A Gift of Invention

In March of 1838, Memucan Hunt, then Minister to the United States for the Republic of Texas, was on hand when Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated his invention of the telegraph to President Martin Van Buren and his cabinet.

Apparently Morse and Hunt had an interesting conversation. Hunt later wrote to President Mirabeau B. Lamar to report a generous offer from Morse, “in which that gentleman tendered the perpetual use of the Electro Magnetic Telegraph to this Republic.”


Why would Morse do such a thing?

The most likely reason is he was hoping the gift of his invention to Texas would result in the pro forma issuance of a patent by the new Republic. After all, how could Texas accept a gift from Morse that was not his to give?

Having that patent in hand might have spurred things along with the US Patent Office. 
But things didn’t quite work out for Morse. The Lamar administration took no action and the United States took another two years to recognize his claim. Even after getting his US patent, it would be 1854 before legal disputes regarding the claim were resolved.

Which may explain why Morse reaffirmed the gift to Dr. Ashbel Smith, who wrote to the editors of The State Gazette in 1853:

“…the inventor of the Telegraph, Professor Morse, about twenty years ago, made a formal grant to the Republic of Texas…of the right to use the Telegraph in Texas without compensation.
Subsequent to annexation, Professor Morse informed me that he had not the right, and still less the inclination to withdraw his gift to the late Republic.”

But by 1860 Morse’s inclination had changed direction. His legal battles out of the way and royalties coming in from all quarters, Morse saw no reason that Texas should be a royalty-free zone. He wrote to Governor Sam Houston:

“May it please your Excellency; 
In the year 1838 I made an offer of gift of my invention of the Electro magnetic Telegraph to Texas, Texas being then an independent Republic. Although the offer was made more than twenty years ago, Texas, neither while an independent State, nor since it has become one of the United States, has ever directly or impliedly accepted the offer.

I am induced, therefore, to believe that in its condition as a gift it was of no value to the State, but on the contrary has rather been an embarrassment

In connection, however, with my other patent it has become for the public interest as well as my own that I should be able to make complete title to the whole invention in the United States. I, therefore, now respectfully withdraw the offer then made, in 1838, the better to be in a position to benefit Texas, as well as the other States of the Union.”

Categories: Texas history

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