The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before Twitter and Facebook, there was Morse code: Remembering social media’s true inventor

Opera singer Ada Jones using Morse code in 1915. (Library of Congress archives)
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In late March of 2006, a college dropout named Jack Dorsey finished coding a site for Internet users to post 140-character messages.

It was called twttr.

Dorsey and his co-founders eventually added vowels to the service, forming Twitter. The name made total sense.

“The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’ and ‘chirps from birds,’ ” Dorsey said. “And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Internet histories record Dorsey’s first tweet as a pivotal moment in the rise of social media. They are wrong. The history of social media began almost two centuries earlier, on May 24, 1844, when Samuel F.B. Morse, a painter-turned-inventor, sent a message from Washington to Baltimore.

This is what that message would look like today, typed into the Twitter iPhone app:

Back then, Morse wasn’t typing with his thumbs but was instead tapping dots and dashes “on a device of cogs and coiled wires,” as one historian later put it. While the telegraph had been around in idea and rudimentary form, Morse devised a way to use electricity for sending a series of codes signaling letters of the alphabet.

Suddenly, the country began shrinking in ways that sound distinctly familiar.

“Telegraph operators could chat with each other by tapping on their keys,” the English journalist Tom Standage wrote in “Writing on the Wall: Social Media — the First 2,000 Years.” “All the operators along the line could hear everything that was transmitted and join in the unofficial banter, in effect occupying a single, shared chat room.”

There were early versions of OMG: “G M” meant “good morning,” “S F D,” meant “stop for dinner.” Standage writes that telegraphers played chess and checkers using Morse code, often becoming friends without ever meeting. “Romances between operators who met each other online were not unknown,” he wrote. “Such was the sense of online camaraderie that some operators in remote places preferred to commune with their friends on the wires than with the local people.”

Morse’s work foreshadowed our status update world. He is one of the most unlikely inventors in history.

Though he studied science at Yale, Morse didn’t see his future in a lab. He wanted to paint. “I am now released from college, and am attending to painting,” Morse wrote to his parents in 1810. “I still think that I was made for a painter.”

Portraits were his thing. “My price for profiles is one dollar,” he told his parents, “and everybody is willing to engage me at that price.” And he was seriously talented, later painting noted portraits of presidents John Adams and James Monroe, inventor Eli Whitney, and even Marquis de Lafayette, the American Revolutionary War icon.

The mother who made George Washington — and made him miserable

Morse was in Washington painting Lafayette in the winter of 1835 when a letter arrived from his father — via horse — saying that his beloved wife Lucretia was ill. The couple had three children. “My whole soul,” Morse once wrote, was “wrapped up in her,” how she “connected all that I expected of happiness on earth.”

A day later his father wrote again:

Mysterious are the ways of Providence. My heart is in pain and deeply sorrowful, while I announce to you the sudden and unexpected death of your dear and deservedly-loved wife. Her disease proved to be an affection of the heart. … She was up about five o’clock yesterday afternoon, to have her bed made, as usual; was unusually cheerful and social; spoke of the pleasure of being with her dear husband in New York, ere long; stepped into bed herself; fell back, with a momentary struggle, on her pillow; her eyes were immediately fixed, the paleness of death overspread her countenance, and in five minutes more, without the slightest motion, her mortal life terminated.

Lucretia was buried before Morse could arrive home by stagecoach. He was shattered. “If I had desired any thing in my dear L. different from what she was, it would have been that she had been less lovely,” he wrote to a friend. “I now feel this void, this desolateness, this loneliness, this heart-sickness.”

His heart broken, Morse went on with his painting career, lamenting how he wasn’t able to learn of Lucretia’s illness until she was dead.

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In 1832, after a painting trip to Europe, Morse returned home by ship, stumbling into a conversation with passengers about Michael Faraday’s electromagnet. If there was one academic subject that interested him at Yale, it was math. “When Morse came to understand how the electromagnet worked, he speculated that it might be possible to send a coded message over a wire,” according to a Library of Congress history. Morse began experimenting with batteries and wires, but quickly realized his painting career had not prepared him to tinker with electricity.

He sought help at University of the City of New York from chemistry professor Leonard D. Gale. It would take them nearly a decade to perfect the technology, which spread rapidly across the country and then to Europe, for use in wars, business, newspapers and so much else before being replaced by telephones, fax machines, computers and Myspace, Facebook, Friendster, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and … well, ask your teenager what else.

Back then, not everyone admired the new form of communication, especially the way Morse code allowed random observations or meaningless thoughts to be quickly shared widely. Standage noted a journalist’s complaint from an 1891 issue of Atlantic Monthly.

“America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence,” the complaint went. “The effect is disastrous, and affects the whole range of our mental activities. We develop hurry into a deliberate system … the pursuit of novelties and sensations into the normal business of life.”

Heavy stuff.

But by historical comparison, they were lucky.

They didn’t have to live in a world with this:

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