Communicating by Wire: The Invention of the Telegraph

Communicating by Wire: The Invention of the Telegraph
Dolley Madison: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


The 19th century was an exciting time in the history of inventions – the steam locomotive, the first electric light, the stethoscope, the typewriter, and, perhaps most exciting of all because it enabled people to communicate with one another very quickly, long before the telephone was developed.  Dolley Madison was the first private citizen to transmit a message by telegraph, an honor given her by its inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse.


Students who participate in this lesson will develop an understanding of the process by which inventions come to be, especially the degree to which nearly all inventions are proceeded by ideas and experiments undertaken by people who make their contributions often years before the actual invention is credited to a single person.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; long strips of paper and art materials, or access to PowerPoint.


1.  Introduce the lesson by asking if anyone in the class has a cell phone, or has used a cell phone. (Depending upon the age of the students, there should be some response from some students.)  Tell students that almost all inventions have a history and that they will be exploring the development of a precursor of the cell phone – the telegraph, a communication devise that communicated by wire.

2. Divide the class into groups of four or five students.  In these groups, students will take the following roles:
·         An investigator – searches the articles for data
·         A recorder – writes down the data in chronological order
·         A fact checker – checks the articles to see that the investigator and recorder are accurate
·         A timeline creator – take the data and enters it on a timeline
·         An editor (this role is dispensable if there are not five people in a group) 

3.  Give all the investigators access to computers and ask each to look at each of the first three websites listed below.  Or, print out the articles and give copies of each to each group. Members of each group should then compile, check, write down, and edit all the people and events that had something to do with the ultimate invention of the telegraph by Samuel F. B. Morse.

4. When the research is complete, each group should compare their lists to make sure that all people and events are in evidence.  Each group can then enter their data on a long strip of paper (decorated as they will), or in a PowerPoint presentation, or on a computer-generated timeline (see How to Make a Timeline, below).

5. As a final element of the lesson, ask the whole class to discuss what surprised them the most about what they learned from their research, and how they think today’s cell phone is similar to and different from the telegraph.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson may be extended by having the class spend some time learning about (and maybe even learning) Morse Code.  Several sites (below) will enable them to see, hear, and translate from English to Morse Code and back again.

Sources & Resources:


Alter, Judy. Samuel F. B. Morse: Inventor and Code Creator. Child’s World, 2003.
Barasch, Lynne. Radio Rescue. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2000.

Inventing the Telegraph 

The History of the Telegraph 

The Birth of the Telegraph 
International Morse Code Chart 

See and Hear Morse Code (video) 

Morse Code Translator

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University