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The Story Of The Telegraph And The Steamboat


Chapter 23
Page 239

It will always be a source of commendable pride to the people of New Jersey, that their State was never backward in the political, social, or mechanical progress of this country. In fact, several of the most important steps in great movements for popular good have been made upon the soil of the State.

Among the claims to preŽminence which New Jersey can make in this respect is the claim that the first telegraphic message that was ever transmitted through a wire was sent at the Iron Works at Speedwell, near Morristown, at which place Professor Morse and Mr. Vail, son of the proprietor of the works, were making experiments with the telegraph. The first public message was sent more than six years later from Washington to Baltimore; but the message at Speedwell stands first, in the point of priority, of all the dispatches by magnetic telegraph which the world has known.

When Professor Morse conceived the idea of communicating between distant points by means of electricity, he was not able to carry out experiments for himself, and having made the acquaintance of Alfred Vail, son of the proprietor of the Iron Works at Speed

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well, he gave up his business as a portrait painter and went to Speedwell, where he and Mr. Vail worked hard in experimenting with the new invention. At last, when they thought they had brought it to such a point that they could make practical use of it, they determined to try to send a message through three miles of wire. If that could be done, they believed they could send one to any distance desirable.

Currents of electricity had been sent through long lengths of wire by Mr. Morse in previous experiments, but in these cases nothing more was attempted than signals; no words or message had been sent, and the proposed experiment, therefore, was of great importance. Its success or failure meant success or failure to the magnetic telegraph.

The upper story of a house on the grounds of the Iron Works was one very large room, and round the walls of this they stretched their three miles of wire, until the room was encircled by lines of wire, one above another, but nowhere touching. At one end of this wire was placed a telegraphic instrument, and at the other, another; and with great anxiety, although with strong faith in the success of their work, Mr. Vail sent to Mr. Morse the first real telegraphic message, which ran thus: "A patient waiter is no loser."

The house in which this first message was sent is still standing, near the Whippany River, not far out of Morristown. Alfred Vail and Mr. Morse, assisted by the advice of Professor Joseph Henry, superintendent of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, continued to work upon the telegraph at Speedwell; and

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as Mr. Vail furnished the capital, and did a great deal of the most important mechanical work, a large portion of the credit for this wonderful invention is due to him; and the whole system of telegraphy which now encircles and animates the world may be said to have sprung from the Iron Works near Morristown.

Another great invention, as important as the telegraph, made its first appearance before the world in New Jersey. In the frozen waters about the North Pole, on the rivers of Africa, in the seas of China and Japan, on the stormy ocean about Cape Horn, and in almost all navigable waters of the world, are steamboats and steamships,-floating palaces on rivers and lakes, steam yachts and great Atlantic liners, swift war cruisers and line-of-battle ships like floating forts of iron and steel; but the first vessel which was ever propelled by steam paddled its way along the Delaware River, and was made in New Jersey.

In 1787 John Fitch, who was a native of Connecticut, but who lived at that time in Trenton, N.J., where he had been a clock maker and manufacturer of arms, constructed a boat which was moved through the water by means of a steam engine on board. He had long been working on this invention, making experiments, and endeavoring to obtain assistance from people with money. He had applied to Congress to give him the exclusive right to the great results of his work if he should be successful; but this aid was refused.

New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, however, gave him the right for fourteen years to propel vessels upon the waters of those States; and thus encouraged

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he built the first steamboat. This little vessel was imperfect in many ways, and its highest speed was four miles an hour; but still it was a steamboat, and it was the first that man had ever seen. Of course, it attracted a good deal of attention; and after it had been proved that it could move without sails or oars, and that it was not dangerous, people began to believe in it, and a steamboat company was organized by Fitch. Another boat was built, which carried passengers who paid their fare, and afterwards a larger boat was constructed, in the hope that a good passenger traffic might be established.

We cannot wonder that there should have been a desire among enterprising people to establish some better method of transportation in travel than existed in the early days of New Jersey. At first the only roads in the State were narrow paths, sometimes more than fifty miles long, but only wide enough for the easy passage of a man on horseback. After that, better roads gradually came into use; and in the beginning of the eighteenth century there was a "stage wagon," intended for the carriage of merchandise, not passengers, which made a trip every two weeks from Perth Amboy to Philadelphia. This was considered as a great public convenience; because, before that, there

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was no regular method of shipping merchandise from New York to Philadelphia, except by sea.

After a time, stage wagons, which carried passengers, began to run in some parts of New Jersey; and in 1750 a grand stage line was established, intended especially for the transportation of travelers. In an advertisement the proprietor of this line announced to all persons "who have occasion to transport themselves, goods, stores, or merchandise from New York to Philadelphia," that he would take them in "forty-eight hours less than by any other line," and he promised to "use the people in the best manner." It is stated that this trip by land and water between New York and Philadelphia lasted seven or eight days, although it now seems almost impossible to travel so slowly.

Sixteen years afterward, a new and improved line of stage wagons was established, which were faster and very much more comfortable than any which had yet been known. They were actually mounted on springs, and it was promised that the trip would be made in two days in summer, and three days in winter. These stagecoaches were so much swifter than anything else of the kind ever known in the State, that they were called "flying machines."

Fifteen years afterward, the price of conveyance between New York and Philadelphia on one of these "flying machines" was forty shillings in gold or silver for each passenger, and as much for each hundred and fifty pounds of baggage.

The mail facilities in those days were as poor as the methods for transportation; and we can get an

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idea of the postal arrangements from an extract from a New York paper published in 1704, which states, "In the pleasant month of May, the last storm put our Pennsylvania post a week behind, and has not yet com'd in." But although this was rather slow communication, New Jersey was better off than many of the civilized communities of the day; for she had a regular postal system, which had been invented by Colonel John Hamilton.

Colonel Hamilton's system was considered so good, that the British Government gave him a patent for it, and adopted it for the mother country, it being considered much better than the system then in use. The mails were generally carried in canvas bags by men on horseback; and this method of transportation was known as the "express" as a horse and his rider could go much more rapidly than even the best "flying machines." Mail service in New Jersey greatly improved before the end of the century.

But it was very hard to persuade the public to encourage Fitch's new enterprise, even although it promised cheaper and more rapid transportation than any methods in use; and of course it was still harder, from the fact that the new steamboats had not yet gone faster than a sailing vessel with a good breeze. And so, notwithstanding the value of a system of navigation by which vessels could be made to move whether there was a breeze or not, and in any direction no matter how the wind was blowing, there was very little support to the new steamboat, and the enterprise was so unprofitable that it was given up.

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Nearly ten years after Fitch's largest steamboat had been sold as a piece of useless property, Robert Fulton made a steamboat which ran on the Hudson River at the rate of five miles an hour; and after this the practicability of steam navigation began to be slowly acknowledged. But the waters of New Jersey were the first which were ever ruffled by the paddles of a steamboat.

New Jersey has another claim to distinction in connection with steam navigation, for at the Speedwell Iron Works were manufactured some of the larger portions of the machinery of the "Savannah," the first steamship which ever crossed the ocean.

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