The phrase ‘What hath God wrought’ has an interesting origin and significance in American history. It was the first telegraph message transmitted by Samuel F.B. Morse on May 24, 1844, demonstrating the successful use of the telegraph for communication.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The phrase ‘What hath God wrought’ comes from the Bible and was used by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844 as the first message sent by telegraph.
It expressed amazement at the technology that allowed near-instant communication over long distances.
In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the biblical roots of the phrase, its use in Morse’s first telegraph message, and why it was an apt choice to convey the wonder of this new technology.
The Biblical Origins of ‘What Hath God Wrought’
The phrase comes from the King James Version of the Bible
The expression “What hath God wrought” originates from the King James Version of the Bible. It appears in Numbers 23:23, which reads “According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!”
The King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version, was published in 1611. It was commissioned by King James I of England and became the preeminent English translation of the Bible for centuries.
The eloquent language of the King James Bible had a profound influence on English literature and culture.
It appears in the Book of Numbers when the Israelites reach the Promised Land
In the Book of Numbers, the Israelites have fled captivity in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. As they finally approach the Promised Land, the Canaanite king Balak grows concerned and summons the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites.
However, each time Balaam attempts to curse Israel, he is compelled by God to bless them instead. After the third failed curse, Balaam utters the line “What hath God wrought!” He is astonished that the Israelites continue to receive God’s favor and protection.
This episode demonstrates God’s commitment to delivering the Israelites to the land He promised them. The phrase conveys a sense of wonder at how God’s will has prevailed despite obstacles.
The meaning in this context is awe and gratitude for God’s blessings
“What hath God wrought!” expresses awe at the remarkable things God has done for His people. Balaam is forced to acknowledge and proclaim the providence of God despite his own intentions. There is a sense of wonder that the divine will has been accomplished.
The phrase also communicates gratitude for the blessings that the Israelites have received from God. After years of slavery and struggle, they are finally being led to the Promised Land. Balaam’s words reflect praise to God for fulfilling His covenant with Israel.
So in the Book of Numbers, “What hath God wrought!” conveys admiration, astonishment, and thankfulness for the mighty works of God on behalf of His chosen people. This powerful phrase succinctly expresses the providence and faithfulness of God.
Morse’s Historic First Telegraph Message
The electric telegraph was a revolutionary technology pioneered in the 1830s by Samuel F.B. Morse, a talented American painter and inventor. After years of experimentation and refinement, Morse developed a practical telegraph system that allowed instant communication over wires using electric signals that corresponded to letters and numbers.
Samuel F.B. Morse Invented the Electric Telegraph in the 1830s
Born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Samuel Morse displayed exceptional artistic talents from a young age but also had a lifelong interest in science and technology. While working as an art professor in New York in the 1820s, Morse became fascinated with electricity and electromagnetism and began experimenting with sending signals over wires.
By 1835, he had successfully built a crude telegraph system using clicking mechanisms to transmit coded signals.
Over the next few years, Morse worked tirelessly to improve his telegraph design. His key innovations included a sending device called a telegraph key, an electromagnet receiver to record signals, and the use of dots, dashes and spaces of varying lengths to represent letters and numbers in what became known as Morse code.
By 1838, Morse had developed a sophisticated telegraph system able to transmit complex messages reliably over miles of wire. He demonstrated his telegraph publicly in 1838 and patented it in 1840.
On May 24, 1844, He Sent the First Message Over a Washington-to-Baltimore Line
After struggling for years to obtain government support, Morse finally convinced the U.S. Congress to fund a demonstration telegraph line from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland – a distance of around 40 miles. Construction on the line began in 1843 and was completed by May 1844.
The telegraph wire was strung atop poles alongside railroad tracks for most of the route.
On May 24, 1844, Morse sat in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington and used his telegraph to transmit the first official message to his colleague Alfred Vail in Baltimore. Vail sent a return message confirming receipt.
The famous first words telegraphed by Morse using dots and dashes that day were “What hath God wrought.”
This successful first public trial quickly led to the rapid spread of commercial telegraph lines across America and overseas. By 1860, a transcontinental telegraph connected the east and west coasts of America.
The electric telegraph dramatically transformed communication, commerce, and society worldwide during the 19th century.
Morse Chose the Phrase “What Hath God Wrought” for Its Religious Meaning and Dramatic Impact
Morse intentionally selected the phrase “What hath God wrought” from the Bible (Numbers 23:23) for his first public telegraph message. As a devout Christian, he wanted to emphasize the divine origins of his invention to appeal to the religious American public.
The Biblical phrase also packed a sense of wonder and profound accomplishment. By transmitting it instantly over distance, Morse demonstrated vividly the telegraph’s incredible communications capability and ushered in a new teleconnected age.
This short but epic phrase dramatized the significance of the moment perfectly. Morse knew a mundane greeting like “Hello” would not have the same dramatic impact.
Over time, “What hath God wrought” evolved into an iconic statement representing the transformations in communications and society brought by nineteenth century technologies like the telegraph. Morse’s religious quote perhaps reflects his hope that his wondrous invention would be used for moral good in society.
The Significance of the Message in Celebrating a New Technology
‘What hath God wrought’ expressed wonder at near-instant communication
The phrase “What hath God wrought”, sent by Samuel Morse in 1844 as the first telegraph message, conveyed a sense of awe and wonder at the new technology that allowed near-instantaneous communication across long distances (History.com).
For the first time, news and information could be rapidly transmitted without reliance on slow transport methods. This opened up profound new possibilities for connecting societies.
It suggested the telegraph was an important, God-given achievement
By attributing this groundbreaking human invention to God, Morse framed the telegraph as not merely a technological feat but a vital, divinely inspired achievement with the potential to transform human affairs.
This reflected the religious worldview of the era, which saw scientific advances as part of God’s plan rather than in opposition to faith. Hence, the message suggested the telegraph should be valued highly as a God-sent gift to humanity.
The phrase aligned with Morse’s religious views and the time period
As a devout Christian, Morse believed that scientific knowledge and technology, along with talents and abilities, were bestowed by God to improve the human condition (Encyclopedia Britannica). This aligned with wider 19th century beliefs in America, which linked religion and scientific/technological progress.
By quoting from the Book of Numbers in the first telegraph message, Morse connected this epochal achievement with Biblical tradition and God’s purpose for humanity.
So while celebrating human ingenuity, “What hath God wrought” grounded the telegraph’s significance in faith and higher purpose characteristic of the era. This made the message profoundly meaningful for Morse and the wider public.
The Enduring Legacy of Morse’s Message
The success of the first telegraph line launched a communications revolution
The completion of the first telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in 1844 was truly revolutionary. While basic optical telegraphs had existed for decades, the electric telegraph invented by Samuel Morse allowed for the nearly instant transmission of complex messages across vast distances for the first time.
This was the start of a genuine communications revolution.
Within just a few years, telegraph lines were spreading rapidly across America and the world. By 1852, New York City was connected all the way to Missouri. And by 1866, the first lasting transatlantic cable connected North America and Europe.
The telegraph dramatically accelerated the spread of news, business communications, and personal messages across continents.
Over the next century, each new advance in communications technology built upon the foundations laid by the electric telegraph. The invention of the telephone, radio, television, and finally the internet – allowing instant global communication and access to information – can all trace their origins to the success of Morse’s first telegraph line.
Its impact is still felt to this day.
The phrase “What hath God wrought” remains linked to Morse and the telegraph
The first official message sent over Morse’s completed Baltimore-Washington telegraph line on May 24, 1844 was “What hath God wrought”. This iconic phrase was suggested to Morse by Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the Commissioner of Patents.
While its religious overtones reflected the Christian worldview of its time, the phrase captured the almost miraculous nature of instant long distance communications.
Unsurprisingly, “What hath God wrought” remains inextricably linked to Morse and his revolutionary telegraph to this day. It encapsulates the profound societal changes brought by the telegraph at the dawn of the communications age.
The almost divine wonder evoked by the phrase is an apt metaphor for the telegraph’s status as the progenitor of mass instant communications.
It represents faith in providential scientific progress and human achievement
“What hath God wrought” reflects the 19th century American faith in both scientific progress and pious human industry ordained by God. While its specific religious invocation is outdated today, the underlying idea still resonates.
Human creativity, innovation, and perseverance enabled a breakthrough that utterly transformed society. Scientific advancement driven by technological ingenuity created an invention changing civilization itself.
In this light, “What hath God wrought” represents awe and gratitude for the almost miraculous fruits of human intellectual labor. It encapsulates a belief in tireless human progress through challenges towards ever greater achievements that bend the arc of history.
The telegraph itself embodied this idea – using the natural principles of electricity and electromagnetism for instant communications.
So while Morse’s famous phrase originated from a devout and parochial 19th century worldview, its core idea remains powerfully relevant. The awe-inspiring impacts of technological revolutions throughout history often felt unimaginable beforehand.
“What hath God wrought” poetically captures humanity’s faith in its own boundless intellectual potential. The telegraph revolutionized 19th century civilization – much like the silicon chip and internet continue to revolutionize the modern world.
Later Historical Uses of the Phrase
It appeared on commemorative postal stamps in the 1920s and 1950s
The phrase “What Hath God Wrought” found renewed popularity in the 20th century, when it appeared on commemorative U.S. postage stamps marking the 100th anniversary of the first telegraph message in 1928.
It again graced a stamp in the 1950s honoring the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Using this historically significant phrase to mark milestones in electrical communications technology highlighted its link to innovation and human progress.
The phrase was used ironically during bleak events like the Great Depression
During the lean years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the once-optimistic phrase “What Hath God Wrought” took on a bitter irony. With millions unemployed and massive poverty, the technological innovations that the phrase originally heralded seemed to have wrought mainly hardship for so many.
Columnists writing in papers like the New York Times used the phrase in a caustic manner to criticize economic and social conditions.
The phrase cropped up in a similarly ironic manner after natural disasters like the Galveston hurricane of 1900 laid waste to communities. Originally meant to celebrate technology, “What Hath God Wrought” must have rung hollow for those rebuilding in the wake of calamity.
It remains an expression of hope, wonder and optimism about technology
Despite some historical misuse, Samuel F.B. Morse’s first telegraph message endures in the American imagination as an emblem of awe and hope in the face of rapid technological change. In the 21st century world of artificial intelligence, gene editing, quantum computing and automation, “What Hath God Wrought” resonates anew.
The phrase continues to appear in book titles exploring humanity’s relationship with technology, such as journalist Daniel Boorstin’s 1987 work “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.
“ It likewise has inspired modern events, like a 2012 symposium at the Chemical Heritage Foundation called “What Hath God Wrought Today? “ debating public views of science.
Trending up in use in recent years according to Google search data, Morse’s famous line will likely remain a touchstone as innovations shape life for future generations. While retaining historical weight, it continues to take on new shades of meaning over time.
Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message ‘What hath God wrought’ had profound meaning for celebrating a revolutionary new technology in 1844. The biblical phrase expressed reverence for God’s blessings and human achievement.
It encapsulated optimism, faith in progress, and awe at near-instant communication across distances. This message heralded a new communications era and remains a fitting encapsulation of the wonder technology can evoke.
Though sometimes used ironically, ‘What hath God wrought’ endures as a thought-provoking phrase linked to Morse’s accomplishment and America’s telegraph history.