The Freemason and the Telegraph
In December 10, 1842, the House of Representatives approved Professor Samuel Morse’s $30,000 appropriation to develop the first inter-state telegraph system. The funds established the Baltimore-Washington Telegraph line, which planned to transmit information between the two cities in lighting speed. Morse successfully tested the line two years later and decided to publicly unveil the new technological feat. On May 24, 1844, in the packed chambers of the Supreme Court, Morse asked his operator to transmit his message “What hath God Wrought”, a biblical phrase from the Book of Numbers, to his fellow operator stationed in the Mount Claire railway in Baltimore. Several minutes later he received a confirmation of his receipt. With a series of strokes, Morse kicked off the telegraph age.
A critical contributor to Morse’s success was Benjamin B. French, a former Grand Master of Masons for the District of Columbia, who served as assistant clerk of the House during the fateful day in December when Congress appropriated Morse’s grant. French played such an integral role in the early adoption of the telegraphs that his exploits where even included as part of his memorial published in the proceedings of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons.
Excerpt from a Memorial Speech on the Life of B. B. French by Joseph T. Brown:
In fact, I may say, that the birth of this mighty enterprise [the telegraph] is to a great extended due to [French’s] active labors in its behalf. In a conversation, only a few days before his death, I incidentally remarked his connection with the infancy of Professor Morse’s great invention, and he then related the manner in which the enterprise was first inaugurated. He said that while the bill was pending in the House -- he being Assistant Clerk at the time -- his efforts in its behalf were earnestly olicited by Professor Morse and his friends. He examined carefully into the merits of the scheme, and became convinced of its feasibility and utility. But how to get it through the House was the question. Congress was then suffering with one of its periodical attacks of economy, and days of the session were drawing to a close, business was pressing, and the members almost universally regarded the enterprise as chimerical. Brother French, however, moved by the anxiety of Professor Morse, determined to undertake this almost hopeless task. He approached the members but could find no favor from them. Finally he laid the matter before the Speaker, and told him the bill must pass. “Surely, Mr. French, you do not believe in such chimerical nonsense,” was the response. “Surely I do,” was the reply, “and you and I will live to see these lines stretching all over the world. I tell you, Mr. Speaker, we must pass this bill through.” “Well,” said the Speaker, “I don’t believe in it, but to do you a favor, we will try. You, as assistant clerk, have charge of the table. I will call on you today for miscellaneous and unimportant bills, and in a moment of confusion, when the members have become accustomed to voting ‘aye,’ you slip in this, only don’t call the title too loud, and I will try to put it through without observation.” The ruse was successful. The bill was strategically introduced in a moment of extreme confusion and passed by an almost unanimous vote. Thus, by the efforts of one true man, of a vision of a little more extensive than ordinary, was an enterprise inaugurated, compelling the lightings of heaven to the service of man, destined with its silent voice to control the destinies of nations, to raise up and destroy empires, to carry messages of woe to the afflicted, and tidings of glad joy to the rejoicing.
With some quick thinking and help from the Speaker of the House, French was able to quietly sneak More’s request into appropriations. The event highlights an interesting moment in the history of the United States, as many members of Congress doubted the utility or necessity of a telegraphic system.
Two years after this event, French became the Chief Clerk of the House but in 1847 lost re-election by a single vote. His interest in the telegraph unwavered and he left public office to serve as the President of the first telegraph company in the United States, Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph Company.
“For the next few years,” Brown notes in the proceedings, “[French] devoted himself exclusively to its interests, and it is largely owing to his energy, enterprise, and business tact, that this wonderful invention was raised from infancy to full manhood, and has spread itself across the face of the whole earth, across the towering mountains and under the swelling billows, bearing the whispers of man to man for thousands and thousands of miles.” French’s “maneuver” in the House and his later service as President of the MTC helped to bring about a communications revolution by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1854, telegraph lines out-paced their railroad counterparts with over 23,000 miles of wire in operation