Telegraphs, Controversy, and the Board of Regents

Board of Regents minutes - First Annual Meeting, by Lisa Fthenakis, 2014, Record Unit 1 - Smithsonia This fall I have been working on cleaning, organizing, and creating catalog records for the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents Meeting Minutes (you can see the beautiful, new, clean records here).  While I know this doesn't sound like particularly exciting work, the minutes hold plenty of drama. Let me make my case before you stop reading.

Morse's Experimental Telegraph The Regents are the group of people, designated by Congress, who are responsible for administration of the Smithsonian.  In the early years I’ve been working on there were a lot of strong, differing opinions about what the institution should be – no surprise when you get the Vice-President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mayor of Washington, three Senators and three Representatives together in one room.  There were arguments over building the Smithsonian Institution Building, more commonly known as the Castle; whether to accept government collections (without which we might not have a museum, let alone nineteen); an embezzlement case; a resignation that sets off an investigation by Congress, lawsuits; firings; and contract disputes. It's safe to say that the first few years weren't dull. 

Samuel F. B. Morse, by Unknown, 1845, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 73-1504. The other day I came across yet another controversy that was new to me. On March 3, 1857, Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, mentions an article published by Prof. S. F. B. Morse, "containing charges against his moral character and his scientific reputation."  While not knowing what to make of this, I knew it must be serious because a committee formed to examine the issue. It turns out that Morse made some pretty serious claims: that Joseph Henry had lied under oath while giving testimony in a telegraph patent dispute.  How did Joseph Henry get mixed up in this? Well, he specialized in electromagnetics and invented the type of magnet used in Morse's telegraph. He was subpoenaed to testify for defendants in several patent infringement cases brought by Morse. (You can read more about it here)  This made Morse so angry, that he attacked Henry's research and reputation in an article that took up over ninety pages and entire edition of a magazine. The Board surveys the evidence – letters between Joseph Henry and Samuel Morse, from lawyers involved in the court case, and from other scientists involved in electromagnetism and telegraphy – and concludes that "Mr. Henry's deposition of 1849, which evidently furnished the motive for Mr. Morse's attack upon him, is strictly correct in all the historical details."  They further concluded "that Mr. Morse has failed to substantiate any one of the charges he has made against Professor Henry, although the burden of proof lay upon him; and that all the evidence, including the unbiased admissions of Mr. Morse himself, is on the other side. Mr. Morse's charges not only remain unproved but they are positively disproved." Good news for Joseph Henry, but a sad end to a professional relationship that began in friendly collaboration.

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