Daniel Walker Howe

Where and when

Summary: On May 24, 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, tapped out a message on a device of cogs and coiled wires. Using a code he had recently devised, he spelled out: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT” Forty miles away, in Baltimore, Morse’s associate received the electric signals and telegraphed the message back. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change America and the world.

Instant long-range communications built upon earlier improvements in printing and the distribution of printed matter. Together with the improvements in transportation represented by railroads, steamboats, and canals, they revolutionized American life between 1815 and 1848. In 1815 America had been what we would call a “third world country” where most people lived on isolated farmsteads. Many people grew their own food; many wives made their families’ clothes. Dramatic improvements in transportation and communication transformed not only commerce but every aspect of life, including politics, education, national expansion, and religion. By 1848 the United States had become a transatlantic major power, significantly more like the America of today than it had been in 1815. Revolutions in communications and transportation had occurred in a period of thirty-three years.

Daniel Walker Howe won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. He is Rhodes Professor American History Emeritus at Oxford University and Professor History Emeritus at UCLA, and the author of many other books and articles on nineteenth-century American history. His talk will be illuminated with PowerPoint illustrations of the people and events he describes.