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Displaying the American genius: the electromagnetic telegraph in the wider world

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2001

National Museum of American History, Washington, DC 20560, USA


Shortly after he made a working model of his electromagnetic telegraph in 1837, Samuel F. B. Morse and his associates began an intense initiative to publicize and market it to the world. At first, using the social skills he had learned during his years as a portrait painter, Morse strove to gain the support of the upper classes in Europe. He and his agents saw the physical seats of institutions such as palaces and academy lecture halls as the most desirable settings for public demonstrations of the apparatus. To win public support back at home, they made a point of politicizing the invention by presenting it as an example of American mechanical ingenuity. Their efforts to market the invention were not confined to the United States, Britain and France, but included the rest of Europe and the Near and Far East as well. The telegraph promoters, presuming an oriental fascination with magic, endeavoured to exploit potential markets in the East, particularly the Ottoman Empire and Japan, by making the most of its wondrous effects. The Sultan's palace provided a most exotic setting for display of the electromagnetic telegraph.

Research Article
© 2001 British Society for the History of Science

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I am grateful to Roger Sherman whose generous readings and comments helped shape this paper, and to Bernard Finn for hosting me and giving invaluable help. I greatly benefited from the comments of two anonymous referees, and of John Staudenmaier, Ben Marsden, Jeffrey Stine, Marc Rothenberg and David Roberts. I thank Keiko Inoue, Ikuko Turner, Marjorie Strong, Agnes Sherman, Mara Miniati, Suzanne McLaughlin, Stephanie Thomas, Christopher Murphy and Elliot Sivowitch for their help. My research for this paper was made possible by the Smithsonian postdoctoral fellowship programme. For their generous assistance I thank the librarians and archivists, in particular at the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, United States National Archives and the Naval Historical Foundation in Washington DC; the Communications Museum and Historiographical Institute in Tokyo; the Ottoman Archives (Başbakanlık Arşivi) and Robert College in Istanbul; the Institute and the Museum of History of Science in Florence; and the Vermont Historical Society and Princeton University Library.