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History relates Middlebourne resident to invention

By Staff | Mar 5, 2014

This house, formerly located at Main and Broad Streets in Middlebourne, may well have been the site where the first practical telegraph device was invented.

(Editor’s note: This is the latest installment from the Tyler County Planning Commission in conjunction with the Tyler County Bicentennial.)

During Tyler County’s 200-years of history, many residents found wealth, and no small amount of fame, thanks to their ingenuity and vision. However, one man’s inventiveness seems to have been lost through the years, and as a result gone unrecognized.

His invention was the telegraph. It was a new technology, which in its day had as great an impact on human communication as any invention developed since.

Dr. J. Thompson Nicklin, a resident of Middlebourne, may well have been the first to develop a practical method for transmitting messages over wire. His success came on March 3, 1838, more than six years before Samuel B. Morse successfully transmitted a message over wires between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The follow is an excerpt from The West Virginia Review, dated July, 1920, by John Alexander George.

“In the spring of 1838, in the town of Middlebourne, Tyler County, a man about forty years of age sat quietly at a small table in the attic of his home manipulating a strange looking instrument. His face glowed with the pride of accomplishment; his eyes shown with the radiance of a great vision; for in the opposite corner of the attic another instrument, connected to first by means of two wires, was duplicating, dot for dot and dash for dash, each signal the man gave the instrument before him. The instruments were magnetic telegraphs, and their inventor and operator was Dr. Israel T. Nicklin.”

Israel Thomas Nicklin was born in Loudon County, Virginia, August 12, 1797. After attending Fairfax School for several years, he moved with his parents to Bowles Mills, Tyler County, West Virginia. There he began the study of medicine in his father’s office. In 1825, he moved to Middlebourne where he married Catherine Stealey. He practiced medicine in Middlebourne and surrounding towns until his death, August 31, 1879.

Prior to opening his medical practice, Dr. Nicklin studied surgery at the Cincinnati Medical College. As a physician, he gained an outstanding reputation for innovation in obstetrics and the treatment of diphtheria and typhoid. Reports of the day state he was frequently asked to describe his techniques before the Ohio Valley Medical Association. Dr. Nicklin was often described the medical community as being “at least twenty-five years ahead of his time.”

It was at the Cincinnati Medical College where, while studying chemistry and physics, that Dr. Nicklin first developed his keen interest in electricity. That interest led to his invention of a working, practical telegraph.

In his 1920 article in The West Virginia Review, John George wrote “From all I have been able to learn I have found indisputable proof that he (Dr. Nicklin) invented the first practical telegraph four years before Professor Morse made his invention public.”

Upon returning from Cincinnati in February 1838, Dr. Nicklin asked eight-year-old Thomas Stealey, to save for him all the copper cents he could get in his father’s Middlebourne store. He then took the coins to Levi Ankrom, a local blacksmith, and asked him to make them into copper plates, which he used to make electric batteries to power his telegraph device.

Upon successfully completing and testing his new telegraph, Dr. Nicklin did not realize that other inventors had tried and failed to complete such a device, or that Samuel Morse was in the process of formulating a theory for such a device. As a result, Dr. Nicklin felt in no hurry to announce his invention or immediately file for a patent, as he believed his was the only one in existence.

Following the successful completion of his telegraph device, Dr. Nicklin became ill and was confined to bed for many months. During that illness, Samuel Morse, a professor at the University of New York City, completed the telegraph he had been working on and secured from Congress an appropriation that enabled him to give a public demonstration of the practical usefulness of his invention.

While still confined to his bed, when handed a copy of The National Intelligencer, which contained an account of Morse’s demonstration, Dr. Nicklin was said to have thrown up his hands and exclaimed “My God, my God! It’s gone, it’s gone.”

Samuel Morse became, and remains, one of the world’s best known inventors. Dr. Nicklin never received the acclaim he appears to have earned.

By all accounts, Dr. Nicklin was a man well known for truth, character, modesty, brilliance, and dedication to the practice of medicine. Those who later spoke with, and wrote about his unfortunate timing, concluded that it was the combination of his finer qualities that conspired to deny him of a place as one of America’s foremost innovators and inventors.