✪ Samuel Finley Breese Morse was an American inventor and painter. After having established his reputation as a portrait painter during his middle age, Morse contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system. He was a co-developer of Morse code and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy.
Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first child of PastorJedidiah Morse (1761–1826), who was also a geographer, and his wife Elizabeth Ann Finley Breese (1766–1828). His father was a great preacher of the Calvinist faith and supporter of the Federalist Party. The Elder Morse strongly believed in education within a Federalist framework, alongside the instillation of Calvinist virtues, morals, and prayers for his first son.
After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Samuel Morse went on to Yale College to study religious philosophy, mathematics, and science. While at Yale, he attended lectures on electricity from Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day and was a member of the Society of Brothers in Unity. He supported himself by painting. In 1810, he graduated from Yale with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
Morse married Lucretia Pickering Walker on September 29, 1818, in Concord, New Hampshire. She died on February 7, 1825, of a heart attack shortly after the birth of their third child. He later married his second wife, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold on August 10, 1848, in Utica, New York and had four children.
Morse expressed many of his Calvinist beliefs through his painting. The Calvinists brought many of their ideas about religion and government from England to America. Morse’s work attracted the attention of the notable artist, Washington Allston. Allston wanted Morse to accompany him to England to meet the artist Benjamin West. Allston arranged—with Morse’s father—a three-year stay for painting study in England. The two men set sail aboard the Libya on July 15, 1811.
In England, Morse perfected his painting techniques under Allston’s watchful eye; and by the end of 1811, he had gained admittance to the prestigious Royal Academy. After observing and practicing life drawing and absorbing its anatomical demands, the young artist produced his most well known masterpiece, Dying Hercules.
During Morse’s time in Britain, the Americans and British became engaged in the War of 1812 and both societies were conflicted over loyalties. Anti-Federalist Americans aligned themselves with the French, abhorred the British, and believed a strong central government to be inherently dangerous to democracy.
As the war raged on, Morse’s letters to his parents became more anti-Federalist in tone. In one such letter, Morse wrote:
“I assert … that the Federalists in the Northern States have done more injury to their country by their violent opposition measures than a French alliance could. Their proceedings are copied into the English papers, read before Parliament, and circulated through their country, and what do they say of them … they call them [Federalists] cowards, a base set, say they are traitors to their country and ought to be hanged like traitors.”
The decade 1815–1825 marked significant growth in Morse’s art work, as he sought to capture the essence of America’s culture and life. He painted a portrait of the former Federalist President John Adams (1816). In 1820, Morse was commissioned to paint President James Monroe. Morse was also honored to paint the Marquis de Lafayette, the leading French supporter of the American Revolution. He felt compelled to paint a grand portrait of the man who helped to establish a free and independent America.
Morse’s portrait of Lafayette
Morse also sought commissions among the elite of Charleston, South Carolina. Morse’s 1818 painting of Mrs. Emma Quash symbolized the opulence of Charleston. The young artist was doing well for himself. However, between 1819 and 1821, Morse went through great changes in his life, including a decline in commissions due to the Panic of 1819. In 1826, Morse helped to found the National Academy of Design in New York City. He served as the academy’s president from 1826 to 1845 and again from 1861 to 1862.
From 1830 to 1832, Morse traveled and studied in Europe to improve his painting skills, visiting Italy, Switzerland, and France. On a subsequent visit to Paris in 1839, Morse met Louis Daguerre and became interested in the latter’s daguerreotype—the first practical means of photography. Morse wrote a letter to the New York Observer describing the invention, which was published widely in the American press and provided for a broad awareness of the new technology. Mathew Brady, one of the earliest photographers in American history, famous for his depictions of the Civil War, initially studied under Morse and later took photographs of him.
While returning by ship from Europe in 1832, Morse encountered Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston, a man who was well schooled in electromagnetism. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse quickly developed the concept of a single-wire telegraph and set aside his painting. In time, the Morse Code that he developed would become the primary language of telegraphy throughout the world. It is still used today as the standard for rhythmic transmission of data.
Meanwhile in England, William Cooke and Professor Charles Wheatstone had learned of the Wilhelm Weber and Carl Gauss electromagnetic telegraph in 1833. They had reached the stage of launching a commercial telegraph prior to Morse, despite starting later.
Cooke and Wheatstone formed a partnership and patented the electrical telegraph in May 1837, and within a short time had provided the Great Western Railway with a 13-mile (21 km) stretch of telegraph. However, within a few years, Cooke and Wheatstone’s multiple-wire signaling method would be overtaken by Morse’s cheaper, more efficient method of transmission.
In an 1848 letter to a friend, Morse describes how vigorously he fought to be called the sole inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph despite the previous inventions:
“I have been so constantly under the necessity of watching the movements of the most unprincipled set of pirates I have ever known, that all my time has been occupied in defense, in putting evidence into something like legal shape that I am the inventor of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph! Would you have believed it ten years ago that a question could be raised on that subject?”— S. Morse.
Morse’s design introduced extra circuits or relays at frequent intervals and was soon able to send a message through ten miles (16 km) of wire. This was the great breakthrough he had been seeking. At the Speedwell Ironworks in Morristown, New Jersey on January 11, 1838, Morse made the first public demonstration of the electric telegraph.
The Morse system of relating the signal was the key innovation, as it freed the technology from being limited by distance in sending messages. The first public transmission, with the message, “A patient waiter is no loser,” was witnessed by a mostly local crowd.
Morse made his last trip to Washington, D.C., in December 1842, stringing “wires between two committee rooms in the Capitol, and sent messages back and forth” to demonstrate his telegraph system. Congress appropriated $30,000 (equal to $872,464 today) in 1843 for construction of an experimental 38-mile (61 km) telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore along the right-of-way of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. An impressive demonstration occurred on May 1, 1844, when news of the Whig Party’s nomination of Henry Clay for U.S. president was telegraphed from the party’s convention in Baltimore to the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
On May 24, 1844, the line was officially opened as Morse sent the now-famous words, “What hath God wrought,” from the Supreme Court chamber in the basement of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., to the B&O’s Mount Clare Station in Baltimore. Morse’s telegraph system could transmit thirty characters per minute.
In May 1845, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was formed in order to build telegraph lines from New York City toward Philadelphia; Boston; Buffalo, New York; and the Mississippi. Telegraphic lines rapidly spread throughout the United States during the next few years. BY1950, more than 12,000 miles of cable had been laid.
Morse’s original telegraph design, as submitted with his patent application
Morse received a patent for the telegraph in 1847 and was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1849.The Morse telegraphic apparatus was officially adopted as the standard for European telegraphy in 1851. Only the United Kingdom (with its extensive overseas empire) kept the needle telegraph of Cooke and Wheatstone. In 1858, Morse introduced wired communication to Latin America when he established a telegraph system in Puerto Rico, then still a Spanish colony.
Morse was a leader in the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration movement of the mid-19th century. In 1836, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York under the anti-immigrant Nativist Party’s banner and received only 1,496 votes. When Morse visited Rome, he allegedly refused to take his hat off in the presence of the Pope.
In the United States, Morse held his telegraph patent for many years, but it was both ignored and contested. In 1853, The Telegraph Patent case – O’Reilly v. Morse came before the U.S. Supreme Court where, after very lengthy investigation, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that Morse had been the first to combine the battery, electromagnetism, the electromagnet, and the correct battery configuration into a workable practical telegraph. However, in spite of this clear ruling, Morse still received no official recognition for his invention from the United States Government.
In addition to the telegraph, Morse also invented a marble-cutting machine that could carve three-dimensional sculptures in either marble or stone. He could not patent it, however, because of an existing similar 1820 Thomas Blanchard design.
Samuel Morse gave large sums to charity. He also became interested in the relationship of science and religion and provided the funds to establish a lectureship on “the relation of the Bible to the Sciences”. Though he was rarely awarded any royalties for the later uses and implementations of his inventions, he was still able to live comfortably.
Despite honors and financial awards received from foreign countries, there was no such recognition in the U.S. until he neared the end of his life when on June 10, 1871, a bronze statue of Samuel Morse was unveiled in Central Park, New York City. An engraved portrait of Morse appeared on the reverse side of the United States two-dollar bill silver certificate series of 1896.
Morse died in New York City at 80 years of age on April 2, 1872, and was interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. By the time of his death, his estate was valued at some $500,000 (equivalent to $11.3 million today).✪