into pieces. It also seems to affect the kinds of moral stances that we adopt. Today, it would be morally reprehensible to send someone to jail because of the shape of his head, or to perform a lobotomy. However, 50 or 100 years ago it was morally acceptable. This is why we should spend more time thinking of practical issues, like scientific principles, scientific models and scientific predictions as a basis for public health and policy decisions, rather than guessing about what is right or wrong according to god’s mind or the unsubstantiated beliefs presented by special interest groups.”

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I briefly got my hands on a hardback copy of Allen C. Thomas’ 1900 primary-school book, An Elementary History of the United States, which covers the years from pre-Columbus times to the eve of the 20th-century. Thomas was a history professor at Haverford College. This book was owned in 1919 by a child named Bruce Alexander, who drew a red mustache on the illustration of George Washington.

One of the later chapters, entitled “Inventions,” recalls how Samuel Morse helped create the telegraph during the 1830s and 1840s. An excerpt:

“Morse at once saw that messages could be sent at great distances if wires were properly arranged. His invention was very simple, and there was very little about it that was original. After it was described, it seemed strange that scientific men had not thought of his method before.

"Samuel F.B. Morse, an American artist, became much interested in electricity and magnetism."

Morse, like almost all inventors, had much to contend with. He was poor, and had it not been for a young man named Alfred Vail, who persuaded his father to lend Morse some money, it is quite possible that there would have been failure after all.

Vail was an excellent mechanic, and helped very much in the construction of the instruments. He also secured for Morse a patent for the invention.

In order to bring his invention before the public, Morse asked Congress, at Washington, to give thirty thousand dollars, to be used in constructing a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, a distance of forty miles. Some members of Congress made all manner of sport of Morse’s project. One member proposed that the money should be spent in making a railroad to the moon.

There seemed little prospect that the bill granting the money would be passed. The story is told that Morse, weary and heart-sick, sat hour after hour in the gallery of the Senate Chamber, waiting for the bill to come up before Congress adjourned. When evening came and there seemed no chance for its passage, he went to his hotel utterly discouraged, and prepared to leave for New York early the next day, as his money was exhausted.

Written on inside cover: "I have this day sold this book to my daddy dated Feb. 8th 1919. Bruce Alexander."

The next morning, while he was at breakfast, a young lady came in and said, ‘I congratulate you.’  ‘Upon what?’ said Morse, who was feeling rather blue. ‘On the passage of your bill.’ ‘Impossible.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘It was passed five minutes before the adjournment.’ ‘Well,’ said Morse, ‘you shall send the first message over the lines.’

The line was constructed with the money thus secured. When all was ready Morse kept his promise, and Miss Annie G. Ellsworth sent, at the suggestion of her mother, the words, ‘What hath God wrought!’ That was on May 25, 1844. It was not many years before there were telegraphs over all civilized lands.”

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