Samuel Finley Breese Morse

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Samuel Finley Breese Morse

1791-1872

American Inventor and Painter

Samuel Morse was a successful portrait painter who turned to invention in midlife. He developed the electric telegraph and the communication system known as Morse Code.

Morse's education, while not offering a strong scientific background for an inventor, did influence the directions his future work would take him. He first attended Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was not considered to be a strong student. His parents then sent him to Yale. There he developed an interest in painting miniature portraits and attended lectures on electricity, which at the time was a topic that was still not understood well. After graduating, Morse traveled to England to continue studying painting.

When Morse returned from England, he earned respect as a painter. He first attempted to sell the historical canvases that he had developed a preference for while studying in England, but, finding that such works were of little interest to American buyers, he decided to paint portraits. Working first as an itinerant painter, he settled in New York and developed a sizable reputation for his portraits. In 1826 he helped found the National Academy of Design.

While making a trip related to his artistic career, Morse would find himself beginning to change the direction of his life's work. In 1829, after experiencing the successive deaths of his parents and wife, he returned to Europe to further his artistic studies. On his return voyage in 1832, Morse's interest in electricity was renewed during a conversation with fellow passengers, including chemist Charles T. Jackson (1805-1880), about the newly discovered electromagnet. During the voyage, he conceived the idea of sending messages over a wire using electricity. Although the idea for an electric telegraph had already been suggested before 1800, Morse thought that his proposal was the first. His first working model of the telegraph was probably made by 1835. Morse gave up painting in 1837, a decision influenced by both disappointments in his artistic career and his interest in developing the telegraph.

With his work on the telegraph impeded by his lack of a scientific background, Morse turned to others for assistance. While teaching art at the University of the City of New York (later to be called New York University), Morse received aid from a colleague who showed him a detailed description of an earlier, alternative model. Chemistry professor Leonard Gale helped him improve both his electromagnet and his battery. Gale introduced Morse to Joseph Henry (1797-1878), who shared his knowledge of electromagnetism with him, enabling Morse to invent an electromagnetic relay system, which made long-distance transmission possible by renewing the electric current along a line containing a series of relays. Morse filed an intent to patent in 1837 and by 1838 had developed the system of dots and dashes known as Morse Code. Both Morse's device and his code received improvements made by a new partner, Alfred Vail (1807-1859). After a long struggle to receive financial support from Congress, Morse, with the aid of Vail and Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), built a telegraph line between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., sending the historic message, "What hath God wrought!"

The telegraph brought Morse fame and wealth. When the United States government refused to buy the rights to the telegraph, he and his partners formed their own business, the Magnetic Telegraph Company. Morse was confronted by considerable litigation over patent rights to the telegraph, but his patent rights were upheld by the Supreme Court. He became increasingly involved in politics and was an opponent of abolition. He helped found Vassar College and was a noted philanthropist. Morse preferred not to be remembered for his portraits, but, ironically, as his reputation as an important artist has grown, his fame as the inventor of the telegraph has lessened, particularly since the advent of the telephone, radio, and television.

GARRET LEMOI

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