Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791 - 1872)
"I wish that in one instant I could tell you of my safe arrival, but we are 3,000 miles apart and must wait four long weeks to hear from each other." Samuel Morse was 20 when he wrote this sentence in a letter to his mother in 1811. He was in London studying art. She was at the home in Charlestown, Mass., where he had been born. Perhaps it was at the moment of writing the letter that young Morse first conceived the desire to bridge space with flying words. This desire was later to give the world the electric telegraph.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born on April 27, 1791. He was the eldest son of Jedidiah Morse, a noted Congregational minister, and Elizabeth Ann Breese Morse. He was educated at Phillips Academy, in Andover, and at Yale University. While he was in college he became interested in electricity, but his chief enthusiasm was art. His father opposed a career as an artist. He sent him to London to study art in 1811, however, after Gilbert Stuart praised his work.
When Samuel returned in 1815 he found, however, that Americans were not interested in buying paintings even paintings that had hung in the Royal Academy. He made a meager living painting portraits. The best known were two of the Marquis de Lafayette, painted in 1825. Morse's dramatic personality and brilliant conversation won him a place of leadership in New York's artistic and intellectual circles. He helped to found the National Academy of Design and was its president. After 1835 he held a professorship in art at the University of the City of New York.
Morse was inspired to invent the telegraph by a chance conversation while returning from Europe on the steamship Sully in 1832. A fellow passenger told him about European experiments in electromagnetism. Morse remarked: "If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted by electricity." During the rest of the voyage he worked excitedly on drawings for his plan.
Morse had an inventive mind but little knowledge of electricity. Years of work and study were needed to perfect his device. People admired his determination in the face of poverty and disappointment. He received practical help from industrialist Alfred Vail, physicist Joseph Henry, and others. In 1837 he applied for a patent on The American Electromagnetic Telegraph. He went to England, France, and Russia seeking aid for his invention but met with failure there as at home. Finally in 1843 the United States Congress appropriated $30,000 to build a line from Washington to Baltimore. In May 1844 the first message was flashed over this wire. Its text was: "What hath God wrought?"
After his years of sacrifice, Morse enjoyed to the fullest the wealth and honors that came to him as a great inventor. Newspapers, railroads, and businesses quickly found use for the telegraph. After the founding of Western Union in 1856, wires were soon strung from coast to coast. Other men of science had worked on the problem, but Morse's invention was the basis of the land telegraph systems that developed. The code of dots and dashes used in sending messages is still known as the Morse code in honor of its inventor.
He worked as the electrician in Cyrus W. Field's first attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic Ocean in 1857. Morse resigned, predicting the initial failure that soon followed. The inventor's estate, Locust Grove, on the Hudson River was noted for its gatherings of distinguished people. Morse became a leader in cultural and civic affairs. When he died in 1872, on April 2, public memorial meetings were held across the nation.
April 3, 1872, The New York Times, Obituary
Prof. Samuel Finley Breese Morse
Prof. Morse died last evening at 8 o'clock, his condition having become very low soon after sunrise. Though expected, the death of this distinguished man will be received with regret by thousands to whom he was only known by fame.
Few persons have ever lived to whom all departments of industry owe a greater debt than the man whose death we are now called on to record. There has been no national or sectional prejudice in the honor that has been accorded to him, from the fact that the benefit he was the means of bestowing upon mankind has been universal, and on this account the sorrow occasioned by his death will be equally world-wide.
Prof. Morse was born in Charlestown, Mass., April 27, 1791. His father, Dr. Jedidiah I. Morse, was a prominent Congregational minister, who had accrued considerable celebrity for works both on theology and geography.
At an early age Samuel was sent to Yale College, and was graduated from that institution in 1810. Passionately fond of art, he determined to become a painter, and for this purpose in the following year he sailed for England, in company with Washington Alston, in order to study under the direction of Benjamin West, at that time considered the leading artist in Europe. Within two years he had made such progress that he received the gold medal of the Adelphi Society, for a cast of the "Dying Hercules." He returned to this country in 1815, and devoted himself entirely to his profession.
While on a visit to Concord, N. H., in order to paint the portraits of several persons there, he formed the acquaintance of Lucretia Walker, who soon after became his wife. In 1825, in connection with a number of other artists of this City, he organized an Art Association, which, a year later, was reorganized as the National Academy of Arts, a name it has ever since borne.
In 1829 he made a second trip to Europe, for the purpose of still further pursuing his professional studies. During this trip, which lasted three years, he visited nearly all the famous galleries of paintings in Europe, and greatly improved himself in the technical branches of the art.
While abroad he was visited nearly all the famous galleries of paintings in Europe, and greatly improved himself in the technical branches of the art. While abroad he was elected Professor of the Literature of the Arts of Design in the University of the City of New York, and it was on his return to accept the position that the invention that has since made his name illustrious suggested itself to him.
While at college he had devoted much of his time to the study of chemistry, under the supervision of Prof. Silliman, and even in after years the phenomena of electricity, and of electro-magnetism had been to him a source of considerable speculation, and during the present voyage which was made from Havre to New York on the old packet-ship SULLY, the conversation turned accidentally on this subject, in connection with a discovery that had shortly before been made in France, of the correlation of electricity and magnetism.
While one day conversing on this matter with a fellow-passenger, the thought flashed upon Morse's mind that this chemical relationship might be made practically useful. It would probably have been impossible even for the inventor to have said how the proper means for effecting this purpose suggested themselves to him; it was something almost superhuman, as will readily be seen, when it is said that he then conceived in his mind, not only the idea of the electric telegraph, but of the electro-magnetic and chemical recording telegraph, substantially as they now exist.
On reaching home he devoted the greater part of his time to making experiments on this subject. At first there was great difficulty in obtaining the proper instruments, though in 1835 he had succeeded in constructing an apparatus which enabled him to communicate from one extremity of two distant points, of a circuit of half a mile.
Unfortunately, this did not allow him to communicate back from the other extremity, but two years more of persistent research was sufficient to overcome this difficulty, and the invention was now ready for exhibition. This was done in the Autumn of 1837, the wires being laid on the roof of the University building, opposite Washington-square. A great many hundreds visited the place, and all expressed, as well they might, their unbounded astonishment.
In the Winter of the same year Prof. Morse went to Washington to urge upon Congress the necessity of making some provision to assist him in carrying out his invention. Although the practical working of it had been demonstrated on a small scale, yet to the minds of Congressmen, the invention seemed altogether too chimerical to be likely ever to prove of any worth; and so, after a futile attempt to induce the Congressional Committee to make a favorable report, Prof. Morse returned to New York, having wasted an entire Winter and accomplished nothing.
In the Spring of 1838, he determined to make an effort in Europe, hoping for better appreciation there than in his own country. It was a mistaken thought, however, for after a sojourn of four years he returned to New York, having succeeded in procuring merely a brevet d'invention in France, and no aid or security of any kind from the other countries.
A less energetic man would have given up after so many rebuffs, but a firm belief in the inestimable value of his invention prompted Prof. Morse to make still another effort at Washington. The results, at first, were hardly more encouraging than on the previous attempt. Again and again he was pronounced a visionary, and his scheme stigmatized as ridiculous.
So faint were the chances of Congress appropriating anything that on the last night of the session, having become thoroughly wearied and disgusted with the whole matter, Prof. Morse went home and retired to bed; but in the morning he was roused with the information that a few minutes before midnight his bill had come up, had been considered, and that he had been awarded $30,000 with which to make an experimental essay between Baltimore and Washington. The year following the work was completed, and proved a complete success.
From that time until the present the demands for the telegraph have been constantly increasing; they have been spread over every civilized country in the world, and have become, by usage, absolutely necessary for the well-being of society. Convinced of their folly in so long ignoring the invention of Prof. Morse, the nations of Europe at once vied with each other in the honors they bestowed upon the inventor.
Within the next few years he received respectively the decoration of the Nishan Iflichai, set in diamonds, from the Sultan of Turkey, gold medals of scientific merit from the King of Prussia, the King of Wurtemburg, and the Emperor of Austria; a cross of Chevalier in the Legion of Honor from the Emperor of France; the cross of Knight of Dannebrog from the King of Denmark; the Cross of Knight Commander of the Order of Isabelia the Catholic, from the Queen of Spain, besides being elected member of innumerable scientific and art societies in this and other countries.
Perhaps the most distinguished reward of all that have been accorded to him, was the one inspired by the late Emperor of France. At his suggestion delegates from France, Russia, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Sardinia, Tuscany, the Holy See and Turkey; met at Paris, and after some little deliberation voted a personal award of 400,000 francs to Prof. Morse, as a testimonial of their appreciation of his services. He has also been the recipient of honorary banquets in London, Paris and in this City.
One of the latest honors paid to him was the erection of his statue in Central Park, last Summer. At that time delegates from the telegraphic fraternity of the entire country assembled in this City, to do honor to the man who had done so much for his race. Dispatches were received from Calcutta, from San Francisco, and from hundreds of other intermediate places, all uniting in the general strain of thanks and gratulation. On the 22d of last February he was selected as the fittest one to unveil the statue of Franklin, in Printing House-square, after which time he was very rarely seen in public.
Prof. Morse was twice married; and his private life was one of almost unalloyed happiness. He resided during the Summer at Poughkeepsie, in a delightful country-house on the banks of the Hudson, surrounded by everything that could minister to his comfort, or gratify his tastes. In the Winter he generally lived in New York. By those who have examined into the question, it is reported that the first idea of a sub-marine cable to Europe emanated in the brain of Prof. Morse, in which case there is little connected with telegraphy of which he may not be said to be the author.
Copyright © 1999 by John Breese McKenzie. All rights reserved