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Morse, Samuel F. B. (1791-1872)

Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872)

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Inventor, telegraph pioneer

Gilded Youth. Born in 1791 to a prominent Federalist and Calvinist family in the Boston area, young Samuel Finley Bréese Morse had the best that America could offer and much of the best that Europe could offer as well. Child of a respected clergyman and scholar, young Finley grew up in a loving and supportive family, was educated at Phillips Academy at Andover, and at Yale College mingled with the best and brightest minds in America, including John C. Calhoun, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper. In 1811 he embarked for Europe to study art and portraiture at the Royal Academy in London. London was the artistic and commercial center of the Western world in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and Morse relished the atmosphere of the bustling metropolis. He also worked hard at his craft, winning prizes and the attention of royal portrait painters such as Benjamin West and spending hours at the British Museum copying the techniques of the old masters. Yet Morse found more than enough time in the day to rub elbows with the literary and political lights of the time, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and William Wilberforce.

Portrait Painter. Returning to the United States after the War of 1812, Morse found a career as a portrait painter, and a bride, Lucretia Pickering Walker. By the early 1820s Morse was considered one of the preeminent portraitists in America, and in 1825 he won the coveted commission to paint the Marquis de Lafayette on the latters triumphal tour of America. Meeting in Washington, Morse wrote home to his wife how struck he was by the living legend, the very man who spent his youth to bring about our happy Revolution; the friend and companion of Washington. What Morse did not know was that the day before he wrote this letter, his wife had died suddenly in New Haven, Connecticut. Communications were so slow that by the time he received news of her death, she had already been laid to rest. Morse never substantiated the connection, but some think that being denied one last conversation with his wife became one of the motivations for his development of the telegraph.

Spark of Inspiration. By the 1830s Morse had begun toying with the idea of sending signals over wires using electricity. On a journey to France early in the decade he observed the French semaphore system, which relayed messages cross-country by means of flags in signal stations. But, as Morse commented to his fellow passengers on his return trip, this will not be fast enough for America; the lightning would serve us better. He contemplated a method for sending electrical pulses through wires and in his notebook sketched out the first draft of his code the dots and dashes that would allow him to convert written messages into electronic signals.

Contenders for the Prize. Morse did little more about the telegraph until 1837, when a Frenchman announced the completion of a system that could send messages electronically. Although the French system differed substantially from Morses design, it pushed him to take quick action, worrying that another contender would beat him to the punch. In October 1837 Morse sent a caveat to the Patent Office describing his designs and announcing his intention of making a full patent application soon. With technical advice from future partners Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, Morse learned how to boost the current in his telegraph wires by increasing the intensity of the voltage from his batteries. By November 1837 the three men were able to give a public demonstration of the telegraph at New York University by sending a message through ten miles of wire mounted on reels in a classroom. Public demonstrations and coverage in the New York Observer attracted a storm of competing claimants, leading Morse to comment bitterly that many stand ready to snatch the prize, or at least claim a share, so soon as the success of an invention seems certain.

Success. Raising capital for the development of the telegraph, improving and demonstrating his system, and overcoming his many skeptics consumed the next seven years of Morses life. But he had certain advantages. First, although two British inventors beat him by eight days, Morse was able to patent his version of the telegraph by 1840. Second, his system consistently worked in demonstrations (with one embarrassing exception when boats in the Hudson unintentionally severed his underwater line with their metal anchors), attracting more support. Third, Morses prominent family background, his experience as a portraitist and newspaper publisher, and decades of socializing among the nations elite yielded him access to the highest political circles. In 1843 Morse was able to convince Congress (which included his acquaintances Calhoun and John Quincy Adams) to provide $30, 000 to fund a demonstration line from Washington to Baltimore that ostensibly would aid the Post Office in its duties. Skeptics still abounded. The postmaster general, in charge of overseeing the appropriation, assigned someone to keep an eye on that impracticable or crazy painter. Despite unscrupulous contractors and a decision midway through the project to run the telegraph lines on poles along the Baltimore and Ohio instead of through underground pipes, the line to Baltimore was soon completed. On 24 May 1844, in front of a crowd of dignitaries in the Supreme Court chambers, Morse sent and then received from Baltimore the first official message over the telegraph: What Hath God Wrought.

Aftermath. For Morse the telegraph proved to be a mixed blessing. He made a significant amount of money transferring his telegraph rights to the companies that actually built the lines, but he also had to spend years in court protecting his patent and fighting an unscrupulous partner, the former congressman Fogg Smith. In 1854 the Supreme Court finally ruled that Morses patent was original. Freed from financial burdens, Morse found time to run unsuccessfully for Congress, become a cofounder of Vassar College in 1861, serve as president of the National Academy of Design, and even try a return to painting before his death in 1872.

Sources

Menahem Blondheim, News over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 18441897 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994);

Carleton Mabee, American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York: Knopf, 1943).

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Morse, Samuel F. B.

Samuel F. B. Morse

Born: April 27, 1791
Charlestown, Massachusetts
Died: April 2, 1872
New York, New York

American inventor and artist

Samuel F. B. Morse, American artist and inventor, designed and developed the first successful electromagnetic (magnetism caused by electricity) telegraph system.

Early life

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791. He was the first son of Jedidiah Morse, a clergyman, and Elizabeth Breese, of New Jersey. "Finley," as his parents called him, was the son quickest to change moods while his other two brothers, Sidney and Richard, were less temperamental. His brothers helped him out many times in his adult years. The Morses' commitment to education had Samuel in Phillips Academy by the age of seven. Though not a star student, his drawing skills were good. Both his teachers' and his parents' encouragement led to Samuel's success with miniature portraits on ivory. Samuel graduated from Yale College in 1810. He wished to pursue a career in art, but his father was opposed to this. Samuel took a job as a clerk in a Charlestown bookstore. During this time he continued to paint. His father reversed his decision and in 1811 allowed Morse to travel to England to pursue art. During this time, Morse worked at the Royal Academy with the respected American artist Benjamin West (17381820).

Artist at work

In 1815 Morse returned to America and set up a studio in Boston, Massachusetts. He soon discovered that his large canvases attracted attention but not sales. In those days Americans looked to painters primarily for portraits, and Morse found that even these sales were difficult to get. He traveled extensively in search of work, finally settling in New York City in 1823. Perhaps his two best-known canvases are his portraits of the Marquis de Lafayette (17571834; a French general who served with George Washington [17321799] during the American Revolution), which he painted in Washington, D.C., in 1825.

In 1826 Morse helped found, and became the first president of, the National Academy of Design, an organization that was intended to help secure sales for artists and to raise the taste of the public. The previous year Morse's wife had died; in 1826 his father died. The death of his mother in 1828 dealt another severe blow, and the following year Morse left for Europe to recover.

Electromagnetism

In October 1832 Morse returned to the United States. On the voyage he met Charles Thomas Jackson, an eccentric doctor and inventor, with whom he discussed electromagnetism. Jackson assured Morse that an electric impulse could be carried along even a very long wire. Morse later recalled that he reacted to this news with the thought that "if this be so, and the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance." He immediately made some sketches of a device to accomplish this purpose.

Even as an art professor at the University of the City of New York, the telegraph was never far from Morse's mind. He had long been interested in gadgetry and had even taken out a patent (document protecting the owner of an invention from having it stolen). He had also attended public lectures on electricity. His shipboard sketches of 1832 had clearly laid out the three major parts of the telegraph: a sender, which opened and closed an electric circuit; a receiver, which used an electromagnet to record the signal; and a code, which translated the signal into letters and numbers. By January 1836 he had a working model of the device that he showed to a friend, who advised him of recent developments in the field of electromagnetismespecially the work of the American physicist (scientist of matter and energy) Joseph Henry (17971878). As a result, Morse was able to greatly improve the efficiency of his device.

Invention trial

In September 1837 Morse formed a partnership with Alfred Vail, who contributed both money and mechanical skill. They applied for a patent. The American patent remained in doubt until 1843, when Congress approved thirty thousand dollars to finance the building of an experimental telegraph line between the national capital and Baltimore, Maryland. It was over this line, on May 24, 1844, that Morse tapped out his famous message, "What hath God wrought [made]!"

Morse was willing to sell all of his rights to the invention to the federal government for one hundred thousand dollars, but a combination of a lack of congressional interest and the presence of private greed frustrated the plan. Instead he turned his business affairs over to Amos Kendall. Morse then settled down to a life of wealth and fame. He was generous in his charitable gifts and was one of the founders of Vassar College in 1861. His last years were spoiled, however, by questions as to how much he had been helped by others, especially Joseph Henry.

Morse died in New York City on April 2, 1872.

For More Information

Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Mabee, Carleton. The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. Morse. Rev. ed. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2000.

Tiner, John Hudson. Samuel F. B. Morse: Artist with a Message. Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1985.

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Samuel Finley Breese Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872), American artist and inventor, designed and developed the first successful electromagnetic telegraph system.

Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Mass., on April 27, 1791; he was the son of Jedidiah Morse, a clergyman. Samuel graduated from Yale College in 1810. At college he had painted miniatures on ivory and wished to pursue a career in art, but his father was opposed to this. Samuel took a job as a clerk in a Charlestown bookstore. During this time he continued to paint, and his work soon came to the attention of two of America's most respected artists, Gilbert Stuart and Washington Allston, both of whom spoke highly of his abilities. His father reversed his decision and in 1811 allowed Morse to travel to England with Allston. He studied with Allston for 4 years in London. During this time Morse also worked at the Royal Academy with the venerable American artist Benjamin West.

In 1815 Morse returned to America and set up a studio in Boston. He soon discovered that his large canvases attracted favorable comment but few customers. In those days Americans looked to painters primarily for portraits, and Morse found that even these commissions were difficult to secure. He traveled extensively in search of work, finally settling in New York City in 1823. Perhaps his two best-known canvases are his portraits of the Marquis de Lafayette, which he painted in Washington, D.C., in 1825.

In 1826 Morse helped found, and became the first president of, the National Academy of Design, an organization which was intended to help secure commissions for artists and to raise the taste of the public. The previous year Morse's wife had died; in 1826 his father died. The death of his mother in 1828 dealt another severe blow, and the following year Morse left for Europe to recover.

In October 1832 Morse returned to the United States aboard the packet Sully. On the voyage he met Charles Thomas Jackson, an eccentric doctor and inventor, with whom he discussed electromagnetism. Jackson assured Morse that an electric inpulse could be carried along even a very long wire. Morse later recalled that he reacted to this news with the thought that "if this be so, and the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance." He immediately made some sketches of a device to accomplish this purpose.

Morse again returned to his artistic career, becoming a professor of painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York. At the same time he entered politics. Like many Americans, he was intolerant of both immigrants and Catholics, and he became a candidate for mayor of New York on a "nativist" platform. In later life his prejudices softened, and he was better able to tolerate the ethnic diversity of the growing country.

The telegraph was never far from Morse's mind during these years. He had long been interested in gadgetry and had even taken out a patent. He had also attended public lectures on electricity. His knowledge of the subject was rudimentary, however, and outdated by the rapid developments in the field during this period. His shipboard sketches of 1832 had clearly laid out the three major parts of the telegraph: a sender which opened and closed an electric circuit, a receiver which used an electromagnet to record the signal, and a code which translated the signal into letters and numbers. By January 1836 he had a working model of the device which he showed to Leonard Gale, a colleague at the university. Gale advised him of recent developments in the field of electromagnetism and especially of the work of the American physicist Joseph Henry. As a result, Morse was able to greatly improve the efficiency of his device.

In September 1837 Morse formed a partnership with Alfred Vail, who contributed both money and mechanical skill. They applied for a patent, and Morse went to Europe seeking patents there as well. He was rejected in England, where a similar device had already been developed. The American patent remained in doubt until 1843, when Congress voted $30,000 to finance the building of an experimental telegraph line between the national capital and Baltimore, Md. It was over this line, on May 24, 1844, that Morse tapped out his famous message, "What hath God wrought!"

Morse was willing to sell all his rights to the invention to the Federal government for $100,000, but a combination of congressional indifference and private greed frustrated the plan. Instead he turned his business affairs over to Amos Kendall. Morse then settled down to a life of acclaim and wealth. He was generous in his philanthropies and was one of the founders of Vassar College in 1861. His last years were marred, however, by controversies over the priority of his invention and questions as to how much he had been helped by others, especially Joseph Henry. Morse died in New York City on April 2, 1872.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Morse is Carleton Mabee, The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (1943). A shorter study is Oliver W. Larkin, Samuel F. B. Morse and American Democratic Art (1954). The development of the telegraph network is described in Robert L. Thompson, Wiring a Continent (1947). □

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Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, 1791–1872, American inventor and artist, b. Charlestown, Mass., grad. Yale, 1810. He studied painting in England under Washington Allston and achieved some success. He returned to the United States in 1815, took up portrait painting, and gained a considerable reputation in this field. Associated with the Hudson River school, he also executed a number of landscapes and, less successfully, various historical works. A founder (1825) of the National Academy of Design, he spent the years from 1829 to 1832 in further European study and upon his return became a professor of fine arts at New York Univ. An outspoken opponent of Catholic immigration to the United States, he was an unsuccessful Nativist candidate for mayor of New York City in 1836.

Morse's interest in electricity, aroused in his college days, was further stimulated by the lectures of James F. Dana in 1827 and later by contacts with university faculty. Learning in 1832 of Ampère's idea for the electric telegraph, Morse worked for the next 12 years, with the aid of the chemist Leonard Gale, physicist Joseph Henry, and machinist Alfred Vail to perfect his own version of the instrument. So many phases of the telegraph, however, had already been anticipated by other inventors, especially in Great Britain, Germany, and France, that Morse's originality as the inventor of telegraphy has been questioned; even the Morse code did not differ greatly from earlier codes, including the semaphore. In any case, in 1844 Morse demonstrated to Congress the practicability of his instrument by transmitting the famous message "What hath God wrought" over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. Morse subsequently was compelled to defend his invention in court, although by then he commanded the acclaim of the world. He later experimented with submarine cable telegraphy. Both Morse and John Draper were instrumental in introducing the daguerreotype in the United States.

See his letters and journals, ed. by E. L. Morse (1914, repr. 1973); biographies by C. Mabee (1943, repr. 1969), P. Staiti (1989), and K. Silverman (2003).

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Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese (1791–1872) US inventor of the Morse code. A successful artist, in c.1832 he became interested in developing a practical electric telegraph. His receiver was based on an electromagnet. Using a simple system of dots and dashes, he set up the first US telegraph from Washington to Baltimore in 1844.

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Morse, Samuel Finley Breese

MORSE, SAMUEL FINLEY BREESE


Samuel F. B. Morse (17911872) is best known as the inventor of the telegraph and the code used to transmit messages on it. On May 24, 1844, he sent the very first telegraph message"What hath God wrought?" His invention revolutionized communications, making it possible to transmit messages across long distances with almost no delay. The telegraph facilitated westward expansion and the development of industry across the continent and it helped to forge a sense of unity in a young nation.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791, to Jedidiah Morse, a clergyman, and his wife, Elizabeth Breese Morse. The oldest of three boys, he grew up being called "Finley." Morse's grandfather had been president of Princeton College and his father was known throughout New England as a fervent Calvinist preacher.

At age seven Morse was enrolled at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Like his father before him, he went on to attend Yale College. While there, he began painting miniatures on ivory. He enjoyed it so much that he considered pursuing a career in art. But his parents were very religious and did not approve. Thus, after graduating from Yale in 1810, Morse found a job in a bookstore in his native Charlestown.

Morse continued to paint, however, and eventually his work came to the attention of two of the country's most respected artists, Gilbert Stuart and Washington Allston. Impressed by the admiration of his son's work, Jedidiah Morse finally allowed the young man to accompany Allston on a trip to England to study painting at the Royal Academy in London. Samuel Morse returned to the United States in 1815 with dreams of painting grand murals of heroic scenes. But there was no market for that kind of art at the time, so Morse had to settle for a career as a portrait painter, in which he enjoyed a fair amount of success. Of all his works, two in particular stand out. Both are portraits of France's Marquis de Lafayette that were painted in 1825 in Washington, DC. In 1826 Morse helped establish the National Academy of the Arts of Design, an organization aimed at helping artists obtain commissions and at improving the public's taste in art. He served as its first president from its founding until 1842.

Having garnered a fair share of praise and recognition by the early 1820s, Morse settled in New York City and married a young woman named Lucretia Walker. But tragedy struck in quick succession. He lost his wife in 1825, his father in 1826 and his mother in 1828. Grief over their deaths ultimately propelled him in a new direction.

To aid in his recovery from a profound state of grief, he sailed to England in 1829 for an extended stay in Europe. During his return voyage to the United States in 1832, he became acquainted with an eccentric inventor named Charles Thomas Jackson. The two men passed the time aboard ship discussing Jackson's ideas regarding electromagnetism, a subject Morse had first heard about while a student at Yale.


According to Jackson, electrical impulses could be carried great distances along wires. Morse reasoned that if this were true, "and the presence of electricity can be made visible in any desired part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance." He soon began sketching plans for a device that might be able to perform such a task.

Upon his return to the United States, Morse resumed his painting career and began teaching painting and sculpture at the University of the City of New York. However, he continued to mull over the question of how to send and receive electromagnetic signals by wire. Not only did he need to come up with an appropriate transmitter and receiver, he also had to devise the code that would enable users to create and then decipher messages. He invented a system in which the long and short impulses could stand for letters and numbers.

Morse worked on his invention for a number of years without making much progress. Part of his problem stemmed from the fact that he was not a scientist and did not have the skill to implement his ideas. But then he met two men at the University of the City of New York who helped him tremendously. Leonard Gale, a chemistry professor, showed Morse how he could improve the electromagnet and battery for the working model of his telegraph. Gale's friend, Joseph Henry, offered additional assistance in the area of electromagnetism. Morse also received valuable help from Alfred Vail, whom he took on as a partner in 1837. Vail suggested several practical refinements to the telegraph device itself as well as to the code it used to transmit and receive messages.

In order to minimize the number of transmission lines per message, Morse had invented a code consisting of combinations of dots and dashes, each representing a single letter, number, or punctuation mark. A visit to a typesetting shop had helped him determine which letters were used most often, and to these he assigned the simplest code symbols. Complex codes were reserved for little-used characters. This marked the development of what would come to be known as Morse Code, the universal standard for communicating by telegraph.

Morse, who had abandoned his art career at this point, was aware that European inventors were also working on a telegraph device, and he was anxious to establish himself at the head of the line. By 1837 he was ready to conduct a public demonstration. Appearing before a select audience at New York University on September 2 of that year, Morse successfully presented his telegraph device. He then contacted federal government officials and suggested that further development work be supervised by the Post Office. But nothing came of his recommendation.

That same year Morse and Vail applied for a patent for the telegraph in both the United States and England. Morse also approached Congress for a grant to fund the construction of an experimental line from Washington, DC, to Baltimore. The American patent was approved in 1840 (the English one was rejected because a similar device had been introduced there earlier), but Morse could not convince Congress to appropriate any money for a telegraph line.

After a few years of frustration, Morse finally obtained a federal grant of $30,000 to lay a telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, he tapped out the first message, "What hath God wrought?" and thus launched a new era in communications. Morse then tried to interest the government in buying the rights to the telegraph for $100,000, but Congress opted to leave it up to the private sector to finance and develop a system.

Morse and several partners formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company to lay telegraph lines themselves. Making money on the new technology proved difficult, however. According to Rosa Harris-Adler's article in Canadian Geographic, the company made only one cent in revenue during its first four days of operation and only $193.56 during the first three months. Operating expenses for this same period were $1,859.05.

Additional problems soon surfaced. Morse faced prolonged litigation over his patent rights as Charles Jackson and other scientists who had given the inventor advice demanded the recognition they felt they deserved. Neither side came out looking very good in court. While Morse stubbornly refused to give credit to the many people who had indeed contributed in some way to the development of the telegraph, a few scientists were strictly out to profit from his years of hard work. In 1854 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Morse's patent rights.

Competitors were also quick to exploit the potential of the new invention. They soon began to establish rival telegraph companies throughout the country. Eventually, several small companies merged into the Western Union Corporation, which finally was able to make a profit on the telegraph. Morse's own company did not stand much of a chance in the face of such a rival, so in 1866 the Magnetic Telegraph Company also merged with Western Union.

In his later years Morse left the business world behind and turned his attention instead to politics and philanthropy. He even ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress in 1854. His interest in scientific matters never waned, however, and in 1857 he teamed with Cyrus Field in a project to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable.

It is nearly impossible to determine the full extent to which the telegraph changed the way people lived. It was not so much because ordinary citizens made use of it on a regular basis; in fact, it was a rather expensive means of communication that mostly appealed to big business and government. But telegraph lines followed the westward expansion of the railroad across North America. They made it possible to communicate quickly over vast distances and they linked far-flung settlements with population centers back east. This helped foster a stronger sense of national identity and underscored the need for more standardization and uniformity.

One significant consequence of the introduction of the telegraph was the creation of time zones in the United States and Canada. Before the invention of the telegraph, most cities kept their own time based on the position of the sun at noon. A standardized time schedule presented less confusion and less accidents.

Surveying and cartography also underwent some changes as a result of the introduction of the telegraph. Before the telegraph was invented, surveyors calculated longitude by chronometers that were shipped to key geographic points. Though chronometers were fairly accurate instruments at the time, the jostling involved in moving them could affect their precision by as much as 20 seconds a day. In 1849 astronomer William Bond of Boston invented a machine that attached chronometers to the telegraph. With this device astronomers could hit a telegraph key when they saw a star cross the meridian, passing the data along to other astronomers and thus improving longitude precision. As a result, maps showing boundaries and borders became more accurate.

By making distant communities feel less isolated from each other and the rest of the country, the telegraph also prompted greater political and social cohesion. People were better informed about what was happening at a national level and, consequently, they became more involved in influencing policy, mostly because they heard about events in a more timely fashion.

While the telegraph represented the first major breakthrough in mass communications technology, it was rapidly followed by the telephone (patented in 1876), television (first demonstrated in 1927), and eventually computers. Telecommunications has become a multi-billion-dollar global industry that connects people not only by telephone and television but also by cable, satellite, and the Internet.

Morse married for a second time in 1848 and had several children. He ran for Congress in 1854 but was not elected. Morse spent the last years of his life on his estate in Poughkeepsie, New York, surrounded by his large family. Many European nations honored him for his invention; in 1871 American telegraph operators erected a bronze statue of him in New York's Central Park. Morse was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1900, 28 years after his death.

See also: Standard Time, Telegraph

FURTHER READING

Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Harris-Adler, Rosa. "Creation of the e-nation," Canadian Geographic, November-December 1995.

Kloss, William. Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1988.

Mabee, Carleton. The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F.B. Morse. New York: Knopf, 1944.

Morse, Samuel F.B. Samuel F.B. Morse: His Letters and Journals. New York: Da Capo, 1973.

Staiti, Paul J. Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

what hath god wrought?

samuel morse's first telegraph message, may 24, 1844

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Morse, Samuel F. B.

Samuel F. B. Morse

Born April 27, 1791

Charlestown, Massachusetts

Died April 2, 1872

New York, New York

American inventor




"What hath God wrought?"

—First long-distance telegraph message, transmitted from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse gave his name to a long-dominant means of communicating via telegraph—Morse code—and is credited with inventing the telegraph used in the United States. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was persuading the federal government to help pay for construction of a demonstration telegraph, a critical step in launching a new era of instantaneous communications across long distances.

There was little about Morse's first four decades that would have suggested that his name would be linked to an engineering accomplishment that changed the way the world communicated—and even foretold the era of E-mail over the Internet. Nevertheless, it is Morse who is credited with inventing Morse code, a method of communication that uses a series of dots and dashes—short sounds and longer ones—that is fundamentally similar to the zeros and ones used by today's computers communicating over the Internet.

Rapid long-distance communications may not seem, at first, like a central part of the Industrial Revolution, a period of fast-paced economic development that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century. But as soon as production of finished goods started to become centralized in factories, new needs arose in communications. Factories needed to order supplies from far away, as well as receive orders from distant customers. Business owners saw an advantage in quickly finding out about price changes in manufactured goods or raw materials, or about other developments affecting the supply and demand of goods. And fast-moving trains needed a way to control traffic and avoid head-on collisions when there was only one set of rails shared by trains going in both directions.

At the time when Morse developed his famous code, he was one of many people working on the concept. It was, in the end, not just his code, or the invention of the telegraph itself that counted. What counted was Morse's success in selling the idea to the U.S. Congress, persuading the government to help him fund the project, and thereby attracting world attention to his first message sent over a primitive telegraph system from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland.



Early life as a painter

Samuel Morse, known to his family by his middle name, Finley, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, outside Boston, in 1791. His father was a Congregationalist minister who was highly regarded but not highly paid. Morse attended Yale University, from which he graduated in 1810. While there, he learned something of the then-new science of electricity, and he made some primitive batteries.

But science was not his chief interest; he was fascinated by art. Morse returned to the Boston area after graduation and took a job as a clerk in a bookstore. Shortly afterward he traveled to London, England, to study art. In the four years he spent in London, Morse got off to a good start. He won a prestigious award—the gold medal in a competition sponsored by the Adelphi Society of Art—and he studied under two American masters, Benjamin West (1738–1820) and Washington Allston (1779–1843), who were living in London at the time.

In 1815, though, his parents could no longer afford to help pay for his life abroad, and Morse reluctantly returned home. His plan was to earn a living by painting grand depictions of historical events, but he discovered there was not much money to be made in this area. Instead, in the era before photography, people who could afford it commissioned Morse to paint small portraits of themselves. Morse succeeded at this, painting such prominent figures as President James Monroe (1758–1831), the poet William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), and Eli Whitney (1765–1825; see entry), inventor of the cotton gin. But he did not earn a lot of money at this sort of painting, and in any case he considered it an inferior form of art. He had an idea to paint a large scene featuring the entire U.S. House of Representatives, with recognizable portraits of about eighty members, but he could not find financial support.

Despite failure to achieve financial success as a painter, Morse was one of thirty artists who founded the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1826. Morse was elected president of the academy, and held the office for thirty-nine years, long after his interests had turned to another subject: the telegraph.



Passing time on an ocean cruise

Morse returned to Europe for three years, from 1829 to 1832, to perfect his painting technique. On his return, he settled in New York City, where he was appointed professor of the arts at the University of the City of New York (now called New York University).

It was in 1832, sailing home from his second European visit, that Morse heard of a new discovery: the electromagnet. The English scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) had discovered that electric current passing through a coil of wire could magnetize a piece of metal and cause it to attract metal objects. This gave Morse an idea: by varying electric current flowing through a wire, a magnet many miles away could move a piece of metal. And that metal could record a message, for example, by tapping a strip of paper.

The telegraph, as it was eventually developed, thus combined two ideas: electromagnetism and its ability to move objects remotely; and a scheme to translate those movements into words.

Morse's idea was to use a combination of short and long electric pulses to transmit a message. Each letter of the alphabet would be represented as a unique combination of long and short impulses—dots and dashes as they were later called. These combinations made up Morse code.

For example, the letter "e" is represented by a single dot: • . An "a" is a dot and a dash: • - . An "s" is three dots: • • • . A "y" is represented by a dash followed by a dot followed by two dashes: - • - -. The word "easy" would therefore be sent as the sequence • / • - / • • • / - • - - .

It took Morse about three years, until 1835, to get his first model telegraph working. He used materials he found at hand: an old canvas stretcher, a home-made battery, the works from an old clock.

Morse was not the first person to get a telegraph-like device working. Models had been proposed and implemented as early as 1753. But most of the earlier models involved multiple wires; the first one required twenty-six wires, one for each letter of the alphabet. In 1833 German engineers developed a model that required only five wires. Morse's innovation was to reduce the number of wires to one; he did this through the famous code that bears his name.

Samuel Morse the Politician


The success of the telegraph brought Samuel Morse fame and wealth, and soon, his interests turned to politics. Morse had a brief and unsuccessful political career in New York, running for office as a Nativist, one who favors native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants. He ran for mayor of New York City in 1836, garnering 1,550 votes, and again in 1841, when he received fewer than 100 votes.

The Nativists, who were also known as "Know-Nothings," were disturbed by the surge of immigrants into the United States in the middle third of the nineteenth century. Many of the immigrants were from countries other than England, and they began to change the face of the American population.

The platform of the Nativists included intense nationalism (sometimes called jingoism), racism, opposition to immigration, and opposition to Catholics and Jews. Morse made no apologies for views that in the early twenty-first century would be unacceptable to the majority of Americans.

In particular, he was fiercely anti-Catholic and, because many Irish immigrants were Catholics, anti-Irish. Morse favored denying citizenship to people born outside of the United States. He also wrote pamphlets opposing those who would abolish slavery.

Money, please

Morse's second great contribution to the advancement of rapid communications was his 1842 success in persuading the U.S. Congress to contribute federal government funds to help build a single-wire telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. Congress agreed to pay $30,000 (the equivalent of about $500,000 in 2000) to string the wire.

On May 11, 1844, Morse used the wire to send what is regarded as the first telegraph message from city to city. Sitting in the U.S. Supreme Court, Morse sent his famous first message a distance of forty-one miles to the Mount Clair train station in Baltimore. The text was a passage from a Bible owned by the daughter of the commissioner of patents: "What hath God wrought?"

Further demonstrations soon followed. People sent their names by telegraph from Baltimore to Washington and saw them come back again within a minute. Two people forty miles apart conducted an argument via telegraph messages. Results of a Democratic convention in Baltimore reached the nation's capital almost immediately. To people in the 1840s, the telegraph was nothing less than a miracle of instant communications.

Although the first telegraph message is closely linked to Morse, he was not the only person involved in its success. Morse was not an engineer by training, and he received advice and help from others, notably his assistants Alfred Vail and William Baxter, and the American physicist Joseph Henry (1797–1878), who demonstrated a working telegraph in 1831, a full year before Morse even got started. Europeans also had made advances in telegraphy, especially Louis Breguet (1804–1883) of France. It was Vail who received Morse's famous first message in Baltimore, and he is often credited with refining Morse's code to the famous pattern of dots and dashes, which enabled a receiver to "hear" a message and transcribe it into letters. (Morse's original machine printed the dots and dashes on a long, thin strip of paper, from which the code was then interpreted by sight.)

Nevertheless, it was Morse who filed for a patent, which guarantees the inventor exclusive rights to make money on the invention, for a printing telegraph in 1844; the patent was granted in 1849.


The impact of the telegraph

Although it took Morse years to get the funding to string a telegraph wire between Baltimore, Maryland, and



Washington, D.C., his invention spread across the country fairly quickly after that first message was transmitted. Within ten years there were about twenty-three thousand miles of telegraph wire in operation, mostly following the route of railroad tracks. By 1868 the first underwater cable linking Europe and the United States had been laid.

Like many inventors, Morse complained about having to defend his patents against businesspeople who wanted to exploit the invention without paying for it. Eventually, Morse became a shareholder in the American Telegraph Company, which became the dominant company offering telegraphy in the United States.


Other inventors continued to make improvements, notably by multiplexing, or sending multiple messages across one wire at the same time. One of Thomas Edison's (1847–1931) first inventions was something called a stock ticker, in essence a machine that printed stock prices sent by telegraph.

Rapid communications was a critical component to the development of the Industrial Revolution. Combined with the spread of railroads, it enabled companies to expand greatly the market for their products. Merchants could order manufactured goods from hundreds, or thousands, of miles away, and expect confirmation within hours; delivery came shortly thereafter as the railroads expanded their service. Especially for a geographically large area such as the United States, the telegraph was a key development in the growth of manufacturing.

The telegraph also played a key role in the operation of financial markets, enabling investors across the country virtually "real-time" access to stock prices and news that might affect their decision to invest in one company or another. The ability to tap the savings and investment of the entire country became crucial in raising the huge amounts of capital (money) needed to sustain the Industrial Revolution.

In his later years, Morse was a noted philanthropist, one who benefits others through charitable gifts. The telegraph operators of the United States honored Morse with a bronze statue in New York's Central Park in 1871. Morse died in New York the following year.



For More Information

Books

Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Hays, Wilma Pitchford. Samuel Morse and the Electronic Age. New York: Watts, 1966.

Kerby, Mona. Samuel Morse. New York: F. Watts, 1991.



Periodicals

Forbes, Steve. "Telegraphic Lesson: Don't Depend on Uncle Sam." Forbes, July 5, 1993, p. 26.

Frost, George. "Let's Remember Sam." Journal of the Patent and TrademarkOffice Society, April 1994, p. 277.



Web Sites

"The Invention Dimension: Samuel F. B. Morse" Massachusetts Institute of Technology.http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/morse.html (accessed on February 13, 2003).

Locust Grove, the Samuel F. B. Morse Historic Site.http://www.morsehistoricsite.org/ (accessed on February 13, 2003).

"The Papers of Samuel F. B. Morse." American Memory, Library of Congress.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/atthtml/mrshome.html (accessed on February 13, 2003).

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Morse, Samuel F. B. (1791-1872)

MORSE, SAMUEL F. B. (1791-1872)

Samuel Finley Breese Morse is recognized as the most influential figure in the development of the electromagnetic telegraph. It is interesting to note that although Morse is remembered as an inventor, he endeavored most of his life to become a great artist.

Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1791, to Elizabeth Breese Morse and Jedidiah Morse. His mother was a strong-willed individual who held tremendous influence over Morse and his two brothers, Sidney and Richard. His father, the town pastor, was also active as an author and geographer.

Morse learned of electricity while attending the lectures of Jeremiah Day at Yale University. Nevertheless, he wanted to become an artist, and he was fortunate to be acquainted with the American painter Washington Allston. Morse's parents supported his ambition to travel with Allston to London to further his training. There, Morse assumed Allston's practice of sculpting the images of his paintings. His first sculpture, Dying Hercules (1812), earned Morse international recognition from the Adelphi Society of Arts in London.

Morse began a prolific career in portraiture after marrying Lucretia Pickering Walker and establishing a residence in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1818. Morse and his brother Sidney dabbled briefly in invention, but their failed attempts motivated Morse to refocus on painting and the New York art community after moving to New Haven, Connecticut, in the early 1820s. In late 1824, Morse received word that the Common Council of the City of New York had chosen him to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette during his tour of the United States. In February 1825, while Morse was in Washington, D.C., for a sitting for the painting, he received word of his wife's death and quickly returned to New Haven. His father died shortly thereafter, and a distraught Morse moved to New York. In November 1825, he and thirty other artists founded what would eventually become known as the National Academy of Design. Morse, who served as the first president of the academy, completed the painting of Lafayette in 1826. (That portrait now hangs in New York's City Hall, and the related bust is in the possession of the New York City Public Library.)

In November 1829, with his three children entrusted to the care of various family members, Morse decided to leave New York for a three-year tour of Europe. While in France, Morse met with Louis Daguerre. (Morse, impressed with Daguerre's precursor to modern photography, eventually opened his own daguerreotype studio in New York, where he taught Mathew Brady, the famed American Civil War photographer.) While in France, Morse also had seen the Chappe semaphore telegraph, which was a visual signaling device that used movable arms on tall masts. Morse was intrigued still with the signaling device when he boarded the Sully, the ship on which he returned to New York from Le Havre, France, in 1832. Aboard ship, Morse met and held long discussions with Charles T. Jackson concerning his ideas for a form of telegraphy that used electricity. Later, each would make claims to the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph. While Morse provided more evidence for his claims than Jackson did, the evidence revealed that neither could claim sole credit for the invention.

Morse began teaching art at New York University in 1835. While there, he began developing his telegraph. Early in 1836, Morse attempted to make the model work through forty feet of wire, but such early attempts failed. Leonard D. Gale, a professor of chemistry at the university, became interested in Morse's work. Gale helped Morse correct many problems in his model. Another important contributor to the Morse telegraph was Alfred Vail (a former art student of Morse), who understood mechanical engineering. Vail provided technical assistance, funds, and facilities in Speed-well, New Jersey, for equipment construction. Although many historians argue that Gale and Vail probably provided most of the innovation for Morse's final working product, each received small shares of the patent for the telegraph, the caveat of which was filed by Morse on October 3, 1837.

On March 4,1843, the U.S. Congress provided approximately $30,000 for the construction of a telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The original idea was to lay telegraph lines underwater and underground, but wire insulation was too unreliable. As an alternate, Vale and Ezra Cornell (the designer of the plow Morse used for burying cable) suggested stringing wire overhead on poles. Finally, on May 24, 1844, the line opened with the message "What hath God wrought!"

Morse had attempted to develop a telegraph code in 1832 using dots and dashes to represent actual words, but that method proved too cumbersome. American Morse Code, which uses dots and dashes to represent letters and numbers directly, was developed in 1844. In 1850, sound reading of Morse code replaced visual reading of telegraph tape. Continental code, which transmits better through undersea cables, was adopted in 1851.

At the age of fifty-five, when he was a superintendent of the Washington-Baltimore telegraph, Morse proposed to finish a panel of art in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Morse ended his art career with the rejection of that proposal. While in his late fifties, Morse married Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, his second cousin, with whom he had four children. Their marriage was overshadowed by intense patent litigation against Morse and his telegraph.

Versions of electric telegraphy had been developed as early as 1774. Several versions of telegraphy appeared almost simultaneously after Hans Christian Oersted's discovery of electromagnetism in 1819. Models were developed in England by Peter Barlow and Charles Wheatstone in 1824 and 1837, respectively. Wheatstone became involved with others in the United States in litigation against Morse, his patent, and his claim to be the inventor of the electric telegraph. Joseph Henry was found to have produced a working model in 1831; Harrison Gray Dyar strung telegraph wires on poles in Long Island for his static electricity model in 1827. While these cases illustrated clearly that other individuals had created working electric telegraphs before Morse had, the courts determined that none of the other innovators had applied for U.S. patents for models that were direct challenges to Morse's design.

Morse died on April 2, 1872, in his winter home in New York. Based on the facts of his life history, it might be more appropriate if Morse were remembered predominantly as the artist who helped to found the National Academy of Design rather than as the inventor of the telegraph. This would certainly have been the view of those people who criticized Morse and alleged that he had claimed the work of others as his own. Nevertheless, his efforts did lead to the worldwide adoption of a common system of telegraphy.

See also:Telephone Industry, History of.

Bibliography

Coe, Lewis. (1993). The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

Harlow, Alvin F. (1936). Old Wires and New Waves: The History of the Telegraph, Telephone, and Wireless. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company.

Mabee, Carleton. (1943). The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Morse, Edward Lind, ed. (1973). Samuel F. B. Morse: His Letters and Journals, 2 vols. New York: Da Capo Press.

Martin L. Hatton

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