Sunday, May 24, 2009

This Day in Scientific History (Racist and Nativist Invents Telegraph)

May 24, 1844--“What hath God wrought” was the message sent by Samuel F.B. Morse in his landmark public demonstration of the telegraph.

But the Biblical verse (Numbers xxiii., 23) also hinted at the religious creed that led the painter-turned-inventor to justify slavery and racism—and, just as bad, to become of the most influential proponents of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fears that inflamed antebellum America.

The story of the telegraph—in the analogy of a recent historian, the 19th-century equivalent of the Internet in the communications revolution it inaugurated—and its inventor has been oft-told, chiefly as a triumph of perseverance (12 years from conception to demonstrated, followed by another decade before the Supreme Court validated Morse’s patent claim).

Those with a slightly more-than-passing interest have taken note of Morse’s ups-and-downs as a painter before he began to pursue, with impressive doggedness, his technological breakthrough.

The men who advance the world through science and technology, however, are far more numerous than those who, like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and John Hume, offer a different vision of tolerance.

Seen in this perspective, Morse did far worse than think according to the precepts of his time—he helped begin a regression from the ideals of America’s founding fathers, not to mention the rich, live-and-let-live commercial tolerance of New York City itself.

Morse had heard his father, a Calvinist minister, rail against Catholics and Unitarians, but even his father was an ardent abolitionist. Morse was not.

As for Morse’s anti-Catholicism, it was a product of genetics as much as of bitter personal experience. His brother offered him a newspaper forum for his ideas. But Morse’s views took on its tone of obsessiveness after he was struck by a soldier for not kneeling when the pope’s carriage passed on the street in Rome.

From then on, over the next three decads, Morse released such titles as Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1835); Eminent Dangers to the Free institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration, and the Present State of the Naturalization Laws, by an American," originally contributed to the Journal of Commerce in 1835, and published anonymously in 1854; Confessions of a French Catholic Priest, to which are added Warnings to the People of the United States, by the same Author (edited and published with an introduction, 1837); and Our Liberties defended, the Question discussed, Is the Protestant or Papal System most Favorable to Civil and Religious Liberty? (1841).

Morse would have been annoyed had he known that his telegraph system would provide significant employment to many young Catholics and Irish, and that the latter two groups would spearhead the rise of the labor movement in the U.S., , including, starting in the 1860s, the Telegraphers’ Protective League, the Brotherhood of Telegraphers of the United States and Canada, the Order of Railway Telegraphers, and the Commercial Telegraphers’ Union of America.

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