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in 1838, Samuel Morse’s telegraph system is demonstrated for the first time at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey. The telegraph, a device which used electric impulses to transmit encoded messages over a wire, would eventually revolutionize long-distance communication, reaching the height of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born April 27, 1791, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He attended Yale University, where he was interested in art, as well as electricity, still in its infancy at the time. After college, Morse became a painter. In 1832, while sailing home from Europe, he heard about the newly discovered electromagnet and came up with an idea for an electric telegraph. He had no idea that other inventors were already at work on the concept.

Morse spent the next several years developing a prototype and took on two partners, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, to help him. In 1838, he demonstrated his invention using Morse code, in which dots and dashes represented letters and numbers. In 1843, Morse finally convinced a skeptical Congress to fund the construction of the first telegraph line in the United States, from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. In May 1844, Morse sent the first official telegram over the line, with the message: “What hath God wrought!”

Over the next few years, private companies, using Morse’s patent, set up telegraph lines around the Northeast. In 1851, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was founded; it would later change its name to Western Union. In 1861, Western Union finished the first transcontinental line across the United States. Five years later, the first successful permanent line across the Atlantic Ocean was constructed and by the end of the century telegraph systems were in place in Africa, Asia and Australia.

Because telegraph companies typically charged by the word, telegrams became known for their succinct prose–whether they contained happy or sad news. The word “stop,” which was free, was used in place of a period, for which there was a charge. In 1933, Western Union introduced singing telegrams. During World War II, Americans came to dread the sight of Western Union couriers because the military used telegrams to inform families about soldiers’ deaths.

Over the course of the 20th century, telegraph messages were largely replaced by cheap long-distance phone service, faxes and email. Western Union delivered its final telegram in January 2006.

Samuel Morse died wealthy and famous in New York City on April 2, 1872, at age 80.


in 1790, President George Washington delivers the first State of the Union address to the assembled Congress in New York City.

Washington began by congratulating you on the present favourable prospects of our public affairs, most notable of which was North Carolina’s recent decision to join the federal republic. North Carolina had rejected the Constitution in July 1788 because it lacked a bill of rights. Under the terms of the Constitution, the new government acceded to power after only 11 of the 13 states accepted the document. By the time North Carolina ratified in November 1789, the first Congress had met, written the Bill of Rights and dispatched them for review by the states. When Washington spoke in January, it seemed likely the people of the United States would stand behind Washington’s government and enjoy the concord, peace, and plenty he saw as symbols of the nation’s good fortune.

Washington’s address gave a brief, but excellent, outline of his administration’s policies as designed by Alexander Hamilton. The former commander in chief of the Continental Army argued in favor of securing the common defence [sic], as he believed preparedness for war to be one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. Washington’s guarded language allowed him to hint at his support for the controversial idea of creating a standing army without making an overt request.

The most basic functions of day-to-day governing had yet to be organized, and Washington charged Congress with creating a competent fund designated for defraying the expenses incident to the conduct of our foreign affairs, a uniform rule of naturalization, and Uniformity in the Currency, Weights and Measures of the United States.

After covering the clearly federal issues of national defense and foreign affairs, Washington urged federal influence over domestic issues as well. The strongly Hamilton-influenced administration desired money for and some measure of control over Agriculture, Commerce and Manufactures as well as Science and Literature. These national goals required a Federal Post-Office and Post-Roads and a means of public education, which the president justified as a means to secure the Constitution, by educating future public servants in the republican principles of representative government.


in 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, sees three “mermaids”–in reality manatees–and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.”

Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have existed in seafaring cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Typically depicted as having a woman’s head and torso, a fishtail instead of legs and holding a mirror and comb, mermaids live in the ocean and, according to some legends, can take on a human shape and marry mortal men. Mermaids are closely linked to sirens, another folkloric figure, part-woman, part-bird, who live on islands and sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths.

Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting). Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. The three species of manatee (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, they’re typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They’re plant-eaters, have a slow metabolism and can only survive in warm water.

Manatees live an average of 50 to 60 years in the wild and have no natural predators. However, they are an endangered species. In the U.S., the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where scores of them die or are injured each year due to collisions with boats.


New Connecticut (Vermont) declares independence

Having recognized the need for their territory to assert its independence from both Britain and New York and remove themselves from the war they were waging against each other, a convention of future Vermonters assembles in Westminster and declares independence from the crown of Great Britain and the colony of New York on this day in 1777. The convention’s delegates included Vermont’s future governor, Thomas Chittenden, and Ira Allen, who would become known as the “father” of the University of Vermont.

Delegates first named the independent state New Connecticut and, in June 1777, finally settled on the name Vermont, an imperfect translation of the French for green mountain. One month later, on July 2, 1777, a convention of 72 delegates met in Windsor, Vermont, to adopt the state’s new—and revolutionary—constitution; it was formally adopted on July 8, 1777. Vermont’s constitution was not only the first written national constitution drafted in North America, but also the first to prohibit slavery and to give all adult males, not just property owners, the right to vote. Thomas Chittenden became Vermont’s first governor in 1778.

Throughout the 1780s, Congress refused to acknowledge that Vermont was a separate state independent of New York. In response, frustrated Vermonters went so far as to inquire if the British would readmit their territory to the empire as part of Canada. Vermont remained an independent nation even two years after George Washington became president of the United States of America under the new U.S. Constitution. However, as the politics of slavery threatened to divide the U.S., Vermont was finally admitted as the new nation’s 14th state in 1791, serving as a free counterbalance to slaveholding Kentucky, which joined the Union in 1792.


Battle of Millstone, New Jersey

On this day in 1777, Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson leads 400 raw men from the New Jersey militia and 50 Pennsylvania riflemen under Captain Robert Durkee in an attack against a group of 500 British soldiers foraging for food led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercromby near Van Nest’s Mills in Millstone, New Jersey. The mills lay at a strategic point between New Brunswick and Princeton, New Jersey, where General George Washington had defeated the British on January 3. After that victory, Washington had decided to divide his forces in order to harass British installments in the New Jersey towns of New Brunswick and Amboy.

The British, who were stealing flour and supplies from Van Nest’s Mills with which to supply their troops in New Brunswick, had set up small cannon defenses at a bridge crossing the Millstone River. The Patriots caught the British forces by surprise when they, avoiding the cannons, forded the deep and icy water. In the ensuing 20-minute battle, Dickinson reported that the Patriots captured 107 horses, 49 wagons, 115 cattle, 70 sheep, 40 barrels of flour—106 bags and many other things. They also took 49 prisoners. General Washington reported to John Hancock that the British removed a good many dead and wounded in light Waggons, estimated to be 24 or 25 in total compared to the 4 or 5 losses sustained by the Patriots.


Georgia’s royal governor is arrested

On December 29, 1778, Wright returned with troops and was able to retake Savannah. Although Georgia was never fully under his control, Wright again served as royal governor until July 11, 1782, when the British voluntarily abandoned Savannah before Continental General Mad Anthony Wayne could take the city by force. Wayne had already defeated British, Loyalist and allied Indian forces who, combined, outnumbered Patriots by at least 2 to 1, as he progressed through Georgia following the Battle of Yorktown. Facing likely defeat at Wayne’s hands, Wright retired to London, where he died on November 20, 1785.

Wright was the only royal governor to successfully oversee the use of the hated stamps mandated by the Stamp Act of 1765. When Wright recaptured Savannah and was reinstated as the royal governor of Georgia in 1778, he also made Georgia the only colony to return to imperial rule following a Patriot uprising. Georgians seemed to be of mixed mind regarding independence–despite these instances of loyalty to the crown, Georgia was one of the first colonies to argue for a declaration of independence from Britain in early 1776.


Crittenden Compromise is killed in Senate

On this day in 1861, the Crittenden Compromise, the last chance to keep North and South united, dies in the U.S. Senate.Proposed by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, the compromise was a series of constitutional amendments. The amendments would continue the old Missouri Compromise provisions of 1820, which divided the West along the latitude of 36 30?. North of this line, slavery was prohibited. The Missouri Compromise was negated by the Compromise of 1850, which allowed a vote by territorial residents (popular sovereignty) to decide the issue of slavery. Other amendments protected slavery in the District of Columbia, forbade federal interference with the interstate slave trade, and compensated owners whose slaves escaped to the free states.Essentially, the Crittenden Compromise sought to alleviate all concerns of the Southern states. Four states had already left the Union when it was proposed, but Crittenden hoped the compromise would lure them back. Crittenden thought he could muster support from both South and North and avert either a split of the nation or a civil war. The major problem with the plan was that it called for a complete compromise by the Republicans with virtually no concessions on the part of the South. The Republican Party formed in 1854 for the main purpose of opposing the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, particularly the areas north of the Missouri Compromise line. Just six years later, the party elected a president, Abraham Lincoln, over theopposition of the slave states. Crittenden was asking the Republicans to abandon their most key issues.The vote was 25 against the compromise and 23 in favor of it. All 25 votes against it were cast by Republicans, and six senators from states that were in the process of seceding abstained. One Republican editorial insisted that the party “cannot be made to surrender the fruits of its recent victory.” There would be no compromise; with the secession of states continuing, America marched inexorably towards civil war.


Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the history of this centuries-old holiday, from ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.


Five letters pass between Abigail and John Adams

On this day in 1777, Continental Congressman John Adams writes three letters to and receives two letters from his wife, Abigail. He is with Congress in Philadelphia, while she maintains their farm in Braintree, Massachusetts.The remarkable correspondence between Abigail and John Adams—numbering 1,160 letters in total—covered topics ranging from politics and military strategy to household economy and family health. Their mutual respect and adoration served as evidence that even in an age when women were unable to vote, there were nonetheless marriages in which wives and husbands were true intellectual and emotional equals.In the second letter John drafted to Abigail on March 7, he declared that Philadelphia had lost its vibrancy during Congress’ removal to Baltimore. This City is a dull Place, in Comparason [sic] of what it was. More than one half the Inhabitants have removed to the Country, as it was their Wisdom to do—the Remainder are chiefly Quakers as dull as Beetles. From these neither good is to be expected nor Evil to be apprehended. They are a kind of neutral Tribe, or the Race of the insipids. By contrast, Adams described the Loyalists, who prepared their Minds and Bodies, Houses and Cellars, to receive General William Howe should he attack, as a Pack of sordid Scoundrels male and female.In the letters John received, which Abigail had written in February, she bemoaned not only the difficulty of correspondence during war, but also of the lack of military fervor demonstrated by the New Englanders around her. She wrote that she awaited greater patriotism, greater prosperity and future correspondence from her beloved husband to his devoted Portia. (Portia, Adams’ nickname for his wife was likely a reference to the intelligent and devoted heroine of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.)


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