In 1843 Benjamin Brown French was introduced to the new wonder of communications technology — the telegraph — by his friend F.O.J. Smith, a business associate of Samuel F.B. Morse.
The genius Morse not only invented the new machine, but he also developed the character coding system that would be used to interpret the signals transmitted by the instrument (which became known, of course, as Morse Code).
The three men had something in common, as they each had personal connections to New Hampshire. Benjamin was a native of Chester, and Smith had been born in Brentwood. Morse had traveled the state in 1816-1817 as a young itinerant portrait painter, and during a stay in Concord had met and fallen in love with Lucretia Walker, who would become his wife.
Funded by an appropriation of $30,000 authorized by the U.S. Congress, the first telegraph line in America was laid out between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore (a distance of 38 miles). The line was nearly finished when the Whig Party National Convention was held in Baltimore on May 1, 1844. To test the line a message was sent that day to the Capitol Building in Washington announcing that Henry Clay of Kentucky had been selected as the party’s presidential nominee.
The first official message upon the completion of the line was transmitted from Washington on May 24, 1844, by Samuel F. B. Morse himself, “What hath God wrought!”
The results of the Democratic Party National Convention held in Baltimore on May 27-29, 1844, including the nomination of James K. Polk of Tennessee as the party’s presidential candidate, was instantly conveyed to Washington via telegraph.
A journalist for the Buffalo (N.Y.) Gazette newspaper wrote on May 28, “The successful operation of Professor Morse’s Electro-Telegraph is calling attention to the importance of this means of rapid communication in every branch of commercial, political or other matters. By the operation of this instrument, time and space are in fact annihilated. … This ‘almost work of magic’ is accomplished through the workings of that mysterious agent, electricity.”
In 1845 Morse and his investors and associates founded the Magnetic Telegraph Company to begin bringing this promising technology to other American cities. French, who that year was elected Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, became a stockholder and a trustee of the corporation. In the coming years this pioneering company would build and operate telegraph lines connecting New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Buffalo — and would venture westward toward the Mississippi River.
After he lost his position as clerk due to a political upheaval in the House in early December 1847, French began devoting more of his time and energy to the telegraph company. The business had its difficulties, as this was an entirely new type of enterprise, which faced technological, legal, and even political challenges.
French was elected president of the corporation in mid-1848 when he was 47 years old, and for the next two years he was actively engaged in overseeing its expansion. He traveled around the country examining and evaluating potential routes for extending the telegraph lines and even occasionally participated in the hard physical work of laying the lines.
At the annual meeting of the Magnetic Telegraph Company held on July 11, 1850, French was removed as president. He was mystified and distressed at this unexpected turn of events. He expressed in his personal journal that he had done all he could to make the company profitable and respectable, and “as a reward for all … the Stockholders refused to reelect me … I never had anything which cut me to the very quick as that refusal of those who placed me in that very office did! I was deserted by those I deemed my friends, men whom I would have gone to any length to serve.”
After this experience, French “made up his mind to be independent,” and opened his own office in Washington, where he took on clients in need of a business agent and attorney. He now found more time to spend with his dear wife Bess, including attending a concert by the celebrated soprano Jenny Lind, known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” when she visited Washington in December, 1851. French wrote, “We were delighted, of course…”