The American Leonardo and Sultan Abdülmecid I

Eleven years ago, Steve Jobs unveiled a gadget to the public he considered to be “a revolutionary product that changes everything” in his “uniform”— a pair of blue Levi jeans, grey New Balance sneakers, and a black mock turtleneck. Pretty much like the way iPhone revolutionized the mobile phone industry 11 years ago, the electromagnetic telegraph that was developed in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse (1791-1872) revolutionized long-distance communication.  

If it wasn’t for telegraph, Mark Twain could not have sent a telegram from London saying: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” after hearing that his obituary had accidentally been published in the US in 1897; nor American journalist Robert Benchley could not send his famously droll telegram to his editor at The New Yorker upon arriving in Venice for the first time. He sent: “Streets full of water. Please advise.” The shortest telegram is attributed to Oscar Wilde. The author cabled his publisher, asking about sales of a new novel. The message read: “?” And the publisher replied: “!” 

Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph. But he developed and commercialized it. Morse reduced that unwieldy bundle of wires into a single one. In addition to the telegraph, Samuel Morse developed a code (bearing his name) that assigned a set of dots and dashes to each letter of the English alphabet and allowed for the simple transmission of complex messages across telegraph lines. In 1844, Morse sent his first famous biblical message “What hath God wrought?” from the Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore; by 1866, a telegraph line had been laid across the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S. to Europe.  

Morse’s electromagnetic telegraph was revolutionary in the telegraph technology. He was a man of varied talents and diverse interests, like Renaissance men he admired during his studies and work as a painter in Europe. Morse was not only trained as a visual artist, he was also an early adopter of daguerreotype photography. 

Professor Morse

The development of the electric telegraph as the world’s first global telecommunications network, was realized through the work of Samuel Morse, Alfred Vail and Leonard Gale. It is believed that the idea of using electricity to communicate over distance have occurred to Morse during a conversation aboard ship when he was returning from Europe in 1832. Michael Faraday’s recently invented electromagnet was much discussed by the ship’s passengers, and when Morse came to understand how it worked, he speculated that it might be possible to send a coded message over a wire. Finally, with the help of his colleague at the University of the City of New York, Leonard D. Gale, and by hiring a young technician, Alfred Vail, he succeeded in developing his new system. In 1838, he conducted demonstrations of his telegraph both in New York and Washington. However, when the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837 took hold of the U.S. and caused a long economic depression lasting until the mid-1840s, Morse had to wait for better times. During this period, Morse visited Europe to secure patent protection overseas.(1)

It was the time when Professor Morse was at work upon of his telegraph in Paris, his associate, Mr. Chamberlain of Maine brought Morse’s demonstration to Istanbul hoping to obtain a patent from the Ottoman government. After finding that Cyrus Hamlin, an American Congregational missionary and educator, and the director of Bebek Seminary (which would later become Robert College), had a galvanic battery, Mr. Chamberlain set it up in his study. Hamlin’s seminary had attracted wide attention because of its science laboratory and his experiments with galvanic cells were of particular interest. Hamlin wrote: “The instrument had many faults of construction, and did not work with precision, nor with very satisfactory results. Instead of the steel point marking the paper, the pens for lining off paper were used, three of them, side by side.” Then it was agreed that Mr. Chamberlain would go on to Vienna, employ the best workmen to make an entirely new set of instruments, with various improvements and to return and see the Turkish government. Although, he departed with high hopes and enthusiasm, the boat was capsized in the rapids of the Danube, and Mr. Chamberlain, with five others, lost his life. Thus, the early attempt to introduce the telegraph into the Ottoman Empire ended up as a disappointment. 

It was 1847 when another attempt would be made. Prof. J. Lawrence Smith, an American chemist who was employed by the Ottoman government as a geologist, with the purpose of establishing a school of mines, ordered a set of instruments from the U.S., with the hope and expectation of establishing a telegraphic line from the capital to a neighboring city. Although some parts of the Morse’s invention were left out, they were supplied in the little seminary workshop. Hamlin, who was proud of presenting this American invention to Sultan Abdülmecid I, practiced the telegraph first in the seminary till he could send a telegram, as “it was gratifying to us all that an American gentleman, Prof. Smith, should have the honor of introducing it into Turkey, and of presenting it to the Sultan.” 

After three days of practice, the day of their presentation to the Sultan had arrived. Cyrus Hamlin felt a little unease as “it was a rare thing for unofficial persons to enter the sultan’s presence.” Mr. J. P. Brown, Secretary of the American Legation, accompanied them as interpreter. On arriving at Beylerbeyi Palace, which was then a timber waterside palace called also as “Yellow Palace” because of its color, they were received by the chamberlain and, in his reception room, awaited his majesty’s orders. Following the official welcome, Sultan Abdülmecid arrived. Hamlin described his first encounter with the Sultan as: “He was plainly and simply dressed, and intended that we should feel perfectly at ease. In a word, he had the bearing of a gentleman.” First he passed a few words of compliment to the American Legation’s Secretary, Mr. Brown, commended on Prof. Smith’s zeal in his service, inquired who Cyrus Hamlin was, and expressed his hope that Hamlin had found a pleasant residence in his capital.  

Prof. Smith then proceeded to show him the instruments, and explained to him the alphabet of signs. Hamlin noted: “The sultan readily apprehended its use” and remarked “It will apply to any language, and we shall have the advantage, as we have but twenty-two letters.”  

The Sultan was watching Prof. Smith’s arranging of the instruments with unflagging interest, and was asking him questions.  One telegraph station was at the upper end of the throne-room, the other in a corner room of the palace. While Smith and Hamlin were at work, he was often talking with Mr. Brown, and expressing great surprise at the American success on the battlefield against superior numbers during the Mexican-American War. Mr. Brown told him the Mexicans “were an ignorant people, and Papists, and they could never stand against educated Protestants.  

“Is that so?” said the Sultan, indicating his doubt or surprise with a Turkish phrase. And then he added: “If I could do anything for such a purpose, I should like to have a congress of nations to settle all international disputes, and man should never shed the blood of his fellow-man!”  

As the telegraph was set to send the first telegram from one room to the other, Mr. Brown asked the Sultan for a message, he gave—“Has the French steamer arrived? And what is the news from Europe?”  

Hamlin noted: “For a short time, he looked carefully at the work upon the key, and then went off in great strides to the other station, leaving his attendants far behind, determined that no one should be able to communicate with that before himself. As he entered, demanding what it was, Prof. Smith read off to him the same words he had just given. He threw up both arms, saying: 

“Mashallah! Mashallah!” 

Sultan Abdulmecid

The three left the palace, and the next day they would make the presentation in the presence of the high-level government officers. The audience was composed of Sheikh-ul-Islam, the Chief Justices of Roumelia and Anatolia, the Grand Vizier, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Ministers of War and of the Navy, and all the other dignitaries of the Sublime Porte. While the demonstration was progressing, “Evvet effendim” (Yes, my lord) was the reply of the whole body to every remark of the Sultan; each one bowing down and giving the salam of honor.  

The demonstration was a success; and after the Sublime Porte had departed, Prof. Smith, Mr. Brown, and Hamlin saluted the Sultan, and retired to a parlor below. Then the sultan sent his secretary to ask Prof. Smith how he should express his gratification. The reply had been agreed upon: “Whatever his majesty chose to do, let it be for Prof. Morse, the inventor.” Thus, an imperial Berat (certificate) was sent to Samuel Morse, and a decoration in diamonds (Nişan-ı İftihar), the first decoration which he received. “Many other potentates followed the Sultan’s example” Hamlin noted “and decorations and orders were showered upon him.”(2) 

Prof. Smith also received one decoration, but no telegraphic line was built. The pashas were united against the telegraph that would facilitate communication with the capital and they wanted no such tell-tale to report their doings every day, while in the distant interior. However, the first telegraph lines would be installed six years later, as the Crimean war made the telegraph a necessity and the telegraphic network developed rapidly in the Empire. 

Sultan Abdülmecid’s interest in the U.S. never faded. Six years later, he gifted a gilded marble tablet to be placed on the Washington Monument. In 1856, the Sultan expressed his great interest in the U.S. government’s camel experiment, which has contributed significantly to America’s westward expansion, by gifting six of his finest camels to the U.S. Army.  


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